Marine Life of the Northeastern Pacific

Camera Equipment and Techniques

Underwater photography is a real challenge. OK - it can be downright difficult and frustrating at times. When starting with a new camera, we often throw out roll after roll of film (and Jon deletes frame after frame from his digital camera). Over time, as we get familiar with our cameras, we may keep up to half the photographs on a particular shoot. Most of the time, if 10% of our shots are good, we're pleased. Why is underwater photography so difficult? From our experience the big differences are as follows:

First, with film based underwater camera setups, you can not get an accurate depiction of what you are actually photographing by looking through the view finder. Because of the mask on your face and your regulator protruding from your mouth, you can not get your eye right up to the view finder for an accurate representation of what you are actually shooting. Many cameras come with a crude view finder on top of the camera that give you some idea of what you are shooting. However, "some idea" is the key here. A slightly incorrect tilt of the camera can easily result in headless divers, tail-less fish, etc. What you think you are shooting and what you are actually shooting can be two different things. But don't get discouraged! Learn from your mistakes and practice, practice, practice. Eventually, you will get a good idea of how to properly line up your camera with the intended subject.

The second difference is that water is not a good medium to shoot through, especially in Puget Sound were a good visibility day is 20'. The lack of clarity of the water means you need to follow the two golden rules of underwater photography:

  1. Use an external strobe. This moves the light source away from the direct line of sight of the camera lens. Since the light is coming in at a different angle, the camera lens will be less likely to see particulates in the water that are illuminated by the strobe (known as back-scatter).
  2. Reduce the amount of water between you and the subject. Get as close to the subject as your lens will allow. Even with the most powerful flash units in clear water, 8 feet is typically the farthest away you want to be from a subject.
  3. Another difference (number three for those counting) is that fish seldom stay still for a photo. The are usually wary and dart off when you try to get close, especially with macro setups where you sometimes have to get within six inches of the subjects face (the camera must look like a one-eyed monster!).

Some things you can do get better shots of fish are as follows:

  1. Approach fish very slowly. In fact, it is best if you set yourself up in their path so they come to you. Chasing fish is often fruitless. You end neglecting your buddy, not paying attention to where you are, using more air, and stirring up the bottom.
  2. Do not make any sudden motions. Most fish are very wary (if you lived with hungry Lingcod, you would be wary too.)
  3. Control your breathing. Bubbles are noisy and not natural to a fish.
  4. Watch your fins. If you are not careful, you will "egg-beater" the hell out of the bottom while trying to get into position for the shot. The fish might hang around, but you end up silting out your shot, not to mention possibly damaging other critters on the bottom, and making other photographers pull their knives on you.
  5. The fourth difference is that cold water diving is very gear intensive, especially if you are diving in a dry suit. You have to carry and manage all that gear while you dive - regulators, computers, dry suit valves, lights, redundant systems, buoyancy, etc (not to mention monitoring a buddy, too). Now add a camera to the list. We have seen people get cameras entangled with their other gear and put themselves in life threatening situations. Be certain you are very comfortable will all your scuba gear before you take a camera into the water with you.
  6. The fifth difference is that when diving in cold water, you often wear thick neoprene gloves, which reduce your dexterity. This can make it tricky when adjusting a camera underwater. If you want to get a good feel of what this is like dexterity wise, put on a snow skiing glove and try to tie your shoe. The best solution we have found is using a dry glove system. With dry gloves, you only wear a thin liner and a thin rubber latex glove. We're easily able to adjust all the settings of our cameras with these gloves. Plus your hands stay a bit warmer! Although we both dive in DUI dry suits, we use the much less expensive OS Systems dry glove system.
  7. And finally, sixth, the environment. You often have currents to deal with, which makes holding still for some photos impossible. Also, be very sensitive about your fins! We have seen divers shoot a photo of a reef creature in a tight space, then turn around and accidentally dislodge that creature from the reef with their fins. If you can not get into position for a shot without damaging the environment or the subject, pass the shot up!

About the cameras we use:

Ikelight Aquashot IIIe - great value, good pictures, and great first camera (keith)
Keith used the Aquashot system for his first two years taking underwater photographs. The Aquashot IIIe is a camera housing based system - that is to say it is a watertight housing that holds a land based camera. The Ikelite Aquashot IIIe is an incredible value in the world of underwater photography.

Equipped with the external strobe, Fuji Endeavor instamatic camera, water correcting lens, and macro kit, the Aquashot IIIe is fairly easy to use and takes clear, detailed pictures using APS film. The Aquashot IIIe is limited in the types of pictures it can take. Generally, subjects should be 4' to 6' away with the water correcting lens and inside the wire framer when using the macro lens. When using this camera, look for subjects that work well with these camera-to-subject distance limitations.

Photographs taken with the Aquashot's macro kit are incredible and rival those of much more expensive setups. Two "gotchas" when using the macro kit are:

  1. Make certain the flash defuser is pushed tightly up against the lower left corner of the flash port, otherwise light may bleed through into the lens. Also make certain the water correcting lens and macro lens are centered over the camera lens inside the housing.
  2. The framer for the macro kit is somewhat flimsy. It moves easily and must be securely squarely to the camera housing. If not, you will end up with part of the framer in the photo.

The Aquashot is a simple a point and shoot system. When used with the Fuji Endeavor camera, you don't even need to worry about manual film advance. As this was Keiths first camera, he did not play around much with film speed and stuck to ISO 400 film. The resolution on the photos is good, even when blown up to 8" X 10".

Sea & Sea Motormarine II Ex Pro (MMII) - extremely flexible, high quality, expensive (keith)
The Sea & Sea EX Motormarine II is an advanced recreational photographer setup. The camera itself is a 35mm underwater camera (no separate housing) that has a built-in close up lens to allow you to shoot subject as close as 18". The Seamaster-Pro setup also comes with an external strobe setup, top mounted view finder, macro lens, and 20mm wide angle lens. The camera has adjustments for flash intensity, focal distance, flash angle, aperture control, and shutter speed. Going from a point-and-shoot system to the MMII is a big step - every photograph requires checking six setting and possible swapping a lens. Sometimes, by the time you have all the setting checked and correct lens mounted, your subject has disappeared! Oh yeah - the camera can also be used above water (only with the 35mm lens).

The best thing about the MMII is that you can change lenses underwater. One minute you can shoot a five foot long Lingcod with a wide angle lens, the next minute you can shoot a two inch long Stubby Squid. Very cool! The system actually comes with a lens caddy that allows you to attach two lenses to the strobe arm.

The MMII also offers TTL (through the lens) flash capabilities - that is to say that the camera lens can read the amount of light reflected back from the strobe and turn the strobe off at the appropriate time (given the shutter speed and aperture setting). Although not foolproof, it does work very well.

The MMII is an excellent camera for the avid recreational underwater photographer. Is not cheap, but it is extremely flexible and appears (so far) to be very rugged. Being a true amphibious camera, it is compact enough that I can take it on almost all of my dives and it does not slow me down.

Canon EOS D60 Still Camera/Ikelite Custom housing (jon)
I have switched to my surface camera of choice, and I'm finding that the shots I get are of much greater quality from this high-end digital camera. It takes brilliant, sharp, 6 megapixel, hi-resolution images. The nice thing about digital is that you know right away when you've gotten an image composition you like. The image quality allow me to blow images up past 8x12 without any noticeable pixelation. This is big enough for me, but if you're producing posters, you might want to stick with film, or wait for the next generation of digital cameras.

The back of the camera has a big LCD screen that allows you to make sure that the major settings are correct, the flashes are firing, and the lens cover is not on the lens port. I mention these things, because I spent a rage filled narc'd out of my mind 5 minutes at 105 feet shooting and seeing only black on the LCD. I had left the neoprene lens cover on, but was moving too slowly (mentally) to realize what was happening. The LCD screen unfortunately does not indicate how in focus a particular shot is, it just isn't big enough to tell. Still, the autofocus on the lens usually does a pretty good job, so just snap off a few frames, and usually one of them is in focus.

It is really nice being able to check the first couple frames to see if the pictures are coming out even close to what they should look like. After dives, I generally download the images to my laptop for a much better look at how I'm shooting. Having this instant feedback has greatly accelerated my skills as a underwater photographer.

I am using an Ikelite housing that was custom built for not much more than a stock housing they make. I have dual strobes, and when shooting macro work, generally use the diffusers. This is a big, bulky, heavy, awkward rig out of the water. In the water is it not heavy, but it is still everything else.

As bulky, and awkward as it is, it takes stunning macro shots; any problems I have with my shots is always me, and never my rig. Except for flooding it, but that's another story altogether, and was still my fault. Ikelite builds a wonderful housing.

The autofocus works reasonably well if you carry a modeling light. Without the modeling light, the lens just hunts, as the incandescent bulb just doesn't carry underwater. Not Canon's fault, they probably never thought it would submerge. I just use my HID light as a modeling light, and it works like a charm.

Video (Keith)

I much prefer to shoot stills than video. Although there are artistic talents associated with doing either, much of the artistry with video is added after the fact - i.e. through the digital editing. With stills (especially with film), you really have to be an artist underwater. Instead of being able to browse through 60 minutes of tape from a dive and hand select the best 10-20 second clips, you are limited to capturing 24 or 36 instants in time. In my opinion, still photography is much more challenging and enjoyable.

However, that said, I still lug a video camera setup with me occasionally. People really get a kick for seeing what goes on underwater, and video is the next best thing to being there. I am by no means an accomplish video photographer - I am a rookie in every sense of the word. But here is what I have learned so far:

Shooting the video is easy. No shutter speeds, lens configurations, f-stops, or focal distances to set. Point and shoot - the camcorder does the white balancing and focusing. Some "gotchas" are as follows: *Holding the camera still is a bit of an art, especially if you are diving in a current. You need to have good buoyancy, breathing patterns, and two very steady hands to get keep the camera even remotely still. Accomplishing this takes some real practice.

With the tools available for digital video editing today, it is fun and easy. For less than $100, you can buy video editing software that allows you to record, trim, and manage clips. You can also, overlay titles, voice, and music, and incorporate cool transition effects between clips. I currently use Ulead Videostudio 6.0 and have been very pleased with my results. Be warned though; video editing can be VERY time consuming and you have to prudently manage the disk space on your PC.