Feeling at home beneath the water, Lisa Michele Burns shares how she captured this magnificent creature…

Camera Settings: 1/1600 at F2.8, ISO 200

The water has always played a huge role in my work, both as an inspiration and ongoing subject. Specialising in split-level underwater photography I’ve long been obsessed with seeing the world above and below the water level and capturing it within a single image. What lies beneath has also been a curiosity.

Having lived on an island located along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for six years, I became very familiar with the underwater world and all of its watery wonders. Green Sea Turtles were my favourite. Gentle, slow and themselves very curious, they were always incredibly inspiring to photograph and seemed to almost pose as they grazed on the sea floor, drifted through the sea or nibbled at algae on coral.

Fast forward a few years and after a long stint in Europe, far from the reef and my island home, I ventured back to North Queensland and the hidden gems that lie off the coast of Cape Tribulation. Calm seas meet coral cays surrounded by colourful reef, an ideal destination for photographing marine life and of course, Green Sea Turtles!

My reason for the trip was to write a guide to photographing the Great Barrier Reef above and below the water for my website The Wandering Lens. I aimed to capture a variety of images to showcase the landscapes underwater and from the air, then compile a ‘how to’ article for photographers, sharing the settings, compositions and gear I used.

My fingers and toes (even inside my flippers) were crossed in anticipation of photographing a turtle. The conditions weren’t the best, with water clarity a little murky due to recent rains; however I knew that if the turtles were there I’d at least have a chance of capturing a beautiful moment, even if the background was a tad off.

As an underwater photographer I do have a dive certificate but always prefer to snorkel and free dive when taking photos. I find it so much less restrictive, I can take a breath whenever I want to check shots and love the feeling of diving up and down, having little glimpses underwater at a time.

The day I captured this shot I was snorkelling around the reef of Mackay Cay, roughly two hours sailing time from the mainland just north of Cairns. It wasn’t planned because nature always does its own thing and it’s this uncertainty of what will happen that continues my passion and motivation for capturing the underwater world.

This little guy blended into the coral really well; I first found him eating on the sea floor almost disguised within the surrounding landscape. After I waited a few moments and captured some close-up shots, he decided to take a breather at the surface and I swam alongside for about ten minutes.

When photographing a moving subject underwater, I like to have my camera settings ready to go so I’m not fiddling around and missing the moment. One of the huge benefits I’ve found since using the Olympus system though is the incredible ease of use underwater! Being able to access every single setting has been a complete game-changer in my work and despite still being in the habit of checking settings on the surface, I love knowing that if I need an ISO change or quick shutter speed check, it’s possible while holding my breath.

Because I was hoping to photograph some blurred backgrounds and have either coral or a turtle in focus, I was shooting with an aperture of F2.8. This meant I could capture fast shots and not worry about any unintentional blurring or lack of detail within my image. The available sunlight was streaming in from directly above which is my preferred time to photograph underwater and meant the scene was lit evenly. You can see the sea floor is also illuminated beautifully with the sand patterns further highlighted by the light along with the turtle’s head and flipper.

Whether I’m photographing marine life or people underwater, direct light from above is always my preference, so I photograph typically between the hours of 10am and 1pm before the light gets too directional and either shadows increase or the water colours begin to lose their vibrancy.

Because this turtle was on the move, and swimming a little faster than I was with flippers on, I really had to push to stay with him. Being in the moment alongside the turtle and holding my breath, sometimes I needed to remind myself that I wasn’t diving and definitely didn’t have the same lung capacity as he did! 

When it comes to composition underwater I always love to give the subject plenty of room to move through the image. You never want your subject to be already touching the edge of the image in the direction they’re facing, instead having a space for the viewer to see that the turtle will continue swimming happily to the left. I also prefer shooting either parallel or upward when underwater as the perspective produces more magnified results, increasing the size or realistically capturing the scene. Shooting from above looking down tends to minimise the scene and results in a flat shot with a lot of blue and details that are hard to recognise.

Once I was happy with my shots I resurfaced and this little guy continued on his journey. By checking my shots through the viewfinder I knew I had a collection of images with varied compositions, including both the coral and blue sea backgrounds plus the turtle close up and from afar. I left as one very tired but happy snorkeller!

When it came to editing this shot I really didn’t touch it too much. As with all my images I like to keep a consistent pastel tone and in this case adjusted the white-balance and warmth slightly to produce a beautiful blue that works well with the scene. I always open my RAW files in Photoshop and adjust the shadows and highlights along with adding some exposure and brightness if necessary.

Most of my images are colourful and bright so I rarely capture them in-camera with a darker exposure and always aim not to overexpose in order to allow myself plenty of post-processing options.For this shot I brightened the shadows, decreased the highlights a touch and added a little saturation boost just to replicate the conditions I remembered with my eyes. When editing an underwater photo sometimes adding a slight red or warmer temperature to the image helps make it a little more vibrant, but this works better with close-up shots of coral and this image only needed a slight hue adjustment.

Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 58 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.