BioBay Photos – Capturing the Glow
August, 2011 – There is a ban on swimming in Mosquito Bay on Vieques. But you can still try to get the photos of the electric boat wake.
The bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico never cease to amaze us. We are fortunate in that we’ve been able to visit each of the biobays multiple times over the years. It is hard to capture the effect in words, let alone in pictures.
Each time we go, we are equally amazed at the number of people that spend most of their trip trying to take photos of the glowing water, and never really take the time to experience it first-hand. I’ll admit it … I’ve been one of those people on more than one occasion.
Recently, I have gotten some half-way decent photos of the biobay, and I want to share with you want I did to get them. These photos are not great, but I can tell you that they are real.
How To Get Photos Like on "Biobay Tour" Web Sites
We’ve all seen the photos posted on the various biobay tour web sites … A smiling model in the water. Perfectly illuminated. Perfectly in focus. Ripples in the water, also perfectly in focus. And a bright blue glow around the model’s arms and legs.
Obviously, the photos here are not those types of photos.
Let’s stop and think about this for a minute. In order to get a properly exposed photo of a person in the dark at night, you need to use a flash. But the flash washes out the bioluminescent glow.
In order to capture the glow of the water, you need to use an extremely long exposure time. But with a long exposure time, a person moving their arms and legs in the water would appear blurry in a photo.
The only way I can imagine to get the perfect photo is with a little help from an image-editing program (like Photoshop). You could composite a flash photo with a non-flash photo, and get the best of both worlds. I’m not saying that’s necessarily how those marketing photos were achieved. I’m just saying that’s one way to get them.
Our Photos from a Recent Trip to Mosquito Bay on Vieques
Like I’ve already said, we’ve taken numerous trips into each of the biobays here in Puerto Rico. And, on most occasions, I’ve taken my camera with me in the hopes of capturing something … anything … that represents what you see in the biobay.
Most of the time, I’ve come home with a 8GB memory card filled with black photos. The times that I’ve used a flash, I have gotten photos of (newly blinded and unhappy) swimmers with huge pupils, floating in dark black water with no glow around them. Not exactly the photos that I had in mind.
Once you get out into the biobay, you’ll quickly realize that you can’t really see the people in the water … all you really see is the glow around them. With that in mind, I’m very happy with the photos we took … it gives you a good idea of what you can actually expect to see in the biobay.
Over the years, we’ve bought progressively better cameras, which gives us the chance to get better photos. Today, though we don’t have "professional" camera equipment by any means, our current camera gives us enough flexibilty to manually control many of the settings.
That’s what you need — a camera on which you can manually set the shutter speed (length of exposure), the f-stop (size of the aperature) and the film speed (ISO/ASA).
The photos in this article were taken with a Canon PowerShot SX20 IS, with an exposure time of between 13 to 15 seconds, an aperature setting of F2.8, and an ISO speed setting of 1600. The longest exposure time I can set on this camera is 15 seconds, though a longer setting would have given me a brighter photo. The ISO setting of 1600 introduced a considerable amount of "noise" into the photos. I’d like to go back and try again with an ISO setting of 800 to see if that gives me a cleaner photo … though it might not be as bright.
How to get Photos Like Ours
Start by going to the biobay on a near moonless night — one of those nights marked as best in our biobay viewing calendar. Book a trip into Mosquito Bay on Vieques (the brighest biobay in Puerto Rico). You can do this either by staying on Vieques and using one of the operators there, or by taking the Vieques Biobay Excursion with East Island Excursions out of Fajardo.
If you go into the biobay on an electric motor boat, position yourself near the back of the boat — the propellers create a lot of bright wake that is perfect for photos.
Bring along a camera that has manual settings for the shutter speed, aperature, and ISO settings. Set it for the longest shutter speed, the largest aperature, the highest ISO setting, and make sure the flash is turned off. Brace your camera the best you can to minimize movement. Though, if you’re taking your photos from a floating boat … you’re going to move no matter what.
Enhancing our Photos
Time for me to come clean — I have enhanced the photos in this article. I’ve adjusted the contrast and fill light in order to better distinguish the glow. And I cleaned up some of the "noise" introduced by the high ISO setting.
I’ve used the first photo from this article to show you the before and after difference between the original, untouched photo (left half) and the enhanced photo (right half).
Memories to Bring Home
Don’t get all hung up on taking photos in the biobay. Unless you have the right equipment, the pictures probably won’t come out anyway. So, instead of getting a frustrated with your camera, enjoy the natural phenomenon with your family or friends. Spend your time creating memories of what you’re seeing in the biobay. The best photos you’ll get are those that are in your memory.