Split Perspectives

Shaped from the land above and waters below, rivers are the result of two drastically different environments linking together to create an intricate and fascinating ecosystem. This bond between two worlds is not lost on anglers, who recognize the multifaceted lifecycles of creatures like mayflies or the importance of large woody debris for spawning salmon. Yet, communicating this complexity with the rest of the world can be difficult. With our perspective of rivers often limited to what we see above the surface, the key to sharing this interface between two worlds is getting creative.  

Few photographic approaches illustrate a river better than the “split shot” (AKA over/under, half dunk), taken at the surface of the water with a partial underwater view and a part above water view. Linking land and water, the method provides one of the truest perspectives into the complex beauty of a river and is a great way to introduce audiences to the life beneath the surface. These storytelling images can offer a unique view of a day on the river, but just like fishing, split shots come with their own set of challenges. By following a few essential guidelines, crafting compelling split shots on the river can become achievable.

1. BIG and WIDE
Capturing a quality split shot that encompasses both the top and bottom perspectives of a river, is best accomplished with a wide angle lens. Any lens with a focal length greater than 17mm will probably get the desired effect, however for best results I recommend using a 14 or 15 mm fisheye lens. These ultra wide lenses are great for capturing grand scenes both above and below the water, making them one of the most effective tools for capturing a storytelling image.

A compelling split is comprised of many elements and beyond the land and water, one of the most important features is the river’s surface. This thin clear line, where two worlds collide, can be extremely dynamic and adds a unique energy to any image. The ability to photograph this ever-changing interface can be enhanced depending on the size of your dome port. Larger domes (6 inches and above) allow more room for the water to move up and down, creating a more energetic and animated photo. This can allow for a lot of creativity when trying to portray the energy of a river.

Once you have the appropriate gear, the next step is understanding how to use it to create the image you’re after. One of the most important concepts to recognize with any split shot is depth of field. Because splits are comprised of both an above and below the water scene, it’s important to take into account focus from both perspectives. Often the best way to accomplish proper focus is by having a deep depth of field, which can be achieved by stopping down to a small aperture (ie f16-f22). This results in a greater range of focus which is essential for resolving detail both above and below the water.  

Another crucial element to creating compelling split shots is exposure. Because life above the surface is often much brighter than the environments below, the challenge to find creative ways to correctly expose for both scenes becomes important. There are a number of possible options to help correctly light a split shot, and one of the most effective is the use of strobes or artificial light. By using strobes to light your underwater subject, you’ll be able to balance that with your topside exposure and create an image that is evenly lit and engaging.

Like fishing, successfully capturing a powerful split shot involves many factors, with the last being a fair amount of luck. However, knowing what elements to look for when you’re out on the river will set you up for success. The most exciting split shots succeed because they effectively document both perspectives of a river. Making sure your image has an interesting subject, both above and below the water’s surface, is crucial to telling the story of a river. Often the most difficult part of this process is documenting the life below. River environments host a collage of life, harboring worlds and creatures beyond our imagination, but most of these critters are a bit camera shy. Understanding the biology and behaviors of aquatic life can be very helpful when documenting subjects below the surface. It’s also important to exercise the utmost caution and respect when photographing wildlife, especially breeding animals. Make sure to employ responsible working distances to minimize stress that might impact your subject and its habitat.

Nothing spoils a great split shot faster than water droplets on the top side of your dome. These pesky beads usually remain after you bring the housing above the water surface to compose your split shot and the water doesn’t fully run off. I’ve heard of a number of potential solutions to combat this annoying problem, including rubbing potatoes or apples on your dome and even trying toothpaste. However, from my experience, one the of best tools to keep your dome drop free is by spitting on it. Make sure to rub it around the dome and then let it sit for a few minutes. This allows the water to bead off evenly giving you a nice clean topside image, and best of all its free and you always have it with you!

For many anglers, the lure of what lies below draws them to the rivers they love, yet very few ventures beneath the water’s surface. These storytelling shots offer a rare window into both the world of angling and the hidden ecosystems found beneath the surface.  Capturing split shots comes with a number of challenges, but with patience, persistence, and a little bit of luck you’ll be able to share your river story in captivating style. If all else fails, you can always go back to fishing.

David Herasimtschuk is a photographer for Freshwaters Illustrated. He specializes in underwater stream photography.  Be sure to check out his work in Freshwaters Illustrated and on his Instagram @davidherasimtschuk!

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