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Michael McDonald, a long-time visitor to Bonaire, shares his tips on how to perfect your underwater photography.

For decades, Bonaire has been a mecca for underwater photographers. The island’s teeming reefs, along with its marine inhabitants, offer the visiting diver myriad opportunities for excellent underwater images.

Michael McDonald is one such underwater photographer, completing his 13th annual visit to Bonaire with a three-week dive vacation in June 2017. Michael has been diving since 1971 when he was certified at the age of 15, and he has been accompanied on his dives by his camera ever since then. He learned his craft with the original Nikonos underwater camera produced by Nikon way before the era of “point-and-shoot.”

Photographing the Wreck of the Hilma Hooker from a different perspective.

The Wreck of the Hilma Hooker is one of Bonaire’s most popular dive sites and is always a favorite with underwater photographers (learn more about this wreck’s history). Many divers who visit the dive site via shore, versus those arriving via boat, zoom right over the reef to the wreck. However, the reef, part of Bonaire’s double-reef system, offers plentiful opportunities for creativity.

Finding a fresh perspective on an often-photographed iconic wreck is difficult, but Michael found a new way to interpret the Hilma Hooker. He answers some key questions about how he got this shot!

Divers swim between an orange elephant ear sponge and the wreck of the Hilma Hooker, on Bonaire.

Q: What camera setup was used?

In this excellent image, Michael used his standard camera setup, a Canon 5D in a Subal CD5 housing with a Subal Wide Angle port. His lens of choice was a Sigma 15mm 1:2.8 EXDG Fisheye. His dual strobe setup is with Sea&Sea YS-D2s on 6- and 9-inch arms (15-23 cm) per side, which help to give a naturally illuminated look to close objects.

Q: How did the divers manage to pose so well?

Michael’s main “model” closest to the camera is an underwater photographer herself, and she very graciously poses for his images. Having a knowledge of underwater photography assists models with getting themselves positioned properly. Michael’s buddy is amazingly neutrally buoyant.  What he commonly does is to look ahead of where she is swimming, to identify potential subjects. He then moves forward quickly, ahead of her, to compose the shot highlighting the closer features of the image–in this case, the orange elephant ear sponge–keeping in mind a clean, uncluttered background. He then waits for her to swim into the image.

Based on Michael’s position, his model knows where to position herself and then Michael starts shooting, moving his model up/down/in-out/left-right with finger pointing. The other two divers in the group “just happened” into this image, as generally, they tended to be more in front of the group.

Q:  How was the light balanced properly, getting the light-absorbing orange sponge beautifully illuminated, but also with a rich, blue background and the wreck in ambient light?

As soon as Michael is in place, he tries to immediately get about five or six shots of the main subject, the orange sponge. This allows him to quickly rearrange the strobes, if necessary, to eliminate shadows and give the complete presentation of the main subject.

At this point, he can check the “blueness” of the water and the background, to ascertain if he needs to change the f-stop to make it lighter or darker. Since the light of his strobes will only reach as far as the sponge, it is the f-stop of his camera which will determine how cool or warm the water will appear.  Shutter speed is mostly irrelevant because the use of underwater strobes will freeze any action.

Q:  What are the camera settings used to get this photograph?

The camera setting was ISO 160 with f/5.6 at 1/60 speed. Michael’s strobes are generally set to a mid-range, unless there is a really light background, such as sand, or if it’s very dark, like the underneath of the wreck. The dual strobes were fairly equally spaced apart and behind the lens port, which provide full illumination without harsh shadows. With the full-frame feature of the Canon 5D coupled with the 15 mm wide-angle lens, Michael estimates he was about eight to ten inches (20-25 cm) away from the sponge. One can see the incredible wide angle it provided!  This manner of shooting is called “close focus wide angle” because it focuses upon a subject very close to the len, but yet offers sweeping views.

Of course, it goes without saying that any underwater photographer who gets close to the reef must employ excellent buoyancy skills to avoid harming any of corals, sponges, or marine creatures living within them. Michael’s years of diving experience have taught him how to do so without causing harm. Less experienced underwater photographers should not attempt such shots until they have attained the proper buoyancy skills.

Q: Is the time of day a factor in getting stellar images?

Bonaire's Salt Pier is a popular dive site.The time of day could be a factor, especially for wide-angle photography. On Bonaire, if one wants to shoot a wide-angle image with the sun in the background, such as with the images of Salt Pier, it’s imperative that the dive be done in the afternoon, which is best between 2:00 and 5:00 PM, after the sun has moved to a western position in the sky. This allows a photographer to get the sun bloom but still shoot with an upward angle, which always helps to keep the background uncluttered.

For the Hilma Hooker, Michael was at about 45 feet/14 meters of depth (the wreck sits in about 100 feet/30 meters of water) and shooting with an upward angle. The key for timing this shot actually is less sun-related. It is more important to get to the dive site early–Michael suggests by 7:30 AM at the latest–to beat the crowds that can come later. The visibility will always decrease with additional divers in the water, so to get this type of visibility into an image, shoot early.

Q:  Why return year after year to dive and photograph Bonaire’s reefs?

Michael tells us why he returns so often to Bonaire:

“There are two huge draws for me to Bonaire. The first is the amazing reef life – I so love the macro life (which, unfortunately, I’m not sure many people see as they go blazing across the reef).

“The second is the shore diving – I’m diving with people I know and trust in a very small group at our own schedule. I don’t know of any other place that has that combination.”

— Michael McDonald

About Michael McDonald.

Mike McDonald, returning Bonaire visitor and underwater photographer.

Michael’s professional life was with the United States Air Force and as a Montana Air National Guard officer. He flew an F16 for 28 years and was an instructor pilot for over twenty years.

Michael retired in 2012 after 38 years as a Colonel. But he certainly still keeps busy, as currently, he is a full-time graduate student, working on his second Master’s Degree in history.  He hopes to be accepted into a Ph.D. program soon.

Michael has about 1000 dives under his weight belt; he holds his basic certification along with nitrox certification.  Although he has never gone further with his diving education, he says he tends to be the leader in many of the group’s dives–perhaps a throwback to his military training?

View more of Michael McDonald’s underwater photography from his recent Bonaire visit.


We hope that you are inspired by Michael’s beautiful underwater photography and that it helps to realize that every diver can aspire to do the same!  Be sure to ask your favorite dive operator on Bonaire for tips and assistance when you are next on Bonaire.

(Source:  Bonaire Insider Reporter)

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Susan Davis, Bonaire InsiderSusan Davis has been living on Bonaire for over 25 years. She is a PADI Master Instructor, and an underwater and topside photographer. She also enjoys writing for The Bonaire Insider tourism news blog. 



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