Why do it?
When you stand on the shore do you ever wonder what lies below the waves? What has man lost, thrown away and left behind on the bottom of our oceans and lakes? Underwater photographer Cal Kothrade is quite familiar with some of the items humans have lost to watery graves, he specializes in photographing shipwrecks. Old shipwrecks from before the American Civil War, or modern day losses from the middle of the twentieth century, he doesn’t discriminate, but his favorites are the ones that were lost in storms and collisions with other vessels. Many ships have gone to the bottom simply because they weren’t wanted anymore, and still others have been sunk intentionally as diver attractions and artificial reefs. You may be shocked to learn that the Great Lakes alone, hold as many as ten thousand shipwrecks! These freshwater time capsules are what Cal concentrates on, because he lives in the greater Milwaukee area, and has easier access to the Great Lakes than the oceans. During the summer months, Cal can be found jumping off the back of a dive boat with his camera, into the bone chilling waters of Lake Michigan as often as three or four times a week. Cal has been scuba diving since 1999, and shooting images on land professionally since 1998. It was only a matter of time before he took his love of photography underwater, that happened five years ago when he jumped into the deep end so to speak. “It was really tough to validate nearly six thousand dollars worth of underwater camera equipment” says Kothrade. “When the entire rig was assembled and sitting on the dining room table, my wife thought it looked like an alien with big strobes on long arms sprouting out of the protective housing, or a bomb, she wasn’t sure which…”
Getting the shot
To a photographer, lighting is everything, at times even more important than the subject matter. Without light, we don’t have a photo, light can make or break an image. Underwater, it is even more critical. Water absorbs light almost immediately, at a depth of 15 feet, the color red has already been completely filtered from sunlight. In freshwater, at 100ft, everything is shades of greenish grey. Good strobes are critical for capturing color underwater, but only useful when shooting something within five feet or so from your camera, due to the rate at which water absorbs light. So how does one image an object the size of ship? By using the natural light available, and only using strobes when photographing things very close. Imaging shipwrecks is more about the visibility of the water, than color. If there is a lot of suspended particulate in the water column, the distance our eyes and cameras see is limited. Because of this, Cal needs to get as close to the subject as possible, and he does it with a special type of wide angle lens. He shoots with a fairly inexpensive DSLR camera body, a Canon Rebel T1-I. It’s what’s attached to the front of it than makes the tough shots possible, a superwide rectilinear lens from Canon. The EF-S 10-22mm zoom lens allows him to get very close to his subject without suffering any ill effects of curved lines common with fisheye lenses. “Fisheyes are okay for reef shots, but when the viewer looks at a man made object like a ship, the straight lines need to look straight.”
“Some days you go down the line, it slowly gets colder and darker, and then the reason you’re there appears out of the mist, the shipwreck waiting for you on the bottom, and you realize that you can see eighty, ninety or one hundred feet, and you know you are going to get some great shots.” He says those days are few and far between, the Great Lakes are one of the most arduous environments a shooter can work in. Couple that with the the training and equipment necessary to survive in 38 degree water 180 feet down in the Great Lakes, and one begins to see the difficulty with this type of photography. Cal’s current dive certifications limit him to the wrecks at about 180′ and shallower. Visibility and the quality of the wrecks get better the deeper you go, but the natural light becomes less and less too. In Lake Superior, by the time you get to those depths, often times it is as black as a moonless night even though it may be high noon on the sunlit surface, it’s then that you need good strobes.
In these digital times, snapping the shot is only the beginning of the process. As with land photography, the post production of UW images is critical, and this is another place where Cal’s images stand apart from other shooters of shipwrecks. “Many of my images are post edited to show what the wreck would look like if there were more light than what really is. I often ‘correct’ the colors of objects closer to the lens to appear more natural.” Kothrade uses Adobe Light Room to adjust his RAW images for the usual things like exposure, clarity, and noise reduction on the higher ISO shots. For those images selected for creative color correction, he uses Adobe Photoshop. He also uses Photoshop for multi-image mosaics. These are images that are built from three or more stills, painstakingly stitched together by hand in PS. At times, more than two hundred photos are used to create super high resolution pictures of an entire shipwreck. These mosaics are impossible shots of large objects that could never be seen all in one glance due to water clarity, or rather, lack there of.
Lab Apollo to the rescue
Since partnering with Lab Apollo in 2010, Cal has been able to share his fantasy like shipwrecks with the general public and fellow divers alike. He sells prints of his ships from the Lakes and Oceans to fellow divers who aren’t as advanced in UW photography, as well as to lovers of shipwrecks, history and underwater archaeology at conventions, and from his website. “Lab Apollo’s prints are first rate, and priced right. More importantly, when a few particularly difficult images weren’t coming out right, they happily partnered with me to get the fine gradients in my images to print properly, not resting until I was satisfied. That made the difference between prints people want to buy, and prints that do not live up to my photos, thanks Lab Apollo!”
Cal is an award winning underwater photographer and maritime artist, whose shipwreck artwork and photos have appeared on television, book covers, periodicals, magazine covers and in film. He is a regional correspondent, writing dive travel and historical articles for Scuba & H2O Adventure Magazine, in addition to regularly giving presentations at conferences, and to clubs and other organizations about shipwrecks. “It is my passion and honor, to introduce people to the true treasures of the Great Lakes, their little known, and very elusive, historic shipwrecks.”
For more information and photos, visit one of Cal’s websites.
1. Proteus – Fifty miles off the coast of North Carolina, 140 feet below the Atlantic, the liner Proteus is now patrolled by Sand Tigers.
2. Northern Stern – A diver swims past the stern of the 19th century lake schooner Northerner, 130′ below Lake Michigan.
3. Milwaukee Prop – A diver showcases one of the massive props of the rail car ferry Milwaukee, 120′ deep off Fox Point, WI.
4. O’Conner Prop – An early summer algae bloom turns the water green around the remains of the 60′ deep wooden freighter, Frank O’Connor, near Bailey’s Harbor, WI.
5. Albans Bow – A diver examines the debris field of the 165′ deep St. Albans, sunk by ice shortly after leaving Milwaukee bound for Ludington MI.
6. C-53 and Diver – The purpose sunk wreck of the C-53 off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico is a diver favorite.
7. Rouse Simmons – The very famous Rouse Simmons aka Christmas Tree Ship, sits 175′ below Lake Michigan. The 19th century schooner sank with all hands and 20,000 X-mas trees in a 1912 storm.
8. Bermuda Bow – Sunlight bathes the deck boards of the wooden schooner Bermuda, sitting in 30′ of Lake Superior water near Munising, MI.
9. Milwaukee – 110′ below Lake Michigan, a diver lights up the anchor chain hawse hole on the 330′ long carferry Milwaukee, off Fox Point, WI.
10. Willem Mosaic – The only mosaic of the modern steel freighter Prins Willem V in the world, created from over 55 still photos. She sank in 80′ of water, 3 miles east of Milwaukee, in 1954.
11. Eber Ward Bow – Early season ice put the wooden steamer Eber Ward on the bottom in 145′ of water, just a mile west of the Mackinaw Bridge, Lake Michigan.
12 Titanic – The photographer’s dive model recreates the famous Kate Winslet pose from “Titanic” on the bow of the C-53 off Cozumel, MX.
13. Wisconsin Mosaic – A three image mosaic of the steamer Wisconsin, lost in 130′ off Kenosha, WI October 29, 1929, the night of the great stock market crash.