Human beings are clearly creatures of habit: We often find ourselves on autopilot, doing things the same way we have always done them. This is as true with photography as it is with anything else. Once we have figured out a technique that works for shooting a particular subject, we stick with it time and time again. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" seems to be a comfortable rule of life.
Even on dive trips to locations that offer great diversity of subject matter, we often approach things the same old way. We shoot tiny animals with macro lenses, big animals with wide-angle lenses and medium-sized subjects with medium focal length lenses, and we return home with a portfolio that appears to be varied. But have we really pushed our creative boundaries?
The perfect lobster lens, for example, might be a 28 mm, but what would the picture look like if shot with a 16 mm? It might just be a view of a lobster that no one has ever seen before. Or perhaps use a macro lens to create a portrait or an extreme close-up of the animal's eye.
Some of these things may seem obvious, but in reality, photographers (like everyone else) tend to get stuck in ruts: If we are going out to photograph moray eels we select lens X and when swimming with reef sharks we choose lens Y. Sometimes we need to be reminded to think creatively.
I am certainly not suggesting that you should not use the perfect lens for the subject at hand; I simply wish to suggest that mixing things up a bit might produce exciting and unexpected results. When photographing a single species or even a single animal repeatedly, we are forced to be more creative or suffer the fate of all of our pictures looking the same.
A few years ago I spent some time in Nova Scotia photographing a beluga whale that had taken up residency there. Given that my subject was so large, it was obvious that I would not be using any macro lenses (unless I wanted to shoot a creative image of her eye). Still, I knew that if I were limited to wide-angle lenses I would need to try different techniques in order to keep my coverage interesting.
I began by selecting what I felt was the best lens for the job, a 20 mm, which I used on my housed camera. I shot several rolls of film and felt I was getting some pretty good stuff. Eventually, though, the fear of failure began to creep in and I asked myself what else could be done to make interesting pictures.
The first thing that I realized was that I had been shooting all horizontals. This became evident when, during one dive, the whale stopped swimming and posed vertically in the water column, forcing me to shoot a vertical frame. It is always good to shoot a mixture of both horizontals and verticals, even if your subject isn't helpful enough to remind you.
Still using the 20 mm lens I decided to make silhouettes to create a completely different look. This technique works especially well when visibility is poor, and it will add diversity to your coverage even without changing lenses. On subsequent dives I switched to other lenses to give various perspectives. I selected a 24 mm to make tighter portraits and fisheyes to give a sense of the animal within its environment. In the end I had created a portfolio of a single animal, but each image had a different look and feel.
Great photographers can create exceptional images with minimal gear. With only one lens they will exhaust the creative potential, working the subject until they get it right. Having more tools at our disposal means that we should be that much more versatile and less likely to become stuck in a rut. It's a good idea to use what you know will work to get those "insurance shots," but for exciting new results, experiment often with both tools and technique.