A longtime secret kept mostly by avid scuba divers, the island nation of Palau is now being discovered by photographers who stay on or above the water. Palau is some 500 miles east of the Philippines and consists of eight principal islands and more than 250 smaller ones, offering a spectacular array of scenery, culture and wildlife imagery that you can capture without ever donning a scuba tank.
While you don't need to scuba to enjoy the photo opportunities of Palau, you do need to prepare to shoot around the water. Among the must-have gear for a photo trip here is a good, dry bag and, if possible, some sort of waterproof camera.
If you're on a really tight budget, there are waterproof disposables that work amazingly well. But probably the ideal compromise between price and versatility would be one of the relatively inexpensive ($100-$200) housings for digital point-and-shoot cameras, a waterproof digital point-and-shoot camera or a flexible bag housing ($200-$300), such as the Ewa-Marine bags, for your SLR.
Most visitors stay on the island of Koror, where the government and all the shops, restaurants and hotels are located.
Photo ops right there include a beautiful Bai house, a traditional longhouse nestled among the palm trees, located on the grounds of the Belau National Museum.
Tropical sunlight can be harsh, especially when you have patches of shadow areas in the composition. It's best to wait for some cloud cover or an overcast day to shoot these structures. The lowered contrast allows the bright colors to saturate nicely on film or digital chip while retaining detail everywhere. A wide-angle 24mm (in 35mm format) is perfect, and the morning light is best.
Palau's most photogenic attraction, though, are the hundreds of rounded, coralline limestone outcroppings known as the Rock Islands. These amazing atolls, which look like green, moss-covered mushroom caps scattered over crystal-clear, blue-green waters, lay offshore a few miles from Koror. There are spectacular beaches, fabulous dive sites, waterfalls and inland lakes with unique sea life—a veritable aquatic wonderland.
The Rock Islands are so rich in subject matter that you should plan on visiting them several ways in several different conveyances. My first visit was on a boat tour that took in several great snorkeling spots, some Robinson Crusoe-like sandy atolls with powdery beaches and great scenic views from the water. I found that a wide-angle lens—in this case, a 12-24mm on my Nikon D200—was perfect for these views, and the Singh/Ray LB Warming Polarizer gave me great saturation with minimal light loss.
I also used a housed Nikon D70s for some over/under shots of snorkelers among the Rock Islands. Although I prefer to shoot most landscapes in the early morning or late afternoon, whenever I'm around tropical islands and water, I find that the midday light penetrates the water best when the sun is high. As long as you use your polarizer to cut reflections and glare, you'll get those rich greens and blues.
Midday is the perfect time to visit Mecherchar Island, the home of the famous Jellyfish Lake. This interior lagoon is home to millions of golden Mastigias jellyfish, or so-called stingless jellyfish. Trapped in the lake, they evolved from a predatory stinging type of jellyfish to one that has a symbiotic relationship with algae.
After a steep climb up and over the ridge, you can snorkel out to the center of the lake, where you'll be surrounded by the ethereal creatures. Go slowly, as they're fragile, and a quick kick of a foot or fin can harm them. You'll feel like you're floating through a solar system of soft planets, and the sensation as they brush against you is eerie at first. Fight the tendency to panic by concentrating on your photography.
I got my best results with a wide-angle lens (a 12-24mm) on my D70s in the Ewa-Marine housing when I stayed near the surface where the light was strongest. I looked for one of the creatures to place in the foreground, close to the camera, to anchor the composition. I tried some with fill-flash, but liked the available light the best, especially when the sun was out from behind any passing clouds.I also shot some with a housed point-and-shoot digital, again zoomed out to the widest setting.
I spent another half day kayaking through the Rock Islands, which made for some intimate perspectives on the area, but to really capture the feel of these unique islands, an aerial view is the way to go. There's only one air service on the island (Belau Air), and to charter its twin-prop plane is an expensive proposition. Since I was on a limited budget, I couldn't charter, so I did the
next best thing.
I asked about seats on any interisland flight that would go over the Rock Islands as part of its route. The pilot, an Aussie named Matt who has a soft spot for photographers, advised me to book a round-trip to the southern island of Peleliu at one o'clock that day because he had no return passengers and could detour me over other islands for a few minutes without inconveniencing any passengers.
So for less than $100, I was able to spend about 20 minutes flying over these fantastic-looking atolls. I was ready with a 17-55mm zoom with the warming polarizer. Sitting next to a small window that popped open, I was able to get aerials in a short amount of time because the pilot was skilled and put me in just the right places. As usual in the air, I opted for a wide aperture, f/4, to get the fastest possible shutter speed to overcome the vibration and movement of the plane.
You could spend your entire visit in and among the Rock Islands, but you'd miss out on some other good photo ops. Right next to Koror is the large island of Babelthaup. This is a rugged, hilly island with several beautiful waterfalls, longhouses and prehistoric rock sculptures reminiscent of the moai of Easter Island. Most of the roads are still dirt or gravel, and a four-wheel drive vehicle is advisable, as is a guide.
The spectacular Ngardmau Falls is about 30 meters high. It's a longish 45-minute hike along the riverbank to get there. You're strongly advised to bring drinking water and also some grippy shoes that can get wet (sturdy water shoes or good sandals). You'll want a tripod, but just take one body and a midrange zoom. Make sure you have it all in a dry bag, as you may end up wading in some deep water, depending on the rain and the routes.
Although I always pray for overcast skies when shooting waterfalls, my entreaties often go unheeded, and I was dealing with contrasty sun and shade when I reached the largest fall. I did my best by trying to eliminate the extremes of bright sky and dark jungle. The mist from the falls is all-pervasive, so bring plenty of lens tissue or a good microfiber cloth.
Two other stops at this island are worth some photos; one is prehistoric, the other eerily postmodern. The first is the site of the ancient stone monoliths of Ngarchelong, which are mysterious in origin. The traditional Palauan religion regarded these stone monoliths as sacred prayer ground.
To make the most of them, use a wide-angle and fill the foreground with one monolith, letting the others recede into the background. Because they're fairly spread out, overall shots of the area don't work too well, which is why anchoring the composition with a strong foreground is necessary.
The last stop on Babelthaup is the new capitol building complex. Perched on a bluff above the Pacific, it's a huge recreation of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.—a totally incongruous site on this otherwise undeveloped island. The seat of Palauan government will move here eventually. But in the meantime, it remains just another unexpected and offbeat vision of this Pacific paradise.