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Scuba Diving at Silfra Fissure

Scuba Diving at Silfra Fissure

One of the adventures I looked forward to most when visiting Iceland last year was the opportunity to dive in Silfra in the Thingvellir National Park.

There are two exciting draw-cards to diving at Silfra—the famously clear water and the fact that the dive occurs in the fissure between the continental plates of Europe and North America.

Des & Belinda diving at Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. 
Photo by Tania Roque of DIVE.IS

We booked on with DIVE.IS, and completed our dive medicals and equipment sizing online, well before we left Australia. DIVE.IS’ system and customer service were seamless and responsive.

We were picked up from our hotel in Reykjavik at about 7:15am and then travelled to Thingvellir National Park for our dive.

As stated, Silfra Fissure lies on the tectonic fissure between the North American and European continental shelves. Above the surface the fissure is a couple of kilometres wide, but underwater you can reach out and touch both continents simultaneously.

Europe on one side, North America the other while scuba diving at Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. Photo by Tania Roque of DIVE.IS

The visibility here was nothing short of amazing — it was at least 50m, but the range of vis was limited by the rock shelves and formations in the distance. The water is glacier fed water filtered through the rocks of decades and centuries.

Crystal clear water at Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. Photo by Tania Roque of DIVE.IS

The dive entered at a set of metal stairs onto a metal platform where one group enters at a time, does their buoyancy checks before descending to 5-6m. You swim along, coming back up to the top of a wall in <1m ,before re-descending to a maximum of 18m (we got to about 15m). After a time you do a left turn into a lagoon, with a separate exit platform followed by a short walk to the carpark.

One of the shallow sections at Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. Photo by Tania Roque of DIVE.IS

The water was, of course, very cold. While the dive leader (Tanya) stated that the range was 2—4C, my (borrowed) Oceanic OC1 computer showed that the temp got down to <1C. The rental drysuits (Bear hyper crushed neoprene) and undergarments did a perfect job — no leaks. We also wore mitts and a hood, and although these were not sealed they did an adequate job of keeping relatively warm — although the hands did get so cold that you lost most dexterity.

Des and Belinda scuba diving at Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. Photo by Tania Roque of DIVE.IS

No life to speak of in the fissure — the reason to dive the site is for the site itself, with its spectacular rock formations and crystal clear water. The guide did mention that there are fish in the lake Silfra empties into, but they don’t come back up in into fissure.

Incredibly clear waters at Silfra Fissure in Iceland. Photo by Tania Roque of DIVE.IS

DIVE.IS1 is a professional dive operator, with good equipment, facilities at the dive site and very good leaders. Group sizes were small (3:1 max), and there was a very welcome hot chocolate waiting back in the carpark.

The dive itself was conducted very professionally, following strict safety protocols. There was oxygen at both the entry and exit points, and additional staff were on hand to assist with gearing up and de-kitting, and to assist during entries and exits.

With over 1,500 scuba dives to my name, I have had the opportunity to dive in many very special places, but the experience at Silfra will certainly go down as one of my top five dives to date.

An outstanding dive.

Des & Belinda kitted up and ready to dive at Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. Photo by Tania Roque of DIVE.IS
With thanks

Images by Tania Roque of DIVE.IS and used with permission.

  1. As I write this the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. DIVE.IS has suspended tours until things improve, and are currently intending on resuming limited operations in early May. I wish the DIVE.IS team all the best, and look forward to diving with them again in the future. 
Diving PNG

Diving PNG

Belinda and Elephant Ear Coral by Des Paroz on

I was surprised today to see blog post from DeeperBlue on Diving Papua New Guinea, featuring one of my images from a trip my wife and I made there in 2006.

We love PNG, and have dived at Kavieng, Kimbe Bay (Walindi), Milne Bay (Tawali) and Tufi. These are all amazing diving locations, and I am happy to see one of my images being used to promote diving in this part of the world.

With that said, a bit of advance notice and link back would have been nice!

Pre-setting your camera for likely images

Pre-setting your camera for likely images

My photographic origins in the underwater world have taught me the importance of thinking through the photographic objectives for a shoot (dive), and pre-setting your camera.

In underwater photography one key mantra is to get close – minimising the amount of water between subject and your camera1.

For this reason, and the fact that lenses cannot be changed underwater2, most UW photo situations revolve around one of a small number of basic setups.

  1. Wide angle lenses that allow the photographer to get close to large subjects.
  2. Close up lenses that get the photographer close to small subjects.
  3. Macro lenses that allow images to be made of small to extremely small subjects.

In reality a good macro lens is also a very capable close up lens, further reducing the number of setups to just two.

Before a dive I spend time setting up my camera rig for the setup – not just the lens and ports, but also choosing strobe (flash) arms and getting everything about right for the dive. I make sure that I have a formatted

As I became a more experienced UW photographer it dawned on me that I could extend the preparedness concept to include camera settings. In each different style of photography I could reasonably anticipate the settings, and then prepare accordingly, saving the need to fiddle with adjustments underwater. The following table shows some examples of common pre-sets that I use:

Macro Close-Up W/A – Reef/People Big Fish, Moving Fast
Lens 30mm 30mm 7-14mm zoom 7-14mm zoom
Port Flat Flat Dome Dome
Strobes 1-2 1-2 1-2 0-2
Arms Short Short-Medium Long Long
Camera Mode A A A S
Likely Aperture f/16-f/22 f/11-f/16 f/5.6-f/11 N/A
Likely Shutter Speed N/A N/A N/A 1/125–1/500
ISO 200 200 200-400 200-400
Strobe Power ¼-½ ¼-½ ¼-½ ½–Full

Before I enter the water with a close up / macro right, then I will likely preset as follows:
– Shutter mode: Aperture Priority (A)
– Aperture: f/16
– ISO: 200
– Strobes: ½ power

Chromodoris lochi on the march by Des Paroz on

With this setup, any changes for the first subject scene I come across are likely only to be a click or two on a dial or two. I have similar checklists for my wide angle photo scenes.

The concepts extends to my topside photography:

Landscape Seascape Street
Lens 12-60mm 8-18mm 20mm
Mode A A A
Starting Aperture f/8 f/11 f/6
ISO 200 200 400
Image Stabilisation 3 Off Off On

Obviously the above table can (and should) be extended to different lighting situations – blue hour, golden hour, daylight, night, etc.

I hope this post seeks to provide some insight into how I think about my photography before a shoot. There are variations to the above, and equipment, shooting genre, artistic style, etc, should all influence how you pre-set.

In any case, thinking ahead and creating simple checklists including these settings and perhaps a reminder to have a formatted memory card, fresh battery and even to check the camera’s date and time settings, can help to allow you to focus on your photography when on a shoot.

  1. Water filters light, removes colour and refracts light in a way that causes a subject to lose sharpness and colour, as well as adding gunk (technical) terms that further kills the quality of an image. 
  2. There are some low quality or super-expensive rigs that do allow changing of lenses, but the majority of setups do not. 
  3. For landscape and seascapes I am generally shooting on a tripod or clamp, so stabilisation should be off, while shooting handheld (i.e. street) stabilisation should be on. 
The PLACEBO Principle for UW Photography

The PLACEBO Principle for UW Photography

One of the leading shore dives in Australia is known as Halifax Park, in Nelson Bay just north of Sydney. A  spectacular dive renowned for nudibranchs and other small marine life, Halifax Park is a macro photographers dream. During one memorable dive there, I was using my trusty Nikonos V, with a 1:1 extension tube set-up. Although I found plenty of nudis, all were larger specimens and more suited to a 1:2 ratio! Typical.
Aphelodoris variaOne nudi in particular – Aphelodoris varia – was found in large numbers. Although very common in south-eastern Australia, not many great photos have been taken of this generally plain, brown slug. Typically measuring 5-15cm, this nudi is clearly too big for the 1:1 extension. That day I got a great photo of A. varia!

What made this photo special was the fact that the subject and the equipment I had were not compatible for the normal nudi photo. Instead of ignoring the subject, I elected to change my composition to focus on an alternative angle that would work. Composing the nudi front on, with the nudi seemingly lunging towards the camera from the left side of the frame, not only gave a pleasing composition, but one that implies action – no mean feat for a nudibranch photo.

This dive reinforced an important lesson of underwater photography – the ability to get pleasing photographs depends little on the environment and your equipment, and far more on your approach to how you set-up your photos. Putting thought into this key step is vital in increasing the ratio of photos you keep to those you throw away.

Underwater photography is a complex activity, with a lot of steps to remember in order to get the best shot possible. Experienced photographers make these steps instinctively, but for newer photographers this can be aconfusing and task oriented activity. To remember these steps, I have developed and use a simple mnemonic – PLACEBO.

The PLACEBO Principle

Meaning control in an experimental situation, the word PLACEBO is not only easy to remember,but it also implies exactly what we’re aiming to achieve. Each of the letters in the word PLACEBO represents akey step in the quest to get better photos.

  • P – Positioning: Choose the best position for the photograph.  In underwater applications, we generally get low, get close and where possible shoot upwards.  Take into consideration not only the subject, but also the backgroundand negative space.
  • L – Lighting: Consider the lighting needed for a good result, including natural light and artificial (strobe) light, and the desired lighting effect. Ensure the strobes have recycled fully, are correctly aimed, and have the correct power settings. Consider also the likely shadows ·
  • A – Aperture, Shutter, ISO and White Balance: Confirm the right settings of these important exposure variables
  • C – Compose and Focus: Compose the shot (considering all elements covered in positioning), and ensure correct focus.
  • E – Expose the Film: This means make the photo! Remember to be steady as you press the shutter button – too much movement could blur the photo.
  • B – Bracket, Bracket and Bracket Again: Rarely will the first shot you make of a subject be the perfect one. Bracket for exposure (aperture and / or shutter), bracket for lighting effects and bracket for composition.  In the digital era we have the strong advantage of instant feedback and histograms, as well as a lot more exposures available, but remember that what you see on your cameras LCD will most probably differ from what appears on your monitor.
  • O – Organise your thoughts for the next subject so that you have your plan in place.

Applying PLACEBO in Your Dives

Newer underwater photographers may wonder how experienced photographers can apply all of the above steps (regardless of whether or not they use the term PLACEBO to remember them) and still manage to capture the action.

While sometimes there is no choice to snap off the action as it occurs, generally underwater photographers will have thought before the dive about the particular objective for the dive, and will then search out appropriate subject matter and background situations.

Instinctively they will consider positioning and lighting, and more often than not, Aperture, Shutter, ISO and White Balance settings will be pre-set to a likely combination – even if they aren’t right it will be a quick change to get them so.

On most wide angle dives I do, I know that with my particular combination of lens, strobes and camera, the correct settings for a subject at a camera-to-subject distance of 1m is an aperture of f/8. Accordingly, before I submerge my aperture is set, and the shutter speed is set to 1/125th.  ISO is set at ISO100, and white balance generally stays on “Cloudy +2”.  As I descend, I start to set the strobes up for approximate targeting for the 1m range.

Grey Nurse SharkOne of my best shark shots was captured by having a combination like this setup. When the shark came swimming towards me, I could position myself low and wait, knowing that my settings were optimal. Bracketing is a natural activity for underwater photographers – it simply isn’t always feasible to go back to get the shot if it was missed.

Pink Anemone FishOn one occasion diving off Walindi in PNG, I was fortunate to find a Pink anemone fish in a green coloured anemone. Seeing that it quite playful, I positioned myself on a good angle and snapped off many shots, changing positioning of the camera and lighting often.

I took 32 shots of that fish, and although many are good, one in particular has received good feedback. It was the 28th shot.

After we’ve finished with that subject, its time to organise our thoughts – we think about the next subject we might look for, check our strobes and pre-set our aperture and shutter settings once again for the most likely combination.

The whole cycle starts over once again.

PLACEBO is an easy to remember and useful mnemonic, one that can be used by the novice photographer and the more experienced ones alike.

By carefully considering the steps in PLACEBO, we are well on the way to making good photos, not just taking snapshots.

Please note: This article is an update of one that was published in Issue 8 of UwP Mag.  I first developed the PLACEBO Principle in the film era, but the principles apply just as much today, and there is much the underwater photographer can gain from applying the PLACEBO Principle.