Ocean Explorers Society

Getting Started with Underwater Photography
Photography is still the best medium form bringing our underwater experience to others. Dive magazines are packed with state of the art renditions of sea life, divers, and manmade artifacts. Divers and non-divers alike revel in the beauty of a well crafted photo.

Thankfully, it doesn't take a genius to produce an enjoyable underwater photograph. Modern cameras can do a good job of bringing the sights of your dive trip back home for family, friends and dive buddies. You won't make the pages of Ocean Realms, but you will have something to enjoy on a stormy day.

Fiat Lux
Taking good pictures underwater requires us to be aware of our surroundings. Water, light, and the laws of physics are not your friends here. The water we love so much scatters light and makes objects grow indistinct as they get further away. It also absorbs red light, making all those red critters look black in their native surroundings. We want to leave the murky pictures of dark objects to the Edvard Munsch exhibit in the art museum. This leads us to the first 2 rules of underwater photography:

Any usable camera will have some sort of flash. As read further down, you'll notice that the flash gets more powerful and further away from the camera as the quality goes up. We also want the flash above the camera so it doesn't illuminate stuff in the water between the camera lens and the subject.

Film at 11
Picking a good film for your camera is important. There are two major types of film; slide and print. Slide film captures better color, but it needs more light and you have to get the exposure right. Print film is more forgiving if you've over, or under-exposed your picture. However, the colors aren't nearly as vivid.

This is an area where more control is a good thing. Virtually all of the "serious cameras" allow you to change the film exposure from what the camera thinks it should be. Most of the more casual cameras automatically set the film speed, and don't let you change it. If you bracket your exposure, you greatly increase your chances of getting just the right exposure on slide film. Bracketing is very simple. You take one picture at the nominal exposure, you take one underexposed by 1 stop (50% less light), and you take one over exposed by one stop (50% more light). You will use three frames, but you're almost certain to get one of them spot-on.

Once you've taken the picture, you need to get it developed and printed. Walmart is cheap, but not my first choice when the pictures are valuable. Getting the best slide or print takes a top-notch processor. When I need the best processing, I take it to Chrome PhotoLabs in San Diego. They've done superb, professional work on every order I've given them and I recommend them to everyone. If you not in San Diego, call a local professional photographer and ask them where they take their film.

There's Something about Macro
Macro photos are cool. There's something about getting up close and seeing all the incredible detail on a nudibranch, coral, or fish. Even when the water is fairly murky, you can take great macro shots. In the waters around San Diego where I live, we get maybe a few good wide angle days per year. Consequently, I take mostly macro photos. This is hardly a problem as we seem to have plenty of stuff in the kelp beds to keep us amused. It's not hard to do, and the results will surprise you. It's especially easy if you're near-sighted.

Taking macro photos requires some extra equipment. Some cameras, like the better Sea and Sea models, use an auxiliary lens that attaches to the front of the camera. It works as a magnifying glass for the camera. Nikonos V's use extension tubes. These move the lens away from the film plane and allow the camera to focus very close. Nearly all macro setups use a wire framer that lets you see where the picture will be in focus. The SLR camera in a housing will take macrophotos without the framer if the camera is equipped with a macro capable lens.

Keep Your Camera Dry
As much as we love saltwater, getting it inside your camera is just bad news. Gaskets and O-rings must be clean before closing the camera and diving in. The manufacturer's instructions are the best guide here, but there are a couple of things which will make life easier regardless of camera type.

Lint, dirt, and dried salt are your enemies. They contaminate the sealing surface and allow water to get in. To keep the water out, you have to clean both seal and its mating surface. The film door is usually the largest and most troublesome seal in the camera.

A surgical towel is the best tool I know of for cleaning O-rings and gaskets. They're lint-free, readily available, and inexpensive. Medical supply companies sell these things by the thousands, and will usually sell you a couple for cheap. The next best thing is a well-laundered towel. A toothbrush is also handy for removing dried salt. Hotel towels get a lot of washing are are usually lint-free. Do not use paper towels or Kleenex. These are almost guaranteed to leave bits of lint behind.

Pay close attention to preventive maintenance too. Nikonos cameras, in particular, need annual rebuilds, just like your regulator. I use Southern Nikonos and have been very happy with them. Not keeping your camera serviced is inviting a flood.

Before You Dry Yourself Off
Drop your camera in a fresh water rinse bucket and let it soak for at least 10 minutes. The fresh water will leach out any salt water that's managed to work its way into a fine crevice. Left to dry, the build up will eventually cause a leak. Most boats have a freshwater rinse bucket, and some even have separate containers for camera equipment.

Picking a Good Camera
Your best choice in camera will depend on your goals and ability. Why do you want to take pictures underwater? How much photographic ability and knowledge do you have, or want to acquire? How much effort are you willing to devote to prepping the camera for each dive? What kind of camera are you shooting now? If point and shoot is good enough for you topside, then a casual, or perhaps an intermediate camera will be just fine for at least a while. If you really know you want to do more, then an intermediate camera is a good place to start.

Consider taking a photography course at your local junior college. You can pick up the basics of exposure and composition on dry land before you tackle the complexities of underwater photography. Also, I highly recommend an underwater photo course if you decide you really like underwater photography. There are also multi day photo trips where cameras, film, processing, and instruction are provided. Truth Aquatics and Optiquatics hosts several of these every year. I highly recommend them. You get to try a variety of cameras and accessories without actually buying them. someone else loads the film and preps the camera. you just dive and take pictures. See my Channel Islands trip report for more info.

The key to success is matching the camera to your needs. A Nikonos V is a wonderful camera, but a bad choice if you lack the patience and motivation to properly prepare it for a dive. At best, you'll have a bad time, at worst, you'll flood an expensive camera..Then, not only do you have a bad time, but your credit card has a bad time too. Better to start with something basic and rugged than to go straight to the top.

Casual Cameras
These cameras look pretty much like your average land camera, except they have a watertight housing. They easily fit in your BC pocket and can come along on pretty much any dive. They have a built in flash, which is located fairly close to the lens. Exposure is automatic, if it's controlled at all. This is a "buddy cam" for reasonably clear water. Stick to print film and have fun. The Aquashot, Sea and Sea MX-5, and the Sealife Reemaster are good examples of this type of camera. All seem to work well enough, though I would give the nod to the MX-5 now that it has an external strobe.

Intermediate Cameras
These cameras take a little more work to operate and carry around. They have better strobes which are more powerful and located away from the camera. These cameras almost always have some sort of automatic exposure control. Some cameras in this range have more sophisticated controls which will meter the right amount of strobe power for good exposures. However, they lack the manual overrides which would allow you to make the exposure "just right". They will also take macro photos with the proper accessories. The Ikelite Auto-35, Sea and Sea Motomarine-II, and Seamaster Pro fall squarely into this category.

Serious Cameras
These are not first cameras. Cameras I placed in this category offer automatic exposure control plus a full complement of manual overrides. While they will work for available light, they're almost always used with powerful strobes that provide all the photons you'll ever need. They need attention to detail and practice to use effectively. They also tend to be more delicate, heavier, bulkier and more hassle to carry around; both in and out of the water.Housed SLR cameras, and the Nikonos V will offer a lifetime of photography if you're willing to master them.

The cameras I put in this category all take a significant amount of preparation time. You have to be willing to meticulously clean O-Rings, grooves, and sealing surfaces. Unless you're willing to take the prep time, don't buy one of these cameras. You'll just flood the poor thing; making both you and the camera very unhappy.

My Own Story
I've been dabbling in photography, including astrophotography and photomicrography, since grade school. Shortly after college, I bought a used Nikormat (Nikon) SLR. Nikon still sells a slightly improved version called the FM. It's a manual everything camera with a built-in exposure meter. After all these years, this is still my primary camera. After I started diving, I came across a used Aquashot housing for $20. After spending a few more dollars on the update kit, we were in business.

I used this housing for a couple of years until I could no longer obtain disposable cameras for it. It went with us on numerous dives and a couple of vacations. It flooded a few times, but it was no big deal because the cameras themselves are disposable. The picture quality was variable, but never all that good. I got to wanting something more.

Eventually, I picked up a Nikonos-IVa. This turned out to be a mistake. Without a strobe, it wasn't all that useful in our local waters. Eventually it leaked and stopped working. Fortunately, we got it cheaply and the lens was still good.

Right about this time, my daughter Elizabeth, and I took the underwater photo course from Denis and Kelly Tapparel. After a couple of very in-depth lectures. We made two dives with Nikonos V's and Denis' supervision. The results were inspiring. Alas, family finances and work demands prevented me from pursuing underwater photography for a while.

Some time later, I signed up for the Optiquatics trip to the Channel Islands. I got the opportunity to try out the Motomarine EX camera and a housed SLR.Thanks to this trip, I tried out all the major camera models. Thanks to the trip, I was certain that my next camera was going to be a Nikonos V.

As it happened, I returned from a very long out of town project, and stopped by the Tapparel's photo store at OE. I was greeted with the unhappy news that they were shutting down the store and selling off all their stock. I was flush with 3 months of road warrior bonuses so I bought a Nikonos V with 28mm lens, extension tube set, and an SB-105 strobe. The 35mm lens from the IVa became part of my Nikonos V ensemble. The OES raffle provided a Pelican equipment case and we were all set to go. This is still my primary underwater camera and a secondary topside camera too.

If I had to do it over again, I would skip the Nikonos IV-a, and get a 200 watt-second strobe. The SB-105 is good for most situations, but there have been times where I needed a little more light from it.

Going Digital
Digital cameras are becoming more common. The best ones are still frightfully expensive; too dear for me to trust one to an underwater housing. I'm still using film for a wide variety of reasons. Some of them even make sense. For instance, a dozen rolls of film take less space than a laptop computer. They cost less than several memory cards, sticks, key chains, or whatever the form factor du jour. I've also owned a boat for long enough to know that electonics and saltwater are not a happy couple. The thought of taking an expensive laptop onto a boat gives me the willies. It's bad enough prepping the underwater camera gear on your average dive boat. So. . . I stick with film.

About a year ago, I purchased an HP S-10 Photoscanner. This breadbox sized devce allows me to scan color negatives, slides, and prints. This is an old SCSI model, which required some work and a new SCSI interface card to get installed. Since then, it's been a very good scanner. High resolution scans right off the film yields the best quality, and I could never beat the $200 price. I think they're probably sold out now, but you might keep your eye out for one of these. HP still makes them; the newer models are $450 or so and use a USB interface. The only real downside is the scanning software. I really want to be able to bulk scan pictures, then sort them out later. The software refuses to help me with that task.

You can spend a lot of money on this stuff. Start slow, and move on when you're ready. This isn't a race, but if you get bitten by the bug, you'll be in for a lifetime of pleasure.


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Copyright 2002, David L. Ambrose. All rights reserved.
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