Heaven Above, Paradise Below

By Matthew Smith

For me one of the most wondrous parts of any dive is the moment that the water engulfs my mask as my head slips below the surface. I think it is the anticipation of the unknown, of what lies beneath, the transition from one element to another and the thought of what alien creatures I might encounter that makes it all feel so magical. And that is what inspires me to take above-and-below pictures. I try to convey to the viewer that magical feeling in an image. It is also the best way to communicate to a non-diver  - marry a wet, unfamiliar world with a dry, familiar one.

I view my above-and-below images as a single landscape photograph; a composition that complements both the above and below elements. I prefer brooding and atmospheric skies over blue sunny mid-day skies.  I undertake many location scouts with my snorkel gear on. Whilst doing the scouts, I take reference pictures so I can plan how to make my final image when a suitable location has been found. A final image in my portfolio is often a well-researched and planned affair.

Asics footwear | Preview: Nike Air Force 1 "Tear-Away" Fauna Brown - Gov


In addition to the visual components, there are some technical issues. To create an above-and-below image, you are basically creating a window into another world where light and focus behave differently When compared to the “air” part of the image, the underwater part will generally be darker, less contrast and saturation so underwater strobe lights are a must, especially on those dark and stormy days, at dawn and dusk. Wide-angle lenses are essential if you want to achieve an image that is sharp all over, though great effects can be made using a standard or short telephoto; the rule is to experiment.

If I were to give one useful tip when creating an above-and-below picture, that would be to use of a bigger dome port. The bigger the better!  It helps to blend the two worlds by pushing the water line meniscus further away and makes it less conspicuous in your image. The large dome also increases depth of field, aiding sharp focus both above and below, near and far.

I have always used Aquatica housings for all of my underwater photography -their ingenuity, tough build and quality is exceptional in every circumstance.

“Your Move” – American Crocodile, Jardines de la Reina, Cuba

So for this shot, I am deep in a Cuban saltwater mangrove, snorkelling in about two metres of murky water and looking at a wild, two-and-a-half meter long American saltwater crocodile through my viewfinder. My photography has led me into a few interesting situations in the past, but this takes the cake. I was trying to stay as still as possible, and was mumbling profusely to myself, "Focus, frame, get the shot, and get out." It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life!

Nikon D810 Nikkor14-24 F2.8 Lens, Aquatica AD810 Housing

“Sailing” – A Portuguese Man of War (AKA Bluebottle), Bushrangers Bay, NSW Australia

During strong summer, due to the north easterly winds, the east coast of Australia sees huge armadas of Portuguese man-of-war siphonophores (Physalia Physalis or “Bluebottle”) washed ashore. Often mistaken as a jellyfish, each individual Portuguese man-of-war is a colony of four different types of organisms living together in a symbiotic relationship - a floating city of animals if you like, each one with its own important job to support the colony.

This image was taken in a place called Bushrangers Bay in Shellharbour NSW.  I had noticed that the man-of-wars often get trapped in the bay, making them slightly easier to photograph in their natural environment. I wanted to pick out the beautiful colouration and detail in the tentacles against the eerie darkness of a stormy early morning. The wild atmosphere adds testament to the lifestyle of this sailor of the open seas.

Lighting was the most critical component of this image, as I needed to retain the desired darkness of water yet pick out the details of the animal. This took a lot of experimentation with different techniques over several weeks. Eventually, employing the use of fibre optic snoots on my underwater flashes enabled me to pick out just the right amount of detail without over exposing too much of the surrounding ambiance.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 10.5 F2.8 Fisheye Lens, Aquatica AD300 Housing

“New Pennies” – Silver Bream, Bushrangers Bay, NSW Australia

I have learnt from diving in Bushrangers Bay, that large schools of bream circulate the bay early in the morning, especially during periods of hot weather. I tried several ways of shooting them over the course of a few weeks but decided this was my favourite way to portray them. This was taken using a standard Nikkor 50mm F1.8 lens behind an 18” dome port. The lens was set to F4 to create the soft tonal 50mm goodness in the above part, with my strobes turned as low as they could go, to stop blowing the fish out. Luckily for these guys, Bushrangers Bay is a marine reserve, or they would have been on a plate long ago.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 50mm F1.8 Lens, Aquatica AD300 Housing

“Janthina Janthina” – Violet Snails, Bass Point, NSW Australia

Whenever there are large numbers of bluebottles around, these predacious snails will not be far behind. They use a raft of bubbles to float on the ocean surface in search of bluebottles and other floating hydrozoans to feed on. Should the bubble raft burst, the snail will sink to certain death. These snails are often found covered in barnacles. I shot this using a mix of flash and slow shutter ambient light exposure to give the image some movement.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 10.5 F2.8 Fisheye Lens, Aquatica AD300 Housing

“Crimson Tide” – Waratah Anemones, Port Kembla, NSW Australia

This image was shot right out the front of where I used to work. During my lunch break, I found this tiny rock pool containing these wonderful, bright red waratah anemones, and I had to make a picture of them. I knew I could only shoot at the lowest of tides and I wanted to coincide it with a nice sunrise - it was a long wait to sunrise!  In the meantime, whenever I could get access to this tiny pool, I experimented with what camera accessories (ports, lighting etc.) I could fit in such a small space to take the shot. I had to strip my housing down, removing handles and lighting brackets etc. Then, the perfect morning arrived. I remember there was a fairly strong, hot summer breeze that dried the exposed part of my port in seconds, so I had to constantly ladle water over it. In the end, my efforts played out wonderfully and the picture came out just the way I wanted it to! The silver gulls hovering in the background were a very lucky addition to the shot.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 10.5 F2.8 Fisheye Lens, Aquatica AD300 Housing


About Matthew Smith

I have always had an attraction to the water and the tricks it plays on light for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my brother and I snorkelling  in France and the Mediterranean Sea. I can clearly remember my first experience of watching shafts of sunlight weave and dance down into the deep blue, carved by the rippling ocean surface. I bought my first Nikon film SLR a camera in my teens to try and capture what I loved to see and I used it to shoot the coastlines of my home country of the United Kingdom. It wasn’t long before my curiosity and appetite for shooting the ocean meant I would have to get in and shoot underwater, so I saved and updated my camera gear and bought an Aquatica so I could explore further. As my photography skills grew I needed to travel more to get the images. Now residing in Australia I have the worlds biggest playground at my feet, the Pacific Ocean….. And I have truly fallen in love with it."



Share this article:


View All


Ocean Geographic Explorer (OGX) is a diving adventure resource with a special focus on marine photography and ocean conservation. Our content is divided up into six primary categories: Travel, Sea Science,  Equipment, Photography &Video, Conservation, and Lifestyle. We endeavor be a portal for people with all levels of interest in the marine environment  to learn about and become part of a community of like-minded ocean lovers who enjoy sharing their knowledge of and experiences in our fascinating ocean world.

Featured Video


Editorial Matters : editor@oceangeographic.org | Customer Service :  info@ogsociety.org  | Advertising : ads@ogsociety.org

Join the Ocean Geographic Society Community
Today to receive
  • The latest news about the Ocean
  • Invitation to Ocean Geographic expeditions
  • Special offer with ocean Geographic and Ocean Geographic Explorer
*we will never share your email address