Over at the ol’ fish bowl the current promotion to entice visitors through the doors is called ‘Up Close’, it’s a chance to see and experience what goes on behind the scenes. One part of this promotion included the rebranding of graphics throughout the many galleries of the Aquarium. The new graphics show visitors what crazy shenanigans take place behind the scenes through captivating and engaging photos. Yes, this sounds like a great idea. Yet, it’s important to consider that most areas of the Aquarium typically unseen by the public aren’t exactly visually pleasing. The brightly lit colourful exhibits that visitors see in the galleries are a stark contrast to the dark cramped hallways overflowing with dripping pipes and wires.
The task of capturing fifteen unique and very involved photos in the dark corners of the Aquarium was more challenging than not farting during yoga class. Each photo began simply as an idea. Nothing more than a title and a general concept of what ‘could’ be shown. Consistent between all the photos would be staff. Aquarium staff, shown engaged in routine duties that a visitor would not likely ever see, let alone think about. It took a bit of coaxing, but eventually the staff warmed up to being in front of the camera and were happy to show off their work. Cramped and cluttered work spaces, hallways and corridors darker than the future of 2 Broke Girls, a non existent budget, and to top it off – one week to capture all fifteen photos. Challenge accepted.
Throughout this post the terms ‘image’ and ‘photo’ are used independently. In this context, an image is comprised of more than one photo and/or requires significant post processing to construct. A photo is just that, a single exposure, one press of the shutter button, no significant post processing alterations.
The first image, featuring the ever popular jellyfish hallway, was the most challenging and ultimately set the style for the rest of the images. The hallway holds numerous jellyfish kreisels, special tanks that are rounded at the bottom and have a circular water flow to prevent jellyfish from becoming salty blobs of marmalade stuck in the corners. To capture the entire hallway and multiple jelly kreisels required some interesting lighting. After firing off a few shots to decide upon the composition shown here, the camera was secured to the ceiling with a Manfrotto 035 super clamp and 143RC magic arm. With the camera remaining in the exact same position, ten exposures were captured all using the same exposure settings. For nine of the exposures a flash, triggered by a pair of Pocket Wizards, was moved from one jelly kreisel to the next. To create the base layer, the tenth and final exposure did not have the flash triggered. This is where the camera work stopped and the post processing began. Oh, and as I was unable to find any of the aquarists who care for the jellies at the time of capturing this image – so i stood in with my best aquarist impression. You can click on the image to the right to see the non-animated final version.
The next image was more than a little daunting; it’s an image that captures the intense maze of twisting pipes and filtration systems that snake through the building. Of the fifteen photos required for the promotion, this is the only one free of animals, printed larger than any of the others and positioned in a key location of the building seen by all visitors. No pressure. The sand filtration system for the Pacific Canada exhibit was chosen for the countless surrounding pipes and valves, that overall just look impressively complex. To give this image more ‘feeling’ a large depth of field was used to create a sense of endlessness. The trade off in using a large depth of field (small aperture) is the need for a whole wack of light. As if this image wasn’t crazy enough already, consider that it’s comprised of eighteen individual frames stitched together much like a panoramic photo. The eighteen individual frames needed to be lit as evenly as possible so to avoid any noticeable artifacts of the stitching. Using just a single Alien Bee ABR800 ring light all eighteen photos turned out crisp and bright. The final image, featuring Greg daintily turning a valve, has a resolution of 14468 x 6614 pixels and was printed at roughly 2.3 x 7.3 metres.
The hallway in the tropical waters section took seemingly forever to capture due mostly to human error on the part of the photographer. For each photo a simple outline was created, detailing everything from ideal text positioning to ideal subjects and rather important information like orientation. So, of course the first attempt to capture the hallway was incorrectly composed with a horizontal orientation instead of vertical. The second attempt was properly oriented, however the camera was unknowingly bumped after only three frames by a very exhausted photographer. This image was created using the same method as the jelly hallway image: locking the camera in position and taking multiple exposures each with the flash adding light to different parts of the composition. By bumping the camera after only three frames the following frames did not line up properly during post processing. The third and successful attempt was the proper orientation and the camera was not bumped. You can click on the image below to see the non-animated final version.
One of the more interesting photos to capture initially centered around the idea of highlighting how the giant pacific octopus is fed. Though while shooting the focus quickly shifted to the interaction between the octopus, affectionately named Lucy, and Bryan, the aquarist responsible for her care. Getting the right angle for this composition required some Circ du Soleil style contortion. Perched precariously above the cramped 4 foot by 4 foot habitat also reinforced the argument that a 16mm focal length is not the same as a 14mm focal length. There were plenty of moments while photographing this interaction where the camera was neglected. The sound of Lucy’s suction-cup-covered arms moving across Bryan’s exposed skin was like something straight from science fiction. It was also astonishing to see the hundreds of octo-hickies left on Bryan’s arm after the feed. The most interesting part of watching this interaction take place was realizing that the octopus simply held onto the herring, not eating them, choosing instead to continue interacting with Bryan.
There are a few specific animals that seem to garner slightly more curiosity than others at the Aquarium; of course there are the big charismatic marine mammals, the octopus, the sharks, the piranhas and … the electric eel. Ask children what they think of this electrifying species and you’ll get a great sense of why people find it so interesting. Able to discharge between 400 to 600 volts the electric eel really is a dangerous animal. The idea behind this photo was to highlight how this animal is transported and what special precautions are taken, with focus placed upon the blue electrical insulating rubber gloves worn by aquarists. Like the majority of the other photos in this series, a small aperture was used to ensure as much of the composition remained in focus as possible. The large depth of field allowed the eel’s face to be in focus as well as blue insulating gloves.
In the bowels of the Aquarium, beneath the spectacular displays of colourful fish, beneath the windowless offices, and beneath the never resting filtration systems are numerous water reservoirs. These reservoirs need to be checked from time to time for sediment buildup and this photo captures the process of doing just that. The small aperture and powerful light create somewhat of a spotlight effect. The strong and focused light falls off very quickly, leaving backgrounds underexposed and black, perfect for hiding the untidy corners of the building. The big ring light is literally a foot above the frame pointing directly downwards in order to provide as much light as possible. Because of the lights close proximity to the edge of the composition, there is significant visible lens flaring at the top of the photo. This was a rather fun photo to capture and was made very simple by the dive team’s willingness to help out – greatly appreciated when under a time crunch.
Not every photo needed for the promotion was so demanding, there were a few that required no preparation, no extensive setup, no uber fancy equipment – just experience. Using the least amount of equipment possible when photographing the marine mammals reduces the chance of the animals becoming wary of the gear. These photos make great use of sunlight, the great dynamic range capabilities of the Nikon D800, and the benefits of fill light; altogether they help create nice strong colours without any significant areas of under or over exposure.
The photos required for the Up Close promotion definitely pushed the boundaries of what I’m comfortable shooting. The notion of staging a composition to make it appear candid is not something I’m used to, and could be compared to making the transition from photo journalism to studio based fashion photography. I’d much rather be perched in the front of a zodiac documenting an entangled sea lion being tranquilized from sixty feet out. That being said, capturing the imagery for the Up Close promotion was fun and challenging. If you haven’t visited the Vancouver Aquarium recently, this promotion is a great reason to visit. Instead of pushing visitors to focus on specific glowing or gelatinous animals, the Up Close promotion does exactly what’s needed and places the focus on the amazing work of some very dedicated and talented people.