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Best of 2011: Jim Hellemn


Digital imaging and underwater specialist Jim Hellemn revisited a tropical coral reef he first photographed in 1999, with the goal to create an accurate picture of this environment, reproducible at life size. Developing his own rig to hold camera and strobes in a fixed position, Hellemn incorporates microprocessor controls for maneuvering and stability, modified soft boxes and six strobes for even illumination in his gear. His painstakingly stitched pictures now give scientists a valuable yardstick for making ecological comparisons. A selection from his project is on public display at the University of California, San Diego, and a 12-minute documentary film will debut in fall 2011.

Jim Hellemn, Poway, CA

Web site: www.portraitofacoralreef.com
Viewers are invited to zoom in and explore Hellemn’s coral reef images at high resolution on the Web site.

Project: Return to Bloody Bay, updated documentation of a Cayman Islands coral reef to study changes over time, and related design of a new underwater camera platform.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

JH: I started Photographix in 1994, but I had been shooting photographic projects for the engineering companies I worked for since the early eighties doing documentation and annual report photography of scientific projects as well as diagnostic photography using high-speed cameras and flash X-ray systems to capture projectiles in flight.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JH: Since 2010.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JH: Digital imaging and underwater photography.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

JH: Today, my laptop is threatening to dominate this category, but I’d have to say my Mac workstation is the one thing I can’t live without. I have used Photoshop since it was introduced and digital imaging has been a big part of my work ever since.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JH: When I started my business, digital imaging was new. My work was defined by the ability to make magical things happen — like a product photo of something that hasn’t been made yet. In one of my first big jobs, I was hired to create exploded views of the entire line of microprocessors manufactured by a large semiconductor company, including the new Pentium processors that did not yet exist. I created a complete exploded view of each device assembly in a high-resolution photo composite, “making” realistic components where required. In my underwater work I’ve applied digital imaging techniques to the problem of imaging through water and created underwater “landscape” images that are impossible to capture in any other way.

© Courtney Platt Photo © Courtney Platt Photo

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

JH: The original goal of the Bloody Bay Wall project was to create an accurate image of a large area of a coral reef that could be reproduced life size. To accomplish this, the image would have to be photographed in multiple frames. Today, the way to do this might be to carefully set up a tripod and take a series of images from the same nodal point with overlapping frames and use stitching software to combine the individual images into one massive composite image. Unfortunately stitching software did not exist when I did the first project. For me this was an incentive. I was skilled enough in Photoshop to stitch images together manually and the fact that I did this kind of work all the time gave me the confidence that I might pull this off.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

Big problems come when one tries to figure out how to capture those perfect frames underwater. First you need a common nodal point — so to capture a series of frames covering a 25-foot-wide area you need to set your tripod up 15 to 25 feet from the subject. Unfortunately, to see detail and color underwater, subject distance needs to be something like two to six feet because at 15 feet the water has absorbed all the red and yellow light and details are gone. Additionally, from a common nodal point light has to travel farther through water at the sides than in the middle of the image area. Therefore, in order to capture adjacent images with overlapping details underwater (and preserve color and resolution), images have to be captured from different viewpoints rather than a common nodal point. This introduces a bunch of new problems, not to mention how to set up your tripod when there’s no bottom. The overlapping elements in the images would be taken from a different perspective and any distortions would run in opposite directions.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

In the first test frames I shot there didn’t appear to be any possibility of compositing the frames accurately. After more trial and error, I decided I might have a chance of doing this if I could minimize distortions and have a work around for subject elements that exceed a certain depth of field (i.e. objects that project into the foreground space. It was apparent that I also had to limit the depth of field overall, so subject selection would be important.

My approach was to minimize these factors by selecting the best compromise of all shooting parameters and select a location that was essentially a flat plane, so I could use the subject itself as a reference (i.e. shoot a flat plane at a fixed subject distance). In order to select the best film format, lens, lighting and camera position, it was necessary for me to determine the best compromise between subject distance, angle of view, depth of field and lighting in order to capture one frame with the best color fidelity and resolution, along with even lighting and a perspective that would offer the best chance of aligning and stitching adjacent frames taken from different viewpoints. These parameters were established in a series of pool tests with a 4-foot by 6-foot target grid and 3D objects, followed by real world tests in the ocean off San Diego.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

I then had determine the best overlap, and a test image we did at Ship Rock in Catalina gave me a baseline and taught me that the overlap would need to vary based on subject distance and depth of field. Finally I had to come up with some techniques for stitching the images together, since overlapping elements had a different perspective and distortion issues. Today with digital capture, better resolution and higher power computers, this is easier, but stitching software is incapable of doing this automatically.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: How long have you been shooting underwater subjects and what percentage of your work is specialized in this area? Do you have schooling in marine biology, environmental studies or science?

JH: I do product photography and other commercial work, but probably 80 percent of the photography I do now is underwater. I started diving in 1986 and got hooked on marine science and underwater photography. I became interested in ocean engineering and in 1990 I was on the development team of a new underwater laser imaging system. I operated this system for several years on submarines and research vessels working with marine biologists and scientists. In order to photograph marine life, I have to learn a little marine biology just to catalog and caption my images and I also try to learn as much as possible about the behavior of marine animals before I try to photograph them.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: Please give us the backstory about your “Bloody Bay Wall” project. Was there anything particular about this area that led to your interest in photographing this reef in such great detail? What motivated you to produce this first piece?

JH: In 1993 I dove Bloody Bay Wall for the first time. One unique feature of this coral reef wall is its sheer vertical profile. The top of the reef wall here is only about 20 feet deep and then it plunges straight down for thousands of feet — it’s like an underwater mountainside with a sheer face. The other thing that made an immediate impression on me was the enormous amount of marine life, with brightly colored corals and sponges everywhere you looked. It was then I was faced with the frustration of seeing so much beauty, but being limited to the small areas that can be effectively photographed.

Underwater, close-focus, wide-angle is the way to go. You try to get as close as you can the subject, light it up with flash, balance the exposure with the ambient light in the water to create a nice blue background and try to get the sun in the picture. Even a wide-angle shot is still a close-up!

Years later, as my business developed I started to do larger and higher resolution print projects. I was working on a complex composite image one day it dawned on me that I could probably do this underwater. As I started to work this out in my head I realized that I already had a lot of the equipment and skills I’d need. Now if I could just find a flat wall …

© Jason Belport Photo © Jason Belport Photo

ASMP: How big of a team was working with you, both on the first project and your Return to Bloody Bay?

JH: On the first project I had a team of three. Building the equipment was a solo effort, but I had assistance from my brother Larry Hellemn and friend Peter Neubauer during the final testing and shooting. I spent several months building and testing the equipment in San Diego. We chartered “The Bottom Scratcher,” a commercial dive boat in San Pedro, and Peter and Larry helped me do a trial in Catalina. It took three divers to position the camera platform, using bubble levels to keep the platform’s pitch and roll consistent from frame to frame.

For the shooting in the Cayman Islands we chartered a local sports fishing boat with captain Steve Foster and crew Jeff McDowell. In post-production I had an assistant doing drum scans for about three months.

© Rob Moorman Photo © Rob Moorman Photo

On the Return to Bloody Bay project my core team of three, David Conover’s film crew, a documentary team from Intel, an oceanographer from Baruch College, a researcher from the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, a consultant from Ocean Technology Systems, and the manager and dive staff of Little Cayman Beach Resort (our largest sponsor, who provided lodging, meals and dive operations for the entire project). I spent several months building the new camera platform with engineer Greg Yent, who designed the stabilization system and was also part of the dive team. Cayman Islands photographer Courtney Platt was my assistant in handling the camera platform.

We did a two-week trip in July to test the equipment and shoot the documentary with David Conover’s crew. This included David, cameraman David Berez, underwater cinematographer Jordie Klein and underwater camera assistant Mikel Cook. Jason Belport and Ben Web were our dive operations managers and Alex Mannock was boat captain. Researchers who worked with us at the Little Cayman Research center included David Gruber, Ph.D. from Baruch College, Vincent Pieribone, Ph.D. from Yale University and Carrie Manfrino, Ph.D. from Kean University.

In August Courtney Platt and Greg Yent were assistants, along with John Hott of Ocean Technology Systems. Ken Brown from Intel also assisted during dive operations. Jeff Caroli and Dan Sturm documented our project for Intel. Jason Belport and Ben Web managed the dive operations. Boat captains and crew included Clive Ranby, Sunny Moore, Phil Kravitz, Ron Thompson, Sharon Van Neikerk, Annebelle Smith and Dottie Benjamin.

© Courtney Platt Photo © Courtney Platt Photo

ASMP: Many recent photography projects have had social impact, but projects with scientific impact are more unusual. How did you establish and manage your collaboration with the multiple organizations that made it feasible to do this work?

JH: The image from the first Bloody Bay Wall project got some attention from marine researchers after it was published in National Geographic. I was contacted by several researchers who were interested in using the image as a baseline in their research or as a tool for teaching biodiversity assessment. Carrie Manfrino of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute started a research project to study coral reefs on Little Cayman about the time I photographed the first image and has included the image in her data. David Gruber used the image as a baseline for a coral fluorescence study he did at the site in 2004. In 2008 I was approached about a potential funding opportunity for a project to create a new 2-gigapixel image of Bloody Bay Wall a decade later and study the changes. Unfortunately, after preparing a proposal and budget the funding did not materialize. However, through a friend, I stumbled across an opportunity in the form of a grant program at Intel for projects related to environmental sustainment that can involve Intel employees. Working with my friend at Intel, I repurposed my proposal to include a team from Intel to document the project. The grant was too small to cover the entire cost of the project, but I was also able to convert nearly all of the vendors in my budget into sponsors. In addition to the grant from Intel, I received sponsorship from Little Cayman Beach Resort, Reef Divers, SeaBotix, Ocean Technology Systems, Marine Camera Distributors, Underwater Kinetics and Ikelite. Additional partners in my proposal included the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, UC San Diego Calit2 and David Conover’s Compass Light Productions, all of whom were a factor in obtaining the sponsorship. On one hand, I’d have to say that the effort of working with multiple entities can be a big advantage. This project may never have happened without the interest and participation of these organizations. On the flip side, coordinating a project with partners and sponsors can require much more time, planning and patience.

© Courtney Platt Photo © Courtney Platt Photo

ASMP: The on-site photography for Return to Bloody Bay took three weeks time. How long did you spend shooting on-site for the Bloody Bay Wall? How long can you spend shooting underwater during a single session and how much time must elapse between shoots?

JH: The first Bloody Bay Wall project was shot in ten dive days over two weeks. We did a scout dive on each of the first two dive days and then up to four dives each day. Three to four 25-minute dives separated by surface intervals of one to two hours comprised each shooting day. I was limited to 36 exposures per dive and made three exposure brackets for each shot. In total 23 dives and 12 hours underwater were spent photographing the mosaic frames.

© Jason Belport Photo © Jason Belport Photo

ASMP: Please describe the components of your shooting rig. What are the dimensions and how much does the rig weigh? If it’s a highly customized rig, please talk about the components and describe its marine capabilities in general terms for a non-underwater professional readership.

JH: The camera platform I developed for this project holds the camera and strobes in a fixed position, while the subject distance is measured by a fixed bar that also provides a grayscale and color reference at the bottom of each image frame. With equipment and softboxes installed, the platform is roughly 4-feet by 5-feet by 3-feet high. It weighs about 110 pounds on land, but is completely weightless in water. To make the platform neutrally buoyant and keep air from getting trapped in the structure, the frame is constructed of hollow aluminum square tubing filled with machined hydrostatic foam. Strategically placed hydrostatic foam blocks provide additional buoyancy to balance the platform and offset the weight of the camera housing and strobes.

© Rob Moorman Photo © Rob Moorman Photo

Inside a pressure housing that used to be an off-the-shelf dive scooter, a microprocessor monitors a variety of motion sensors and controls eight high-efficiency SeaBotix thrusters to keep the platform in a fixed position. In addition to keeping the platform stabilized, the thrusters are also used to drive the platform through the water against currents and maneuver in and out of tight spots. The motor controls and software were designed by engineer Greg Yent. In operation, you can drive this platform where you need to go, then press a button to hold the platform’s position at a factory set angle for pitch and roll. Additionally, you can turn the stabilization off, orient the platform at any angle and press another button to hold the new position.

The camera is a Canon 5D mkII with 17-40mm f/4.0 in a Nexus Housing with FP170 glass dome port. The strobes are six Ikelite 400s. SeaBotix was a sponsor and instrumental in providing the brushless thrusters, connectors and cables. Ikelite helped in providing spare parts, cables and connectors for the strobes.

© Jason Belport Photo © Jason Belport Photo

ASMP: Please describe the lighting gear you developed for this project and tell us about particular challenges in lighting the underwater environment. For those unfamiliar with underwater work, are there specific lighting tips that can be applied from working extensively with lighting in a non-marine environment?

JH: The lighting used on this project was designed specifically to facilitate stitching adjacent images in all directions rather than producing the best overall lighting underwater. Typically for photographing a large scene underwater, strobes are placed on long arms and positioned as far away from the camera as possible to avoid lighting up particles in the water, but the lighting used here is similar to a ring light used in a macro setup, at a much larger scale (my macro frame is about 50-inches wide). The challenge here is to get enough even light on the subject to illuminate a four- to five-foot wide area at an exposure that provides enough depth of field and eliminates ambient light.

In order to get even light, I’m using two medium Photoflex softboxes which have been modified with mesh panels on all sides that allow water to flow through the box. The lighting is positioned so that illumination in the center matches the illumination at the horizontal edges of the frame. The boxes are tall enough to evenly cover the frame top to bottom. To get enough light to remove the ambient light component and shoot at my desired exposure and depth of field, I used three Ikelite 400ws strobes inside each box.

© Jason Belport Photo © Jason Belport Photo

ASMP: Please elaborate on the process of manually stitching the images. How many work hours went into this, who performed this work and were there any special software programs or specific skills involved?

JH: The image composition was done using Photoshop CS5 running on an eight core 2.8GHz Mac Pro with 32 GB ram and four TB four-drive striped RAID array. The 16-bit RGB working file was 30 GB and consumed over 200 GB of scratch disk space. The final raster size is 82,875 by 25,350 pixels and the final file saved in Photoshop large document format is 11.7GB. The image took about 400 hours to stitch together.

My workflow for stitching underwater images together varies depending on the subject, depth of field and so on. With this image, everything is photographed from a fixed distance, with the camera’s attitude measured by sensors (on the first project the camera angle was fixed by a series of bubble levels). A vertical plumb line was hung that provides a horizontal location at the side of each frame, and a reference bar at the subject appears in every frame and fixes the location of the subject elements, so every frame has some elements that can be located on a grid. Before the images are taken a grid is established for the image that determines the location of the plumb lines and each image is taken using these lines as a guide. As the stitching is done, each image is scaled to properly locate the elements with known positions to the corresponding locations on the grid. For overlapping elements that fall within a certain depth of field, a stitch line is established following the outline of the objects and a mask is made to blend the seams. There are a bunch of little tricks essential to making this work, but the basic idea is once the image is properly scaled and elements with known locations are aligned, I have sets of overlapping elements with different perspectives and I get to choose which to keep. Elements that fall out of a certain depth of field are treated as a separate composite image, and then that finished composite is integrated into the main composite.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: Your underwater images had to be distortion corrected, could you explain this effect further? Does the degree of distortion vary based on depth and, if so, at what depth does distortion become particularly noticeable? Are there specific lens types that are best to shoot with underwater?

JH: Distortion is inherent in underwater photography, and extremely wide rectilinear or fisheye lenses are commonly used to get as close as possible to the subject. The distortion correction I used was primarily to correct for the underwater dome port. I created an Adobe lens profile for lens and dome port, shooting test targets in a pool. The profile was used to do a lens correction in Camera Raw as each image was opened.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: How was the final display of your original Bloody Bay Wall received? Generally speaking, what percentage of the audience was made up of marine studies, science and technology specialists and what percentage was made up of the general public?

JH: I never really had a formal display of the project results. The first time the public saw it was in National Geographic. I received a lot of response from researchers following that and a few people contacted me wanting prints. I generally get a lot of positive response to the image regardless of the audience. Underwater photographers and scientists usually know immediately why this image is special, but everyone can appreciate a glimpse into an unknown world.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: What kind of marketing was done for display of the Bloody Bay Wall and what paid off? Besides “Return to Bloody Bay,” did this first project generate new business or spin off projects for you? What kind of marketing is being planned for the Return to Bloody Bay project?

JH: Originally I had a plan to build a life size display of the image, exhibit it at a large ocean-related event and pursue a grant or sponsorship to display the image at aquariums and museums. I got sponsorship from several diving equipment manufacturers and I worked with a large exhibit builder to design a free-standing portable display wall. Unfortunately the event was cancelled due to the 9/11 tragedy and the project was never completed.

I’m still looking for the right opportunity to build a life size exhibit. I have since licensed the image to the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism and sold large display prints to resorts. I sell posters of this image and others to gift shops in the Cayman Islands and have prints on display at the Ritz Carlton in Grand Cayman. I am currently working with an aquarium and science center to create an exhibit of images from the return project using a high resolution tiled monitor display.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: You mention that researchers are analyzing the final images for “Return to Bloody Bay Reef,” to make direct comparisons between your earlier and current work. Are the results of this available yet and, if so, what was the outcome of this analysis?

JH: Dr. Carrie Manfrino and her students at Kean University are doing quantitative analysis of the two images and will include this data in a report on coral health in covering ten years of research in Little Cayman last should be released later this year.

© Jason Belport Photo © Jason Belport Photo

ASMP: What kind of differences did you, as a diver, notice in the underwater environment between the time you photographed for the Bloody Bay Wall and your return project? Was there a visible difference in the amount or types of marine life around? Was there much difference in the visibility or underwater atmospherics? Was there any noticeable pollution of the environment?

JH: The marine environment at Bloody Bay Marine Park on Little Cayman is one of the most pristine in the world and there is very little impact from humans in this area. The reef wall itself seems to be in good health. The marine life abundance seems similar and although many corals have disappeared, there is new growth in place. There are pollution and environmental issues, however. The Caribbean Sea as a whole is affected by pollution in the form of non-biodegradable trash that drifts ashore from other areas and global warming may have an effect on the ocean temperature, which is critical for coral health. There is also a new predator in the ecosystem in the form of Lionfish, an Indo-pacific species that has invaded the Caribbean in recent years. These were seen in Cayman waters for the first time in 2009 and are becoming a huge issue, as their numbers are increasing and they have no natural predators in the Caribbean.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: Besides your activities photographing ocean reefs, you also run a creative services business called Photographix offering photography, digital retouching, graphic design, scanning, illustration, mounting/finishing, display products among other things. Are you a photographer who expanded into these other lines of work or have you always been involved with these multiple fields?

JH: I started Photographix in 1994 to offer digital photographic services. Back then I was shooting with a Sinar view camera, sending out 4X5’s for drum scans and retouching images on a Mac Quadra 950 with Photoshop 2.0. Early on, I spent year in a joint venture with a traditional photo lab who needed to become digital. I helped them install a Fire 1000 film recorder and developed a digital workflow for doing large photographic output from my workstations. Most of the digital work there involved ripping files from Quark Xpress and Illustrator to film, and I started doing a lot of design work — first to solve problems with layouts from agencies and then to design new creative for corporate clients. By the time our partnership was done, I had built a new client base in the tradeshow industry; I was doing photography and design in my studio and I would outsource the printing. About that time Encad introduced the first large format digital printer that could do photo quality and I started printing in-house. As the printing business grew, we added other services like drum scanning, laminating and mounting, becoming one of the first completely digital photo labs in San Diego. I still offer most of these services, but the volume has dropped enormously and I spend more time focusing on my own projects.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: Generally speaking, how much of your time is dedicated to running this business? Do you work with partners or collaborators? How large of a staff does this business employ?

JH: These days I spend 40 to 50 percent of my time running Photographix and the rest working on underwater projects. For many years Photographix was located in an 8,400sq ft industrial space with a 1,200 sq ft studio and five to eight employees. A large portion of the business was printing large format graphics for the trade show industry and we had several Encad and Roland printers and a large laminating room. In 2006 I downsized the business so I could concentrate more on underwater projects and design. I now run the business from my home office with no employees. My garage has been converted into a photo studio and print shop where I can produce laminated and mounted prints up to 10 feet.

© Jim Hellemn
© Jim Hellemn

ASMP: In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge in running this kind of business operation? Have the current technological advances made things easier or have they increased the hurdles that this kind of business must face?

JH: One of the biggest challenges in running a business that depends on digital technology is choosing the right equipment and making sure it will pay off before the technology changes everything again. In the printing industry, the technology has been changing at such a fast pace that it can be tough to make a profitable return on the equipment you invested in last year because the competition may be able to offer so many new things this year. In underwater photography it pays to choose a camera system you can be happy with for a long time because changing camera models to get new features often necessitates buying new housings and ports as well.

© Jeff Caroli © Jeff Caroli

ASMP: Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur, a project manager, a CEO, an artist, or simply all of these things?

JH: How about “managing entrepreneurial artist?”

ASMP: In the near future your images from Return to Bloody Bay will be exhibited at aquariums and science centers and a documentary (produced by David Conover of Sunrise Earth) will be distributed to aquariums and museums through World Ocean Observatory. Can you provide details about locations and dates for viewing these images and any public screenings for the film?

JH: The film is a 12-minute documentary titled “Exploring Bloody Bay Wall” and is being released this fall, showing in aquariums, museums, and education centers worldwide, but I do not have specific showing dates and locations yet. It is directed by David Conover, and produced by the World Ocean Observatory and Compass Light Productions. The film will be available through World Ocean Observatory’s Ocean Subscription Service. A portion of the imagery is on public display at University of California San Diego on a 40-megapixel monitor array in the main lobby of the Jacobs School of Engineering Building.

© Jason Belport Photo © Jason Belport Photo