Introduction to Underwater Photography

jellyswarm Despite being a pain in the butt at times, underwater photography can be an extremely rewarding endeavor. Presented here are some of the requirements for getting your feet wet. In many ways underwater photography is much more difficult than the terrestrial brand of photography most of us are familiar with. It’s an expensive and sometimes frustrating activity. However, when things turn out well and you have a set of beautiful photos from your diving vacation, all the difficulties seem to fade away, and you can’t wait to try again.

Getting Started in Underwater Photography

Here are some of the things you will need to get started:

  • Scuba diving certification (duh!!) – It’s hard to do underwater photography if you can’t get beneath the surface! Actually, if scuba certification is not in the cards for you, there’s always the possibility of doing photography while free-diving (snorkeling).  Certification alone won’t cut it though. If you are comfortable in the water and have excellent buoyancy skills, you are far more likely to succeed in your photographic efforts.  

  • Underwater photo equipment – Cameras, strobes (flashes), lenses, strobe arms and connectors are among the seemingly endless supply of equipment you will need to make photos beneath the waves. It’s definitely an equipment intensive endeavor. Renting camera equipment is possible initially to see if it’s something you’d like to try, but this gets prohibitively expensive after a few days.  

  • Lots of money – Unfortunately, underwater photo equipment ain’t cheap. To do it right will cost many hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Traveling to dive locations also will soak up your hard-earned cash. Independently wealthy types without the need to work definitely have an advantage. Even on a limited budget though, it’s possible to do some nice photography.  

  • A place to dive – If you live in a place like coastal California where great diving may only be minutes away, it’s not difficult to dive on a consistent basis if you can find the time. If you’re even luckier, your dive buddy has a boat! Most people live many miles from the nearest body of water, however, which certainly limits diving opportunities.

  • Photographic knowledge – If you jump in the water with an expensive camera system but a total lack of knowledge on how to use it, you’ll probably find that your photos turn out quite disappointing. Even with cameras that automate focus and exposure, you should still have an understanding of exposure control, aperture settings, focus, composition basics, and other aspects of photography.  

  • Persistence – Underwater photography is fraught with frustrations and challenges. It takes many dives to form a nice collection of images. Only by repeated attempts and learning from your mistakes can you develop the skills and techniques for producing rewarding photos.

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Types of Underwater Photographic Equipment

Several types of camera systems, each with its set of advantages and disadvantages, are available for the underwater photographer:

  • Nikonos – A submersible viewfinder camera that is compact and relatively easy to use. With this system you must estimate focus distance since it is not a view through-the-lens type camera. This also can present difficulties in composing your image. For small jellies extension tubes with framers can be successfully used. Of course, the major drawback is that the Nikonos is a film-based system, which to many young people now is a totally foreign endeavor.

  • Housed camera – Many SLR cameras can be provided with an acrylic or aluminum water-tight housing that retains many of the camera’s functions. This enables through-the-lens for accurate focus and composition control. A disadvantage is the increased bulk and expense. A variety of manufacturers produce underwater housings; many are designed for either Canon or Nikon cameras. Numerous smaller “point and shoot” digital still/video cameras can be submerged in shallow water but do not enable the fine control possible with a housed SLR system.

sunflowerstarThere is no single “magic” lens for underwater photography. Depending on your photographic subject, wide-angle, close-up and zoom lenses can be used with housed camera systems. The Nikonos system is limited to a smaller selection of lenses. One of the “rules” of underwater photography is that you will probably have the wrong lens when something great shows up (like having a macro lens set-up when the gray whale swims 20 feet way).  

Another vital component of the underwater photographer’s arsenal is a flash unit (or a pair), which is typically called an underwater strobe. Ambient sunlight is quickly sucked up by the aqueous environment, making an artificial source vital for most types of underwater photography. Strobes function for fill lighting with wide angle subjects when the ambient light plays a role in the image, and as the primary light source for close-up subjects and some types of wide angle photography. To hold the strobe (or strobes) in position, you’ll need a set of arms that can be manipulated to hold them in their desired orientation. This of course requires an additional outlay of your hard-earned cash.

That’s not all. Throw in extension tubes, housing ports, light meters, batteries, digital memory cards (or in the old days, film and processing), strobe cords, carrying cases, scuba equipment (a whole other way to spends lots of money), and a seemingly unending list of small but not necessarily insignificant items, and you’re on your way. Hopefully you have enough cash left to go somewhere, or if you’re really lucky, you live near a diving paradise! To really master the craft of underwater photography, particularly in photographing difficult subjects like delicate jellyfish, requires diving on a regular basis — a single one week trip every year probably won’t be sufficient.  

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