Audun's father above the water fishes for Atlantic cod, seen below the water. This split-level photo won Audun second place in the Outdoor category of the 2017 Nordic Nature Photo Contest. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. © Audun Rikardsen

Canon Ambassador Audun Rikardsen has mastered the skill of shooting split-level wildlife photographs showing what's above and below the surface of the sea simultaneously. "People think I’m an underwater photographer, but I’d rather call myself a surface photographer. I find it fascinating to see the few thin millimetres that divide these two totally different worlds," he says.

In order to capture these audacious and uniquely creative compositions, Audun has made his own waterproof housings that optimise the camera's ability to focus both above and below the surface in low light conditions. However, he maintains that you can take split-level shots in the daytime with all sorts of underwater housings, as long as you have the correct lens and port – he uses an off-the-shelf offering for some shots, too.

Photographer Audun Rikardsen kneels in a river holding a camera in a waterproof housing with a dome-shaped window.
Audun out shooting with an off-the-shelf underwater housing that he often uses for his Canon DSLRs, fitted with a dome port. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Audun Rikardsen

"The wider the lens, the better," he says. "I often use a fisheye lens because the less water you get between your lens and the subject, the sharper and clearer it will be. That's because there are fewer particles in the water to shoot through."

The focal length of the lens also dictates the shape of the port on the front of the housing. Because a lens such as the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM offers a 180-degree diagonal angle of view, it's essential to use a dome port. If a flat port is used, part of it will be visible on the edge of the frame.

Settings for sharp underwater shots

A split-level shot shows a fishing boat above the water and fish caught in nets under the water.
Another of Audun's daylight split-level sea photographs, showing the underside of a fishing boat and a massive catch. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. © Audun Rikardsen
Christian Ziegler’s

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Images shot underwater are magnified by around 25%, and one of the benefits of the dome port is that it corrects for the magnification of the water. "However," says Audun, "the dome port creates different infinity sharpness above and below the surface. So if you have the lens set at infinity above water, it will create a virtual infinity focus below water that is somewhere around 30-40cm in front of the camera.

"To compensate for that, you need to use a small aperture. As a rule of thumb, I use f/13 or smaller. Usually, I adjust the focus for the subject below water, then keep that focus. I often take a picture and check everything is still sharp above water. I start with f/11 and use increasingly smaller apertures until everything's sharp."

The opportunity to create one of Audun's favourite split-level images (below) came when he developed an unusual friendship with a walrus in 2014. A young male, around 2.5 metres long and weighing around 500kg, appeared on a beach at Tromsø, Norway, near Audun's home. Most walruses move on from this spot after a few days, but this one remained on the beach for three months. During this period, Audun camped on the beach for several days as the walrus gradually accepted him.

Above the water is a blue sky with small clouds and the sun on the horizon. Below the water is a walrus, close to the camera, with water bubbles travelling from its mouth to the surface.
Audun's split-level shot of a young walrus below the water surface and a blue sky with the midnight sun above won first prize in the Underwater Worlds category of the 2015 Asferico International Nature Photography Competition. Taken on the coast near Tromsø, Norway, using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. © Audun Rikardsen

"He watched me for many days, so he knew I wasn't dangerous," Audun remembers. "Eventually, he came towards me, lay down nearby and touched my hand with his whiskers. From that moment, we were friends and I could do everything with him. He was very playful and I called him Buddy. As a photographer, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I aimed to document this walrus as much as possible and particularly wanted to take a split-level picture."

Photographing Buddy the Walrus

Buddy was staying on the beach in early summer, the time of the year in Tromsø when the sun doesn't set. One night, Audun saw the walrus going into the sea and followed him in his boat. He wanted to shoot Buddy underwater with the midnight sun in the same frame. He was equipped with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III fitted with his Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens – a Canon L-series lens capable of delivering superb image quality at the wide angle he loves, with a rugged build to withstand the cold weather and knocks. This was all encased in an underwater housing.

To take his shot of Buddy the walrus, Audun remained in his boat while lowering the camera in its housing into the water, firmly attached to a long pole. His approach doesn't involve viewing the images on screen, so instead he used experience and inspired guesswork to frame the shot as Buddy swam close to the camera.

"I wanted to make it as simple as possible, because the more electronics you add, the more things can go wrong," he says. "I prepared the camera, chose the settings and tried to keep it as near as possible to a 50-50 under/over water split. I took a lot of pictures and in this frame Buddy was blowing out some bubbles that really make the picture. To create a strong picture you need something interesting both above and below the surface to connect these two environments."

Exposing for above and below the water

One of the biggest challenges when shooting split-level images is choosing the correct exposure for above and below the water. Audun has used a range of creative techniques for these images, including double exposures – one for above and one for below the water – and single exposures using flash to light what's below the surface. Audun chose not to use flash for the shot of Buddy, since he wanted to use the sun to naturally light the walrus. However, getting a correct exposure was particularly difficult, because the sun was in the frame and low on the horizon.

A humpback whale does a somersault underwater, while above the water a snow-capped mountain is seen in the distance.
Arctic Showtime, another of Audun's split-level masterpieces, shows a playful humpback whale at the coast near Tromsø just before it migrated south. This image was awarded in the 2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the 2016 Fritz Polking Award, the 2016 Siena International Photography Award and the 2017 Arctic Photographer of the Year award. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. © Audun Rikardsen

"You need a perfect exposure," Audun says, explaining that exposing for the darker conditions underwater would blow out the highlights in the sky, while underexposing the shot would have lost too much detail in the shadows. "I usually expose it a little more than normal to suit the highlight conditions above water, but not so that it burns out." The shot was taken using exposure settings of 1/200 sec at f/13, ISO1000.

Audun says the high dynamic range offered by the Canon EOS 5D Mark III was essential for the image's success because it allowed him the scope to bring out shadow detail underwater at the post-processing stage. "In the original RAW file everything below the surface was quite dark."

Not only is the split-level Buddy shot one of Audun's favourite images, it also won first prize in the Underwater Worlds category of the 2015 Asferico International Nature Photography Competition. "To me this is a relaxing picture because you have the clear sky, the midnight sun and the light reflecting in the bubbles that the walrus is blowing out," he says. "The walrus himself also looks calm. I was lucky to get the sun exactly on the surface.

"In a situation like this, you should never stop taking pictures, even if you think you have the perfect shot. Adjust your settings, change the aperture, alter your position if you see that something could be done better. Don't stop until there's no chance of continuing."

Scris de David Clark


Audun Rikardsen’s kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Photographer Audun Rikardsen smiles as he holds his camera by the sea.

Cameras

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

With its high-sensitivity 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, expanded 61-point Dual Pixel AF system and 4K video capture, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II delivers class-leading performance.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment, while 4K video delivers ultra-high definition footage to the DCI standard (4096x2160).

Lenses

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

A workhorse telephoto zoom lens with a durable design, a four-stop Image Stabiliser that makes it ideal for shooting handheld in low-light conditions, and ultra-low dispersion lens elements to ensure high contrast and natural colours.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM

Featuring superb image quality edge to edge, a robust build and impeccable weather sealing, this L-series ultra wide-angle zoom lens has a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture for crisp results whatever the lighting conditions.

Lenses

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease.

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