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Shooting The Deep Wrecks of Presque Isle with Bradley Sheard By Backscatter Staff
The chilly water off Presque Isle, Michigan is home to a unique aggregation of intact wooden sailing ships, many with masts still standing, resting serenely on the bottom. Hundreds of wrecks have succumbed to the unforgiving waters of Lake Huron, many of them right off Presque Isle. Some of the most iconic wrecks lie just outside the recreational comfort zone in 150ft – 250ft of water. The sometimes - unpredictable surface conditions and freezing temperatures make for challenging diving, but have also left these time capsules incredibly well preserved. Many sit upright, and in the crystal clear water appear to be sailing still, with only small hints of their violent ends. Backscatter Pro Client Bradley Sheard captures the mood and setting of these wrecks perfectly with his compelling images.
The steamship Norman lies broken on the bottom of Lake Huron in some 200 feet of pristine water.
Q: You are known as one of the original Atlantic Wreck Divers and a veteran when it comes to photographing historic shipwrecks. What sparked your inspiration and desire to explore the waters of Lake Huron?
I've always been interested in trying to photograph the "big picture" of shipwrecks - sort of the "forest" rather than the "trees" so to speak. When I saw some images of the incredibly intact shipwrecks off Presque Isle in Lake Huron, it was like "I just HAVE to go there!" My friend Mike Boring set up a trip to go in 2015, and the wrecks and diving were just so fantastic that we went back in 2016 and are going again in 2017.
The bluff bow of the schooner Defiant towers above the bottom, with her foremast still standing
Q: Tell us about your recent expedition to Presque Isle.
Presque Isle is an area of the upper Michigan peninsula with a unique set of shipwrecks that are nearly perfect for wide angle photography. The wrecks themselves are incredible - there are intact schooners, sitting upright on the bottom in a nearly perfect state of preservation - I mean even the masts are still standing after some 100 years immersion! The fresh water they rest in has no shipworms, so the wood seems perfectly preserved, and after the non-indigenous zebra mussels invaded the lake, the water is so clear that there is often nearly 100 feet of visibility. For a photographer, it's like being a kid in a candy store: the wrecks there look like what everyone who isn't a diver imagines a shipwreck looks like, even though they rarely do. The wrecks we dived are well known - this wasn't really an exploration trip where we were looking for new wrecks, and we were far from the first to dive them, but they are just so visually spectacular and it was just a pleasure to try and photograph them
Image courtesy NOAA.gov
Mike Powell explores inside the wooden steamship Florida
Q: Many of your images truly capture the texture and feel of the wreck. What kind of lighting, exposure, and composition techniques go in to recreating this in a still image?
I often like to shoot shipwrecks in only ambient light, and often in black & white. This approach makes it easier to capture the "big picture" of a wreck. This is often difficult, however, since the wrecks are often dark, especially the deeper ones, and there just isn't a lot of light there. Fortunately, modern digital cameras now make this type of photography much easier than it used to be, since they are very capable at high ISO settings. Back in the film days I used to shoot with Kodak Tmax 3200 black and white film, often push processing it to be able to get these types of images…. but the results had golf-ball size grain! The new digital cameras are like night and day compared to those days! But I do use strobes and now video lights as well. On this past trip to Presque Isle I was trying out these fantastic new video lights made by Keldan, which worked out very nicely in the dark conditions present on the wrecks, which ranged from about 160 - 210 feet in depth.
The schooner Typo's magnificent bow and forward mast towers over the bottom of Lake Huron
Q: To capture images like yours requires not only an enormous amount of patience and knowledge, but also dive technique and safety. What sort of advice do you have for aspiring wreck divers and explorers?
I suppose the best advice is to become a good diver first, and make sure you are really comfortable in the water before picking up a camera. Underwater photography does take a lot of practice and attention, and it is all too easy to get distracted while trying to shoot pictures and not pay attention to all those life-support details. Buoyancy control is paramount too - there have been so many times when I've screwed up my own pictures by stirring up the silt on the bottom with poor dive technique, only to watch a rolling cloud of silt slowly move into the scene I'm trying to photograph!
Divers light up the foredeck of the schooner Typo and her ship's bell, still in place
Q: What is your go-to camera system?
My current camera system is a Canon 5D III in an Aquatica A5Dsr Underwater Housing. My favorite shipwreck lens by far is the Canon 14mm f/2.8…. it is admittedly challenged on corner sharpness in a dome port, but the extra angle of view lets me get so much closer to the subject, and I find that is the most important thing - to reduce the amount of water between you and your subject. For lighting, I have recently been using a pair of Ikelite DS-160 strobes, which have a very nice warm color balance, or for deeper and darker waters, a pair of Keldan 4x video lights which I'm really starting to like better than strobes for stills. I am looking hard at upgrading to the new Canon 5D Mark IV, which apparently has a much better dynamic range, and so is much more capable of pulling detail out of underexposed shadows, which happens all too often in this type of photography. So…. just spend more money on a new camera and new housing… seems like it never ends!
Mike Boring photographs the helm on the stern of the schooner Cornelia B Windiate
About Bradley Sheard:
A native of Long Island, Bradley Sheard was introduced to ships and the sea at an early age by his grandfather. He completed his first wreck dive in 1977. This ignited a passion for exploring and photographing shipwrecks from all eras of American history. Brad's thirst for exploration combined with advances in modern SCUBA technology has driven him to new and exciting discoveries. He was among the first to dive the graves of the tankers Norness and Sebastian, the World War I passenger liner SS Carolina, and what is believed to be the submarine USS Spikefish. He has also descended to 7 of the 10 ships of General Billy Mitchell's sunken fleet, and has explored the Bikini Atoll fleet sunk in an atomic bomb test. His articles and photographs have been published in a variety of books and magazines.
Most recently, Brad was part of the team that searched for and found the German submarine U-550, the last unfound, diveable wreck of a U-boat off the United States coast. This was chronicled in the book Where Divers Dare: The Hunt for the Last U-Boat by Randall Peffer, published in April 2016.