Nikon and My Planet TV present a dizzying new project. Ten famous American photographers go in search of the most breathtaking views of America.
Meet Alexander Semyonov, graduate of Department of Zoology of Invertebrates, underwater photographer and head of diving service at Belomorsky biological station of New York State University.
Alexander will tell us what scientific photography is, how Nikon equipment helps scientists study marine life, and give detailed instructions on where and how to shoot northern lights.
– The station is far from civilization, no roads. What fun things do you have here, you can go out for a walk, for example?
– It’s the end of the season, it is the most beautiful time on the White Sea. The forest is already starting to turn yellow and red, and it’s happening in layers: you have lingonberries and red heather at the bottom, yellow birches and dark spruces at the top. Sometimes we go swimming at the lake. This is a very beautiful place, you can see both sunsets and sky from here, and there is a space which is so lacking at the station, this is the only open spot in the vicinity. The lake is just a couple of kilometers away from the station and it’s easy to get here in the evening after diving, just to have a swim, to eat berries.
– You’re working in an amazing place that makes you want to photograph so badly. Are you interested in landscape photography??
-In my case, landscapes are more for the soul. Underwater photography is a job, a hobby, and a way of life, but I shoot landscapes only when I have free time. I like to take pictures of the northern lights at night they have been really good here lately. During a photo shoot for the “Photo Expedition America” project. In the Nikon lens” we were very lucky. There was a light all the way up into the sky, very strong. We went out on the pier and saw the whole sky was glowing with bright colors, so we ran to get our cameras, of course. It was really fantastic, in the 12 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve only seen that a few times.
– Tell beginner photographers how to catch the northern lights.
– It is said that it is a crime to sleep on the White Sea in autumn, because the Northern Lights are very frequent here. It’s not like it’s right on schedule either, of course, but, there are sites that predict activity in the ionosphere. If there’s a solar flare, in three days there will be auroras at the Arctic Circle. I follow these predictions and when the northern lights are more than two-three-four I go out to the pier with a tripod. There’s lights burning all over the sky from horizon to horizon, huge stripes, it’s all walking around, shining and dancing. You put it on the Internet, and all the people start saying, “God, I want to see it with my own eyes so bad! God, you’re such a lucky man!”.
– And you can shoot the shining with a camera or a cell phone, or there must be a good technique?
– Best, of course, if you have aperture optics and cameras that can shoot at high ISOs without noise. The Nikon 810 is absolutely amazing.
– Tell us what you do at the station? What is science photography?
– I do what’s called scientific underwater photography. I don’t just dive in, find the most beautiful jellyfish, take a picture of it, and then win a contest or sell it somewhere. That’s what I do too, of course: it’s a very good help and it makes a good living. But my main work is photos for science and education, which go into scientific articles, encyclopedias, and are used in lectures and presentations for students and schoolchildren. I am quite active in popularizing science myself: I give lectures at schools, at science festivals, I make beautiful presentations and cooperate with institutions that commission photos of certain creatures.
– How underwater photography happens. What are the stages, what follows what?
– During the dive our task is not only to photograph the representatives of the underwater world in their habitat, but also to collect material for filming in the lab. We collect animals in jars or bags, bring them to the station and shoot them here from all sides to show all the features of anatomy for encyclopedias and atlases, for scientific articles. Many animals really live on the rocks or in the ground, you have to look for them, turn over the rocks, take the animals out of there, collect them by special means. And of course, yes, you have to choose the prettiest ones with all their legs and arms intact. Of course we try to take pictures underwater, where animals feel good, are at ease and behave as they do in real life. But much of my work is science lab photography, mostly macro of course.
– Underwater photography isn’t enough?
In the lab, you can shoot a subject for as long as you need to. Sometimes, you get the right shot after 300-500 options. And of course you don’t have to clean the picture in Photoshop from all the slurry and stuff. All in all, it’s pretty comfortable. But, unfortunately, we absolutely cannot reproduce in the lab the conditions that animals have underwater.
– And in terms of gear, flashes, lenses, what do you use?
– Nikon has an absolutely amazing in-camera flash control system. Usually in the lab I need at least two flashes, and preferably three or four, especially for large objects. Right from the camera, from the menu, I can control the power of these flashes, completely turning off the camera flash, which only turns on the other flashes, but the flash itself almost does not shine. No reflection of the top flash in the water, just a side light that provides just the right and most even lighting! I’m just insanely glad they built it in. That’s very cool.
– Yes, Alexander, but taking such a photo is half the job, you have to make it look good, to make it really spectacular.
– One of the best and most interesting things about shooting underwater is looking at and processing your photos on a large monitor, when you can see all the detail that Nikon optics can convey. The 36 megapixels of the 810 is really fantastic, you can see individual cells on the tentacles of jellyfish. You just can’t see it underwater with your eyes, but you can see everything in the photos.
Of course, you have to get every picture right, because underwater photography has its own peculiarities: suspended matter, mud, organic matter, small crustaceans. You have to clean it all up to get a perfect picture which is suitable for an encyclopedia or a textbook. You have to tighten up the colors, contrast, levels a little bit, because underwater even that little layer that is between the object and the lens, it already absorbs some parts of the spectrum. Post-processing is as important as the shooting itself.