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Underwater Photography 101

Photo taken with fisheye lens & dome port. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

I got into underwater photography shortly after learning how to scuba dive in the very early ‘90s. I already owned a near-top-of-the-line Nikon SLR, so it was a natural to put it in a housing and take it below the surface. It was a frustrating and unsatisfying experience. I would pack up a bunch of slide film, fly down to Bonaire, take many pictures, fly back to Savannah, get the slides developed, and finally project my mistakes onto a screen. Too much time passed between exposure and evaluation for me to learn much.

Digital photography changed all of that. Now, I own a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) and I can see my results very shortly after returning to the surface, and I can easily adjust color balance and composition of the pictures after loading them onto my computer.

Housing Options

Of the options for underwater photography, housed DSLRs are the heaviest and bulkiest but most flexible. The outfit itself typically has five components: A back, to which the camera is attached, the main body of the housing, an aluminum tray and dual handles to which the main body is attached, a removable port through which the camera ‘looks out’, and, finally, a set of substrobes that seat in the handles. The substrobes connect via a branched cord to the back, which internally connects to the hot shoe of the camera.

Front & top of housing without port showing zoom clamp on lens. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Front & top of housing without port showing zoom clamp on lens. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

Exterior rear of housing. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Exterior rear of housing. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

Interior of back of housing. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Interior of back of housing. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

Because my housing maker (Ikelite) has duplicated Nikon electronics, this provides precise TTL (Through-The-Lens) control of flash duration to ensure perfect exposure. The back and the main body are festooned with knobs, levers and buttons that reach in to the camera and permit changes in camera settings. Housed DSLRs offer the most flexibility by virtue of all of these controls and by their ability to change lenses on the camera and ports on the housing (although neither can be done in the water, of course).

Lens Options

When I want to concentrate on wee creatures, I fit my Nikon DSLR with a 105mm macro lens (and fit the housing with an appropriate flat port.) When I want to expand my portfolio of medium-sized fish, I use an 18-55mm zoom with a different flat port. And if I want to capture wide scenes, including perhaps over-and-under pictures half-in and half-out of the water, or very big fish, I use a 10-17mm fisheye zoom with an eight-inch dome port.

10 mm & 60mm macro lenses and associated flat ports. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
10 mm & 60mm macro lenses and associated flat ports. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

10-17mm fisheye lens & associated 8in dome port. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
10-17mm fisheye lens & associated 8in dome port. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

Equipment Routine

A typical pre-dive routine might look something like this: I install the appropriate lens on the camera, which is already affixed to the back. I ensure that the camera is set to manual ‘M’ mode, and that the ISO is set to 250 and the shutter speed is 1/125, and the aperture is F8 for general photography or F22 for macro photography. Then I check that the image quality is set to RAW, the AF-assist illuminator is ‘off’, red-eye reduction is ‘off’, the meter is set to ‘center-weighted, and the focus-mode is set to ‘S’ Single-servo AutoFocus.

Next, I replace the (rechargeable) batteries in the substrobes and check to see that they recycle quickly. I very lightly lubricate the o-ring and position it into the freshly cleaned groove on the back. I guide the back onto the housing and clamp it into place. The housing is transparent, so I can check to see if the O-ring is properly seated. I lightly lubricate the O-ring for the port and position it onto the freshly cleaned groove on the port. All of this is crucial. Too much lubrication, or not enough, or even the smallest speck of dust can cause a leak.

To minimize vibration during transit to a dive site, the housing is nestled onto a cushion on the floor in the rear of the dinghy. When we arrive at a dive site, the housing is attached to a line and gently suspended about 12-feet below the dinghy.

When the dive is done, the housing is reattached to the suspended line and then retrieved into the dinghy when I am back aboard. As soon as we are back to our mother vessel, the housing is soaked in a large plastic tub of fresh water. Just before removing it from the soak, in order to ensure total removal of salt, I exercise the buttons and knobs on the housing and the power dials on the substrobes. After removing the housing from the soak, I dry the housing and port with a soft cloth.

Key Tips During The Dive

During the dive, I always use substrobes. As light travels through water, different spectrums are filtered out at different rates. In light from the sun, red disappears almost entirely by a depth of 15 feet. The only way to get vibrant colors in an underwater photograph is to provide an alternative light source that is closer to the camera and subject. The flashes should be moved out to the side of the camera away from the lens as far as possible in order to minimize the amount of light reflected back to the lens from small particles in the water.

I try to get close to the subject to minimize the amount of water between the camera and the subject. The water will be clearer and the lighting will be brighter and the image will be bigger.

I try to avoid shooting down on a fish; with the possible exception of flounders, the best fish portraits are taken from the side and the background will often be less cluttered.

I take my time as I move through the water. I find that the slower I go, the more I will see, and the less skittish the fish will be.

Finally, I try to remember that wielding a camera is not a license to abandon buoyancy control. I do not crouch on or hold onto or let my fins bang into live coral, because each of these actions is fatal to the fragile polyps of coral. But that being said, it is important to emphasize live coral. There is nothing wrong with holding ones position by grasping dead coral. There is nothing wrong with lying flat on lifeless sand in order to get a picture of a wee creature. The key is to learn the difference between living and dead rather than rigid adherence to a touch nothing doctrine.

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