Brent Durand: Wandering the West Coast

  • Image by Brent Durand

By Alan Throop & Brent Durand [photos by Brent Durand, except as noted]

Photo: Linda Phillips

Underwater photographer Brent Durand shared a collection of California images during our last meeting. The journey began in San Diego and took us through the upper edges of Mendocino County, intertwining photos and videos with tales of unique dive adventures and insights into the way Brent approaches photography. He discussed a number of tips, answered questions and offered advice for photographers of all levels. This ranged from direction of light all the way to encouraging positive interactions with seals and sea lions. The major takeaway for our group is that it’s not about how much you can spend on a camera system… it’s about how you approach photography to create exceptional images with any camera.

Here, we’ll try to capture just some of what he presented. Brent moved from the LA area to the Bay Area about 2 years ago. He is now the representative for Atlantis Dive Resorts (https://atlantishotel.com/), which includes resorts in Dumaguete and Puerto Galera in the Philippines that our club has enjoyed several times, plus a liveaboard boat the Azores.  He is an avid local diver … for wherever is local for him … and he enjoys sharing his passion for the ocean and photography.  To really appreciate these passions and the skill and teaching that he brings to it, check out his website at https://brentdurand.com/ for some of his spectacular images and excellent video tutorials.

Image by Brent Durand

A garibaldi swims in the shallows of Casino Point Dive Park on Catalina Island. [Image by Brent Durand]

In his program he took us “behind the lens” to offer some of his thoughts and tips on how he creates his beautiful images and great video clips, while showcasing the wonderful diving we have on the west coast.  Here, we’ll focus on some of the tips he offered.

Brent began by showing images from the San Diego area where he talked about the use of light rays to add beauty and drama to an image and to lead the eye in the image.  He created these by staying close to the surface. From here, he also had an unusual and well-done image of a turtle with a heavy, shaggy coat of algae … most unusual. He shared several interactive shots with sea lions and talked about how to maintain their interest in the divers by bringing toys and keeping them excited to play. In Casino Point at Catalina he showed a nice over-under images of kelp and the Casino. In his programs a shot like this is used to “set the scene” to establish where the viewer is, with the kelp representing what is special about the diving there.

Image by Brent Durand

A jellyfish sea nettle (Chrysaora fuscescens) floats in the green ocean water at Monterey Breakwater, an iconic scuba dive site on the California coast. [Image by Brent Durand]

Another example of this was an interesting shot from the LA area, where a diver needs to climb down a small cliff to get to a secluded cove. Brent showed a image (selfie) of himself with his dive gear rappelling down a cliff, with the ocean in the background. This immediately tells the viewer a lot about what is special about this dive site. [NOTE: photographers might want to remember this when we dive at Jade Cove in a few months!]

He also showed photos where he used a snoot on his flash: by lighting the subject mainly and not the water in front of it, the backscatter can be minimized. In this area a lot of his diving was from a kayak, used to reach some of the sites that were not practical to do with a surface swim. One photo he showed was interesting in this regard: their camera systems were hung on a rope from the kayaks during a surface interval; and when they re-entered the water, a rockfish had taken up hiding in the arms of the strobe and camera … a fun image to viewers to see.

He showed images from the famous “squid spawns” in the south, where the market squids come from the depths to mate and lay eggs, typically in the winter. Timing and perseverance are important to work around their schedule, usually shooting at night. The lighting is tricky to capture their shiny bodies. For some creativity from the standard shots, Brent even tried experimenting with colored gels over the strobes. He showed how this spawning attracts other predators – crabs, bat rays, even nudibranchs – that come for the feast.

Image by Brent Durand

Young giant kelp (macrocystis pyrifera) grows towards other towering fronds in a California kelp forest. [Image by Brent Durand]

In discussing some beautiful shots of Spanish Shawls, Brent showed them mating and laying colorful eggs – behaviors that help make photos of common subjects unique. He discussed composing the images so that the nudibranch rhinophores were on the same focal plane as the eggs in order to keep all the essential details in focus.

He showed some beautiful images of the unusual Melibe nudibranchs, which have large translucent hoods that they use to capture their small prey in the water. Getting the correct lighting and composition to make a technically good and interesting image is challenging.

From the Monterey area – his recent “local diving” spot since he moved to the Bay Area – he showed how the often-green water can be used to an advantage by choosing the correct color subjects; the red of anemones or bat stars on rocks or the orange of a jellyfish is a pleasing match for the green water.

Around here, he often tends to focus on the large variety of small-but-colorful subjects, like nudibranchs; but the fish schools, sea lions, jellyfish, and harbor seals also offer great subjects.  He showed schools of fish in the kelp and offered the tips to keep the sunlight to one side to uniformly light the fish faces and to have patience and take many shots to get all the fish facing the same direction.  He also showed another example of “story” shots of urchins eating kelp and of their impact on the kelp forests.

Image by Brent Durand

Underwater macro photo of a Limacia cockerelli nudibranch at the iconic Monterey Breakwater dive site in California. [Image by Brent Durand]

He showed and spoke about images with divers, which adds a lot of interest to the shot.  It’s important to have pre-arranged signals for the models and for them to look OVER the camera to properly light and capture their eyes in the image. The model can often use their dive light to lead the eyes of the viewer to the subject.

Further north, he showed some beautiful shots of the BIG coastline and over-under split shots to try to capture how impressive it all is. Again, he showed good “story” shots of kayaking in the caves of the shoreline and mentioned how useful it is to carry a small waterproof camera to capture some of the great topside activities there. Sunset shots over the spectacular coastline make wonderful images. Brent talked about how practicing shooting photos topside can improve your underwater photography.

During Q&A, he was asked about the success rate of his images: it depends on the difficulty of the shot, ranging from two frames for a simple macro shot up to 200 to capture a very unique shot involving subject behavior mixed with heavy surge and shifting light.  Asked about post-processing, he said that Adobe Lightroom is a great tool in his process-flow to organize and catalog his images for easy retrieval later.

We thank Brent for coming to share his beautiful images, stories, and tips with us.

His website https://brentdurand.com/  contains some useful tutorials.

Brent mentioned that he was pleased to see such an energetic dive club as ours and offered that – if there is enough interest – he could present a more-technical photo workshop to a smaller group to address specific underwater photo topics.  If there is interest, let Alan know at althroop@comcast.net.