Greetings from Tomorrowland: Palau, Micronesia

The below images and information are the technical aspects of how the images were made. To read more about the backstory of my current assignment for The Nature Conservancy, please visit my personal blog by clicking here.

The assignment came  fast and hard with only 2-weeks notice – a trip around the world across the international dateline to the Republic of Palau, part of Micronesia. The gist of the 10 day project was to shoot both video and still photos for a variety of different end products. An all-video multimedia is in the pipeline in addition to various potential print outlet usage for stills. A key element of the assignment, which I’m currently on as I’m writing this, is to not only capture the natural elements of Palau but also tell the story of the important work that TNC’s scientists are in the midst of. To accomplish this, I’d need to not only shoot stills on dry land, but also underwater – at times 100 feet below the surface. Keep in mind that Palau isn’t Los Angeles. What you need here, you need to bring with you unless we are talking AA batteries.  Prepping for this project was key to pulling it off.  Here is what my camera gear checklist looked like:

– 2 Canon 5D2 bodies
– 2 Canon 580EX II strobes
– 16-35mm f.28 L series Canon lens
– 70-200mm f.28 IS L series Canon lens
– 50mm macro f2.5 Canon lens
– 24-70mm f2.8 L series Canon lens
– 20mm 2.8 prime Canon lens
– Ikelite Dive Housing for Canon 5d2 (rated to 200′)
– Ikelite substrobe Ds51 (for stills)
– Ikelite dual substrobe and high power LED video lamp DS161 (for video and stills)
– Intervalometer
– Cable release (in case batteries konk on the IVM)
– Lots of 5D2 batteries
– LOTS of memory cards (16GB and up for each card, a pocket full like casino chips)
– EVEN MORE hard drives (three 500GB G-Drives)
– Macbook Air (for quick light travel since I’m already heavy)
– Pelican cases (working on water)
– GoPRO HD Ultrawide video camera (for mountain on the front of boats, backs of SCUBA tanks, etc)
– Seinnhauser wireless lavalier set (audio)
– Polarizers, ND filters, pocket rockets and various other gizmos that probably weigh more than me
– Two Gitzo Carbon Fiber tripods (one heavy duty, one ultra light).
– Fluid head (Manfrotto) and Ball-head (Gitzo)

Plus all my SCUBA gear, dive computers, etc. and for clothing, one pair of shorts and 9 t-shirts. No shoes.

That is what I consider a very, very pared down list for what is essentially an uber complex assignment for just one person. This is the future of photography though, and I’m excited to be a part of it.  Over 100GB of video has been shot from hand-held go-fast shots to sit-down interviews on tripods to fluid heads on high-speed boats, every technique you can think of has been employed. I even attached rope to the camera at one point to pull it along a table top to give it a smooth dolly pan through some science gear. Now for the goods…

Here are some photos and the techniques behind them:

Photo 1 (above) was shot from the only helicopter in Palau. He’s not cheap and he won’t stop to hover for you, so shooting fast is key. I had two cameras with me; one 5D2 with the 70-200mm mounted and the other 5d2 with the 16-35mm. The wide angle also had a LEE filter kit attached which I was sure was going to blow off into the tail rudder at any point and sink the bird. I brought the filters because I had scanned the skies before take-off and noticed some beautiful but very contrast-heavy clouds overhead. I knew immediately they would be 2 stops brighter than the deep blue waters of the islands so to maintain a balance, I used the NDs. You can’t even tell in the final results, which is the goal. I shot at various ISO’s from around 200-400 to keep my shutter speed fast and avoid any blur. Aperture was around F8-11. A little larger – maybe 5.6  – on the 70-200. I never shoot at 2.8 on aerials because you inevitably get vignetting. I shot 32 GB of cards in the 45 minute flight and had mild asphyxiation from the camera straps which kept getting tangled as I switched from the two cameras repeatedly. I did shoot some video and plan to smooth it out in Adobe After FX when I get back to Los Angeles. At those settings, noise was non-existent and every single shot of the 32 GB was sharp.

Photo 2: Shot from the front of a speeding boat, I had my camera mounted on a fluid head that was locked in place (I was just previously shooting video) and shot at about 1/4 second at F22. I also had ND filters on the camera to control the bright and not-so-interesting skies.

Photo 3: I really wanted to show both the coral and rich underwater world as well as the trees from the rock islands that were sometimes visible while diving. This image was shot in about 30 feet of water. Using my strobe, I filled the coral in the immediate foreground with just a subtle touch of light. I had one strobe firing with a diffuser, stopped down 2 stops. I kept my aperture pretty small to maximize my depth of field to ensure the trees visible in the top of the frame were sharp and in focus. Thankfully the water is clear enough that I had plenty of available light to do this. The challenge with underwater of course is that everything is moving – the plants and even you – are rocking with the waves. I balanced out my ISO with aperture and shutter speed to make sure that despite all the movement, everything was frozen and sharp.

Photo 4: Lastly, the famous Jellyfish Lake. This was a photographers dream – tons of stingless jellies swimming around like little, undulating lampshades (thanks jake). They lost their sting thousands of years ago when they became geographically isolated from the receding ocean. Having no predators and abundant plankton, they thrived and evolved without defense mechanisms. Packing the 20mm prime for super fast autofocus I snorkeled in the lake for an hour just looking for the right set-up. I kept my aperture around F11 and did use a strobe for a little fill and to ensure sharp images in the murky water. I’m not 100% pleased with my images from here so I plan to go back on the last day when I can’t dive (no diving the day before flying).