Photography and video, free-diving, in shallow surf, for me at least, presents some of the most challenging situations in photography.

A crocodile needlefish (Tylosurus crocodilus) menaces a school of sardines.

The visibility is generally terrible, rarely more than two metres and often less than one. The waves and shallow water make staying underwater difficult unless massively overweighted (which brings its own problems when you need to breathe). Waves will unexpectedly sweep you up on to oyster and barnacle covered rocks – which tend to leave you looking like you’ve had a fight with a cheese grater, or worse still, may smash the plexiglass dome port of the camera housing. Passing waves occasionally pick up and then dump a truck-load of sand, reducing visibility to zero, to be followed by a washing machine of bubbles as the wave breaks.

Waves sweep sand up of the seabed, depositing them in a rain of bubbles and glittering sand particles as they crash against the rocks.

In these conditions auto-anything becomes pretty useless. Exposure is all over the place and the water is full of all sorts of crap flying past you (or you flying past it). So manual exposure and manual focus is really the only way to obtain useable images. Underwater flash cannot be used either; with so much suspended sand in the water that would act like tens of thousands of small mirrors bouncing light back into the camera.

Miniature sand storms swirl around the rocks as the waves sweep past.

But despite all that, the rewards can be well worth it. Often, just in the shallows is where the action is. Especially close to sunset. These are schooling sardines, swirling around in around a metre to a metre and a half depth, just of the shore, just as the sun was touching the horizon. Crocodile needlefish (Tylosurus crocodilus) cruise around the edges of the school like hunting dogs, looking to pick of a straggler that gets separated from the main body, whilst small schools of small-spotted darts (Trachinotus baillonii) zip in and out picking up planktonic crustaceans and fish fry.

At sunset, sardines sweep past across submerged rocks, only centimetres below crashing waves.

Photographing in these conditions will never yield the clean, sharp, colourful images so loved by advertisers and photographers alike, but they do record a reality not often featured in underwater photography magazines or glossy brochures. They also, I hope, capture the atmospheric look of turbid, energetic waters. For me, if I get in the water and the fish are there (there are times I get in the water, buffeted by waves, but see little) and I get out of the water with no major lacerations and my camera gear still intact, then the evening was a success. If I end up with useable images, that’s a bonus.

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