“Mountain Immersions” – An Underwater Look at Banff National Park

As a Banff-based landscape photographer I am able to spend a lot of time at the iconic lakes of Banff National Park. I’ve been fortunate to shoot them in a variety of conditions. Winter, Summer, nighttime, sunrise, midday, sunset, you name it. I enjoy revisiting those familiar locations and marvelling at how different they can look from one visit to the next. This spring, in an effort to “rediscover” those places yet again, I got an underwater housing. Since then I’ve been amazed at the possibilities of over/under photography in our area, and have devoted a considerable amount of time to wading in and capturing the underwater side of the famous lakes (and drawing a huge amount of attention from visitors at popular spots like Moraine Lake and Lake Louise!).

I am really just experimenting with this at this point but wanted to share my initial thoughts on that type of photography. 

First of all a few words about the gear I’ve been using. I got a used Ikelite housing that fits my backup body (5D Mark II) and the 17-40mm f/4L lens. The housing is not top-of-the-line but it suits my purposes. It is a LOT bulkier than I expected. But then again, my first dSLR was a LOT bulkier than I expected and I eventually got used to it! Because of my desire to provide an over/under perspective I sometimes wish I had a superwide lens. Since I would not have much use for such a lens outside the water though, the 17-40mm will have to do for now.

Next, the technical issues. It is a lot darker underwater than I expected. If the mountains hold bright white snow it is virtually impossible to encompass the tonal range within one frame, even during the middle of the day when more light enters the water. For that reason I’ve had to bracket everything and use HDR blending extensively. I’ve been shooting mostly at f/11 or so to get maximum depth of field the way I would above the water. The smaller aperture has forced me to shoot everything at the 5DII’s maximum usable ISO (1600 for my liking). I found that at ISO 1600 and f/11 I have been able to get sufficient sharpness. The housing is so buoyant that longer exposures are not really an option.

Compositionally speaking, I have shot mostly verticals simply because I wanted to provide that interesting above/under perspective. It turns out that underground foregrounds are not nearly as easy to find as I expected. The lakes of the Canadian Rockies are very high in silt content. This gives them their fantastic colour but also means that nearly everything further than a foot from the shore is covered in grey/brown silt and lacks colour. For that reason yesterday I tried to shoot in a fast-flowing stream and was pleasantly surprised. The velocity of the water prevents the silt from settling and preserves the array of colours of the rocks at the bottom.

Anyways, those are my thoughts early in the game, and here are the initial results. Despite the challenges, I am very excited about the possibilities of underwater photography in our area. Thanks all for reading and please let me know if you have any questions!

Paul