All images © Alex Mustard

The destinations I have profiled so far all come with specific challenges, but the next one is different. Underwater photography here is easy, the water is warm, clean and mostly free from current and waves. The challenge is now how to get stunning images in all-rounder dive destinations, places which offer many different photographic thrills? 

The Cayman Islands serve up dramatic drop-off scenery, coral caverns, photogenic shipwrecks, playful stingrays and thriving reef and macro life. With so many options a disciplined approach pays dividends. The secret to success is to have a plan for each type of dive we’re likely to do. We should regularly quiz the dive staff about our likely sites so we arrive on the boat each day prepared, both in terms of techniques and equipment. We don’t want to drop down at the prime macro spot armed with only a fisheye lens!

© Alex Mustard: Nassau grouper, Little Cayman – Nikon D7100

In theory compact cameras have a distinct advantage of being able to change between their wet lenses as the subjects present themselves. However, this leads many into the trap of shooting everything, but nothing exceptionally. For those with interchangeable lens cameras I definitely recommend taking an alternate lens out on the boat. Most diving in Cayman is on two-tank dive trips. I grew up in the film era of photography and got used to the necessity of opening my camera up between every dive to load another roll of Velvia. So I have always been happy changing lenses on dive boats, as long I have a dry place to store them afterwards. Cameras get flooded when housings are put together without due care. Opening them on the boat isn’t a specific risk as long as we work as carefully as we do on land. But success comes from more than just having the right gear, we need to hit the water with the right ideas…

© Alex Mustard: Wall scenery, Grand Cayman – Nikon Z7

Little Cayman is celebrated around the world for the stunning reef scenery of Bloody Bay Wall and the friendly Nassau groupers that call these dive sites home. Wide angle photography is a must. Photographs are a two dimensional medium, but the underwater scenery we want to portray is, of course, three dimensional. Our challenge is to endow our two-dimensional wide angle photographs with as much visual depth as possible, so that they invoke a feeling of real world scenery. In short we have to search for both a foreground and background for our pictures and such a precipitous wall is ideal.  It is best if we drop down over the edge and descend at least five meters below the lip of the wall before we start searching for subjects. This ensures that when we find one we should have a background (the wall) ready and waiting.

Bloody Bay Wall is covered in jaw dropping sponge formations, but our wide angle shots become even more impressive if we can work some marine life in to the pictures too. Options include the ubiquitous Nassau groupers, common hawksbill turtles or pairs of angelfish. Including them adds such dazzle to wide angle scenes.

Both Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman are home to two of the world’s most photogenic purpose-sank shipwrecks: the Russian destroyer 356, renamed the Keith Tibbetts and the US Navy’s Kittiwake, respectively. Grand Cayman’s Kittiwake, in particular, is still completely intact and is a huge draw for photographers.

© Alex Mustard: Keith Tibbetts Wreck, Cayman Brac  – Nikon D4

© Alex Mustard: Kittiwake Wreck, Grand Cayman – Nikon D5

On my photo workshops she’s earned the nickname the Wreck of a Thousand Faces because she offers so many angles for photography. The most impressive images of shipwrecks are usually the big shots, that show as much of the recognisable structure as possible, and the clear Caymanian waters are ideal. Such scenes are far too large to illuminate with flash and the Kittiwake is at an ideal depth for filter photography, which restores the colours of the wreck and help hold a strong water colour. Using white balance adjustments alone usually sucks all the colour out of the water, leaving a washed out looking image. However, removing our strobes and adding a filter to our wide angle lens is not enough. To reveal the detail and colour of the wreck we need a big light source  – the sun. It is very important to dive a shallow wreck like the Kittiwake at the right time of day, so that the sun is illuminating the parts we want to photograph. An early afternoon dive is the perfect time to photograph the bow from the port side, while the shapely stern is fully illuminated in the morning.

A seasonal favourite in Cayman are the great masses of silversides that gather is certain coral caves around the islands in the summer months. These spectacular schools sometimes grow so large that a whole boat load of divers can disappear inside them! Spending a whole dive totally engulfed in fish is a truly mesmeric experience and nirvana for underwater photographers. Silversides offer quite a few options for images. Classic shots include waiting for a plundering tarpon or jack to burst through the school (we rarely have to wait long) or swimming slowly towards our buddy and taking a shot at the moment the silver curtain opens framing them in circle of fish. Smaller schools often form pleasing shapes and these patterns can look amazing in the dark of the caverns with cathedral light beams dancing with them.

© Alex Mustard: Diver in silversides, Grand Cayman – Nikon D4

© Alex Mustard: Tarpon hunting silversides, Grand Cayman – Nikon D5

The southern stingrays are another classic Grand Cayman subject and the key to getting great shots of them is not to dive with them! There are two stingray spots in Grand Cayman: divers are taken to the original Stingray City, which it 3 to 4 metres deep, while snorkelers visit Stingray City Sandbar, which is only waist deep. It is the latter that offers the most amazing photos. The shallow depth of the Sandbar brings seabed, stingrays and surface into close proximity and we can use all of them in our shots. Plus we’ll usually have them in amazing light. You don’t need strobes or filters here, just a camera with a wide angle lens and you have options to shoot fully underwater or split levels images.

© Alex Mustard: Stingrays beneath storm clouds, Grand Cayman – Nikon D850

Alex’s Top Tips

1. When shooting without flashes, such as on shipwrecks or with stingrays, we must pay particular attention to the direction of light. For colourful pictures we need to shoot with the light, but for black and white photos we should shoot against or across it to promote shadows.

2. When shooting inside caverns or wrecks, such as with the silversides, we should always question how much strobe we are using. Usually, the less strobe we use, the more atmosphere we will get in our shots. Shadow is important.

3. Reef wide angle photos are about celebrating scenery. We want the viewer to enjoy the scene and not get distracted by how we made the photo. We need to aim and set the powers of our strobes carefully, so poor lighting doesn’t highlight distractions.