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Some useful tips for shooting 'half & half' photographs

Over the past year or so I’ve developed a real taste for ‘half and half’ photographs… But as I’ve learned (the hard way…) it’s VERY challenging to get a decent ‘half and half’ shot! So I’ve decided to share with you some of the basic things I’ve learnt along the way. Hopefully this will help you in your quest.

First of all, my best advice will be to NOT do as I initially did: rush to the water with a camera and try getting ‘the shot’ until the memory card is full! I’ve realised along the way that before starting to shoot ‘half and half’ images, one has to understand the technique and its inherent challenges. RESEARCHING THE TOPIC PRIOR TO TRYING IT will not only speed up the learning process incredibly, but it will also provide you with enough insight into the technique to start being creative on your own… That’s my TIP #1!

‘Half and half’ photographs are often called ‘split shots’ or ‘over/under’ or ‘above/below’ shots, but really, as acclaimed National Geographic underwater photographer David Doubilet pointed out in one of his blogs for Dive Photo Guide website, they should be called ‘half and half’ images’ as they bring together the two worlds of air and water.

Put simply, it’s about placing the camera (in its waterproof housing!!) at the interface between water and air and achieving a clean shot where both worlds (the part above the water surface and the one beneath) are in focus and together tell a compelling story… Easier said than done! Haha.

TIP #2 – SHOOT WIDE: To achieve such a shot you will need a DSLR camera with a fisheye or ultra wide-angle lens, housed in an underwater (and waterproof!) casing. But most importantly, you will need a very large dome port on your camera housing (8-inch or larger). The large dome port should make it easier to focus underwater, as well as above the water – read more about dome port optics and the ‘virtual image effect’ here.

TIP #3 – USE A SMALL APERTURE: If the shot you want to achieve is a shot with a close underwater model or subject and a nice farther background above the water, you will need to have both parts in focus. A small aperture between f/11 and f/16 is good (depending on weather and available light). You will then need to adjust your shutter speed and ISO accordingly.

This said, the biggest challenge lies in the fact that exposure above and below the water line is different. And you will need to deal with this differently depending on what you are trying to achieve.


If you set your exposure for the underwater part of the image, the above part will be very over-exposed if not fully white. Usually that’s not good. However there are instances where this may work… In this shot of a manta playing just beneath the surface for example, the portion of the image above the water line was over-exposed on purpose, to create a more intimate portrait of this gentle giant swimming alone.

Below is a shot of Lady Elliot Island in the southern Great Barrier Reef. It was taken before I understood this principle and as a result, the part above the water was initially over-exposed. Now, thankfully (?) there are some great photo-editing software suites available these days that will help you ‘minimise the damage’ or correct for that kind of stuff, but this may be at the expense of the ‘natural feel’ of the image… This shot for example was post-processed in Adobe Lightroom, even though I still like it, it lost a bit of its charm by being overly post-processed. So really, you want to think about what you wish to achieve before you press the button! Getting it right first hand will be so much more satisfying than spending hours on the computer editing the image…

A useful tip to minimise this effect is to shoot with the sun overhead or behind you, this will minimise the difference in exposure between the above and below parts. But that’s not always possible, especially when photographing wildlife whose behaviours are often unpredictable. As an example, the shot below is one of my most satisfying shots as on the day it was taken it was very hard to achieve a clean half and half shot. I wanted to capture a portrait of this green sea turtle as he came to breathe at the surface, while still portraying its oceanic lifestyle… The main issue in this image is that it was shot directly against the sun, something I couldn’t really correct for at that instant, but preferably YOU WANT THE SUN OVER YOUR HEAD OR BEHIND YOU – TIP #5

If you wish to achieve a clean ‘half and half’ with a beautiful background above the water, you will need to set the exposure for the part of the image that lies above the water surface. This will result in a darker underwater portion, so you might need underwater strobes to correct for that.

The following shot is one of my favourites. It is called ‘Sunset Parade’ and was taken in the late hours of the day in the shallow lagoon at Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef. However capturing the magic of this moment with the sunset above the water and the fish community preparing for the night was tricky. In fact, this is probably one of the most challenging shots I have taken to date. The technicality lied in adjusting strobe and camera settings synchronously with the fast vanishing light, while floating clumsily and achieving a clean ‘half and half’ photograph. But the result is so satisfying! I love the resulting colour palette, and I love the motion in the image from the wavelet passing through the dome port – they both convey really well the feeling of peace and tranquility I experienced that day.

TIP #6 – SHOOT IN CALM & SHALLOW WATER: Shooting in calm and shallow waters might make the whole process much easier! Calm water means a nice and neat water line separating both portions of the image, whereas shallow water means that you will be able to stand up (provided there are no corals or critters where you decide to stand!!) to ease up stabilisation and get a clean ‘half and half’ shot. I recently met ocean photographer Warren Keelan on the Great Barrier Reef and was amazed by some of the ‘half and half’ shots he got at low tide in the lagoon (have a look at Warren’s website for some of these shots, you’ll know which ones I mean!).

TIP #7 AVOID WATER DROPLETS!!! One of the final inherent challenges with shooting ‘half and half’ images lies with the fact that water runs down or dries out of your dome when out of the water! This is probably the most frustrating aspect. You may get all of the previous elements right, get a beautiful scene with a manta ray, a shark, a humpback whale or a pretty model swimming right if front of your dome, but there is always that little water droplet there, right where you don’t want it!! We’ve all been there…

There are a few tricks to minimising water droplets. Water will shed differently depending whether you are using a glass or acrylic dome port. Glass dome ports usually shed water better than acrylic dome ports, however when cleaned and cared for properly, acrylic dome ports can achieve wonderful results too (you can read about this here).

The ideal way of doing it is to take the dome out of the water, wipe it clean and then slowly dip it halfway in the water to shoot the image you want. However, let’s be honest, this is very unlikely to happen so easily when you are floating around in the ocean!

As acclaimed surf photographer Sean Scott and award-winning Canon Master Darren Jew explained during the 2014 Foto Frenzy Workshop on Lady Elliot Island, the ‘dunk and shoot’ method works very well. Dipping the dome in the water and quickly withdrawing it will create a uniform thin layer of water on the dome that will allow you to get the shot, however you only have a very limited time to do so before water droplets start appearing! Remember, it takes awareness, practice and perseverance to achieve such a shot. Be warned – it likely won’t happen as soon as you try!

For my part, I am still chasing the perfect ‘half and half’ photograph and after putting this blog together I now feel the urge to get in the water and shoot some more!

Remember, this technique is very difficult to achieve to a good standard but look at the positives, it will allow you to spend hours playing in the water with your camera!

If I can add something though – please be mindful of the wildlife and try not harassing too much your subjects while trying to get the shot – having a 10-inch dome port in front of your face for 10 minutes wherever you decide to go is not the most pleasant feeling… I’m sure the wildlife feels as strongly about this as you would!

I am certain though, that there is also a LUCK ELEMENT to it… Even if you know all of that stuff and are doing it as you know you should, it’s all about the wildlife behaving the right way and about those pesky water droplets keeping away from your dome when you press the button. And that’s what makes it challenging, but oh so rewarding once you get it right!

Good luck!

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