Czech underwater photographer, Michal Štros, has come up with an unusual technique to produce some outstanding underwater images
Words and pictures by Michal Štros
Experimenting with vintage lenses has produced some startling effects for photographers on land. One trick is to reverse the front element of the lens, which creates some glorious blurred backgrounds. I thought I would try it underwater as – to my knowledge – this had not been done before.
I used some of my old vintage lenses, produced in the Soviet Union more than forty years ago – lenses such as the Helios 44-2 58mm and Mir-1B 37mm. By removing the front element, flipping it over and putting it back in the lens body, I created what I call a ‘modified vintage lens’.
It is important to note that taking photographs with modified vintage lenses is completely different to ‘reverse lens photography’ – the practice of mounting lenses
backwards on DSLR cameras. My modified lenses have the sharpness only in the very centre of the image, which gradually decreases towards the edges of the frame, giving the image an unusual ‘bokeh’ look and feel.
When I saw my first underwater photographs taken using modified vintage lenses, I became fascinated by the almost impressionistic swirl of depth and distortion that it
generated in my pictures, adding a whole new dimension to my underwater photography.
Modified vintage lenses are great performers as underwater macro lenses when fitted with additional diopters – such as the SubSee +5/+10 magnifying lenses –
and are suitable for capturing objects approximately two to four centimetres in size. As the depth of field is very small at this magnification the camera must be kept perfectly still and parallel to the subject.
To get the best bokeh effect in your images, you must set the lens to a wide aperture. I used f/2.0 for the Helios 44-2 lens and f/2.8 for the Mir-1B, with a shutter speed of 1/320, ISO 100, and exposure compensation of -3.0EV. Subjects were illuminated with a Sola 1200 focus light and two Sea&Sea YS-D3 strobes (aimed sideways). All images were taken using Canon EOS 80D or Canon EOS 90D bodies.
When using a modified vintage lens, focusing is your biggest problem. There is no autofocus in old lenses, nor manual focusing, as the lenses are locked in the housing. You need to approach your subject very slowly, with a good focus light, until it appears sharp – and perfect sharpness is extremely difficult to achieve.
Although the use of diopters for macro photography can reduce the sharpness problem to some extent, because the short distance from the subject allows for better
focusing, you will need to use good sharpening software during post-processing.
Extensive post-processing is essential when taking underwater images with modified vintage lenses – regardless of the size of subject you are shooting. The clarity, colours, details, and sharpness of the picture will all need enhancing, and minor corrections to compensate for the older lens glass imperfections will need bring the subject into the right space.
There is something magical about the bokeh that modified vintage lenses produce. Sure, you can produce the blurring, haze, glowing and ‘swirly bokeh’ movement
in Photoshop, but with modified vintage lenses the process is instantaneous, and – more importantly – the results are always different and unique.
You could regard this method as a bit of a one-trick pony, but the same ‘one trick’ can be applied in many different creative ways. Photos taken with modified vintage lenses can, for example, be used to create unique fractal images, or be combined with images taken using modern lenses to create stunning underwater photo collages.
Photography with a modified vintage lens underwater requires a lot of experimentation, and you must accept and embrace imperfections in the process. As is often
the case, no great success is achieved without failure.
But if you persevere, there is the prospect of creating unique and breathtaking photographs that are nearly impossible to replicate using unmodified ‘old glass’ or the best state-of-the-art lenses.
The images you can take will be an exciting and original contribution to your underwater portfolio. Give it a go!
- You can find more from Michal and his fantastic photography on his website, www.michalstros.cz
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