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One Picture

One Picture


Photographer: Birgitte Wilms
Subject: Blue sea star
Where: Solomon Islands
Camera: Canon F1 with 100mm macro lens and Ikelite housing
Film: Velvia 50
Lighting: Dual strobe, one at full power, second at 1/4th power
Exposure: 1/60th of a second @f22


True Blue
The underwater photographs of tropical reef life that we see in books and magazines are often astonishing. And sometimes they are truly beyond belief. That’s certainly not the case with Birgitte Wilms’s close-up of a starfish the color of sunlit Pacific waters. The image was shot on Losiolen Reef in the Solomon Islands, which Wilms describes as an exceptionally biodiverse marine area known for spectacular coral gardens and huge sea fans. And as she emphasizes, the photo was made on 35mm color film, not a digital memory card. In other words, what you see is exactly what the camera saw. More on that subject in a moment.

What else would this echinoderm be called than the blue sea star? (Well, it’s Linckia laevigata to scientists.) The species inhabits coral reefs and shallow areas across the tropical Indo-Pacific region. This specimen, more than 12 inches across, hosts a juvenile brittle starfish (Ophiothrix) just a half-inch wide. The blue sea star is known for its remarkable regenerative powers. Pufferfishes and triton shells, among the animal’s predators, occasionally take a bite out of them. But if the tip of one of its five arms, which are often adorned with rosettes, should break off, the fragment will eventually grow into a new starfish.

Wilms and her husband, Chris Newbert, are gifted underwater photographers who were leading a diving tour in tropical Indonesia last winter when their home in New Hampshire was being buried in snow. (He reported in an e-mail from “the world’s most primitive internet café” that neighbors had shoveled off their barn roof to save it from collapse.) Chris’s dazzling large-format book Within a Rainbowed Sea, first published in 1984, set a nearly unattainable standard for the sea life genre and was a White House gift of state. He is, however, outspoken about the distortion of reef reality by today’s generation of divers who are equipped with digital cameras and manipulate their pictures with PhotoShop and other software.

“I’ve seen fish with colors that don’t exist illustrating dive magazine stories along with images of marine animals in habitats where they would never be found,” Newbert says. “It’s easy to boost colors to unnatural levels, clone fish, or digitally remove a creature from sandy rubble and insert it into a scene with a bright red sea fan.” Computer expertise, he asserts, has become more important than photographic technique. “A color slide is an authentic representation of a moment in time. The digital process, on the other hand, robs photography of its credibility. Viewers increasingly react with suspicion instead of awe at great images. They think the pictures are clever frauds like the ones you can find on the Internet every day.”—Les Line 
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