Shooting the milky way from underwater

Time-lapse photographer Mark Gee tells us how he accomplished shooting the milky way plus an underwater scenery in one single shot!
Mark Gee

Mark Gee

Time Lapse photographer and founder of "the Art of Night"

I’m Mark Gee and I’m a time-lapse filmmaker and photographer in Wellington, New Zealand. When it comes to my time-lapse and my creative work in general, I’m always trying to think outside the box of how I can do things in new and creative ways. Especially things that haven’t been done before. So I shot the milky way over and underwater at the same time:

A few years back, I shot a short film of an underwater motion control time-lapse called “Down Under” using the Syrp motion control systems and a GoPro. Setting up the motion control part of the shots were somewhat of a challenge. But nowhere near the challenge of what I wanted to attempt next.

The challenge

I wanted to take that concept further and shoot an under/over water time-lapse at night. The goal was capturing underwater life in rock pools and the Milky Way rising overhead. I knew I couldn’t use a GoPro anymore, as they couldn’t capture the detail and clarity I wanted in the night sky even with their night mode. So I began to look into underwater housings for my Nikon D850. I purchased an Aquatech housing and dome port suitable for my 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikon lens.

The concept going about of the actual underwater time-lapse was the same as what I had previously done with the GoPro. I simply turned my slider upside down and underslung my Syrp Genie from it. The camera housing would hang under that and be submerged halfway under water.

The rig for shooting underwater

The first attempts

For my first attempts of actually taking a photo, I used a tripod in the water, and underslung the housing from that. It was there that I learnt that pulling off what I had in mind was going to be so much harder than I thought.

Firstly was the issue of exposure – water absorbs light in ways air doesn’t. So when exposing for the Milky Way for the top half of my frame, I found the underwater part was way underexposed. I tested out various lighting set-ups and ended up using lume cubes underwater. These worked well as I could also take their brightness down to a very low level with the lume cube app.

Focus problems

The next challenge was depth of field. I wanted to show off both the underwater world and night sky in my time-lapse. But couldn’t get a large enough depth of field to have both in focus at the same time. So I started thinking of how I could either manually or automatically do focus pulls so I could feature both.

Since my camera was in a housing, I wasn’t able to adjust focus with the focus ring. So I started experimenting with firstly the Nikon built in focus stacker, and then various other apps like Helicon Focus. I had some success with the Helicon Focus. But at times it became frustrating when the app lost connection to the camera, and I couldn’t run a time-lapse at the same time.

Fortunately I’ve got a programming friend who’s also into photography. I explained my issues, and he built me an app for my laptop that had a basic time-lapse module and focusing controls. The beauty with this was I could control the focus of my lens in steps while the time-lapse was going at the same time. And I could tether my laptop directly to the camera in the water housing through a port built for a flash connection.

A year of work

Overall it took me about a year of trial and error, from my first attempts of under/over water stills, to a successful under/over water time-lapse with a focus pull. Apart from the technical challenges, I also had other factors to contend with, including racing against tides and bad weather. And other mishaps like when I actually dropped an external battery that was powering my camera into the water. Fortunately that didn’t damage the electronics of my camera. I also had a rogue wave that washed over into the rock pool I was shooting in one night, and totally knocked my rig over onto the rocks at the side of the pool.

Perseverance pays off

Despite all of this I kept going, learning from my mistakes and mishaps. And earlier this month, I finally nailed it. It’s still not technically perfect and I have a few more things to work out. But it was the best result to date. I found a great location. And the tides and weather were perfect! The time-lapse was meant to also be a day to night under/over water astro time-lapse. But I had technical issues with the set-up, and missed my day time start by 40 minutes. Still I’m absolutely wrapped in the way it turned out. And I can’t wait to get out there again to shoot more.

Many thanks to Mark Gee for sharing his story here on Time Lapse Magazine! Check out his website and Instagram!

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