All images © Alex Mustard

I don’t know the figures, but I’d guess that British divers log more minutes underwater each year in the Red Sea than anywhere else, even including our home waters. BSoUP members have been going there since the late 1960s, many of us annually and many celebrated BSoUP contest winners have been taken there. It is no surprise that I have included Cousteau’s ‘Corridor Of Marvels’ in this mini-series on popular photo destinations. 

The sun always shines on the Red Sea and visibility is almost always excellent. Combine these with impressive shipwrecks, rich and colourful reefs and plenty of bigger creatures and we’ve the perfect recipe for an irresistible wide angle location. Macro subjects abound too and with marine life that is used to divers, it is a great location for fish portraits.  But going wide should be our default. There are too many places around the world where we dream of wide angle conditions like those found daily in the Red Sea. So when we have them, we should make the most of them. 

© Alex Mustard: Teeming anthias, Ras Mohammed – Nikon D4 (left), Colourful soft corals, Ras Mohammed – Nikon D5 (right)

Throughout the Red Sea the reefs stretch right to the surface and the vertical walls pulsate with life, with bright red and pink soft corals. Completing the scene are clouds of anthias, which always seem much bigger and a more pure orange than elsewhere in the world. Set against bright, almost electric blue water it create a stunning and specific colour palette that is unmistakably Egyptian. South East Asian reefs may support more species, but to my eyes it is the compositional simplicity and intensity of these primary hues that makes Red Sea reefs the most beautiful in the world.

© Alex Mustard: Snorkelling through coral garden, Sha’ab El Erg  – Nikon D850

Successful reef photography is often about finding the shot in this bustle of life. If we try and capture it all our photos lack direction, the viewer dissatisfied by the messy composition. Our goal is to simplify and to build our photo around a key feature in the scene. Framing and lighting are our main tools in distilling the beauty of the nature world into a concentrated graphic image. Simplifying the natural world into visually powerful images is a main tenet of all wildlife photography, neatly summarized by Andrew Loomis: “The novice snaps his camera carelessly at nature. The artist seeks to arrange it.”

In practice this means we should focus on a single seafan, or a particular attractive piece of soft coral, anemone or small coral head, rather than trying to shoot the whole wall. Remember the mantra “subject, not scene” and you are on the right track. Frame this against an interesting background and wait for some fish to swim into the picture. Then work in some background elements to give the image depth, perhaps a more distant silhouetted reef wall or a diver. The world is three dimensional, but photographs are a flat medium. Building compositions with depth will make our wide angle photos stand out.

Red Sea reefs are more that just walls. Pinnacles are often particularly suited for photography and have long been popular with BSoUPers as they support particularly dense life and attract less regular divers. Their shape also makes for excellent backgrounds when we can find a good foreground subject close to their base. 

Many Red Sea reefs are also cut with caves and caverns and the shallow ones are perfect locations for images of light beams spearing down through the ceiling of the cave. It is often dark inside these caverns, so preset and lock your focus before entering the cave and be prepared to turn up the ISO, open the aperture and lengthen the exposure time. As a general rule, the less we light a cave shot with our strobes, the more atmosphere our photos will have.  We should turn off our strobes and only switch them on if there really is a subject worthy of illuminating. A seafan, soft coral, anemone or small school of fish can really complete a cave shot. But the shots still work without them, so there is no need to force the issue. Our widest lens are the best for these shots because light beams look much better when they have a start and finish within the frame, often working well as either completely vertical lines or diagonals, if we rotate the camera. Lightbeams are fine with a bit of fisheye bend, but it is always worth seeing how they look with some lens correction in Lightroom, to straighten them back out.

© Alex Mustard: Light beams in cavern, Ras Mohammed – Nikon D4

© Alex Mustard: Shallow corals at sunset, Sharm El Sheikh – Nikon D850

Back out in the open, there can be a downside to all the sunshine, especially in the middle of the day when the powerful sun can be tough to control in wide angle exposures. When the sun is over powering, it is best not to use it in our pictures. If we look for subject that is in the shade, we will find that when we frame it up, the sun will be helpfully hidden behind the reef. The alternative is to leave the ball of the sun out of the frame and just work with the rays. As the sun dips to a more photogenic angle in the afternoon, it is time to exploit it. The desert climate is often windy, so look for protected areas to get the smooth surface of the sea that gives the best sun rays. Late in the day, as the sun dips towards the horizon it can be particularly beautiful. We should plan very shallow dives during the last hour before sunset, and almost any subject photographed in front of this gorgeous evening light, will look superb. Furthermore, many fish become more active at this time. Lionfish, for example, are often out and posing. Soft corals usually inflate and anemones ball-up revealing their colourful skirts. It is a great time for scenic photography.

And there is one final treat in store before these dusk dives come to an end. The Red Sea is not usually a great location for split level photos. Yes, the reefs come right to the surface, but there is rarely quality subject matter above the surface. The mountains are usually too distant, there aren’t palm trees overhanging the water and the sky is just blue – devoid of even clouds to add interest. But at sunset we finally have topside interest, when we can shoot the shallow corals, lit with our strobes against the pretty colours of the sunset above water. Remember to focus on the corals, expose for the sky and light the reef with flash.

Of course, the Red Sea also serves up sharks, dolphins, dugongs, wrecks and schools. But those are a story for another time!

© Alex Mustard: Soft corals and batfish, Ras Mohammed – Nikon D850

© Alex Mustard: Turtle feeds on soft corals, Ras Mohammed – Nikon D850

Alex’s Top Tips

1. The Red Sea’s comparative northerly location and isolation from the rest of the Indo-Pacific gives it a distinct character amongst coral seas: it has a high number of endemic species as subjects and is strongly seasonal. Go in summer for schooling fish and autumn for oceanic whitetip sharks. 

2. The Red Sea attracts divers from many different countries and of all levels of experience. To get the most out of many of the sites you need to dive them as a photographer. More than most other regions joining a trip for photographers will transform your productivity.  

3. Look for a hero fish to finish off your wide angle scenes. Red soft corals and anthias look fantastic, but are even better with a colourful reef fish in the foreground to complete the scene. Red coral groupers or yellow butterflyfish are the perfect candidates to try and work into our scenics, or if you are lucky, a hawksbill turtle.