In Part I of this series we discussed some recommended prerequisites to underwater photography such as access to a body of water (preferably warm and clear), personal comfort in the water and certification training to fit the level of underwater activity in which you will be engaged. This article addresses more specific factors related to underwater photography gear and two of the most common underwater photography techniques in use today as well as some peculiarities associated with both.
The most common underwater camera systems in use today are housed cameras (either point and shoot cameras or SLR cameras). Both systems utilize a rigid outer housing made of acrylic or metal that protects the camera inside. Both systems allow use of terrestrial cameras and offer access to most of the camera’s function buttons. Higher priced housings generally are smaller, lighter and provide access to a wider range of camera functions. Don’t forget your lighting gear either! Although beautiful underwater photographs can be made with available light (see the work of Karen Glaser – www.karenglaserphotography.com) it is more common to use underwater strobes to compensate for the diminished qualities of light in water (discussed in part I). Similar to terrestrial photography, SLR systems have some significant advantages over point and shoot systems, including: viewfinder aid with composition, generally higher quality images, faster auto-focusing, absence of shutter lag, and range of lenses to use.
Which system is best for you largely depends on the following factors: (1) camera to be used (2) lenses to be used and (3) maximum depth at which you’ll be using it. I strongly recommend you spend time to research all of the available housings for your camera before purchasing one so you can compare the cost and features of each system. There are many online resources to aid your research. The following are a few sites I used while conducting my research: www.backscatter.com; www.wetpixel.com; www.underwatercameras.co.uk; and www.uwpmag.com.
Underwater macro photography is a great place to start your underwater adventure. Because of the extremely short focusing distance between the lens and subject, macro photography can be practiced in water that has marginal visibility compared to wide-angle photography, which requires much clearer conditions. Often you will find yourself photographing subjects that do not move – which further increases your chances of success with underwater macro photography. One still faces the normal challenges of terrestrial macro photography such as the extremely shallow depth of field as well as subject and camera movement. However, buoyancy issues as well as the prevailing water conditions can further exacerbate camera movement in underwater macro photography. It helps to practice this type of photography in areas of calmer water. Use of a weight belt is one way of minimizing some movement caused by the body’s positive buoyancy. Once you get yourself into the water with a macro system you will be amazed at the variety of microscopic life, patterns and textures that you will find.
Wide-angle photography is another popular type of underwater photography. Similar to terrestrial photography it allows for capturing wider seascapes, fish schools and shipwrecks, but remains restricted by the peculiarities of light in water as well as water clarity. One key to successful underwater photography regardless of the technique used is minimizing the amount of water between the subject and camera as much as possible. Minimizing the amount of water helps to reduce water’s filtering effects as well as the presence of particulate backscatter in your photos. Accordingly, subject to camera distances are generally less than 6 feet even in underwater wide-angle photography.
Proper matching of your housing and lens dome is crucial in wide-angle photography. The lens dome is the curved outer element that allows the wide-angle lens to capture its increased angle of view without significant distortion. An important part of gear research involves making sure that the lens dome is matched to fit your particular wide-angle lens. Improper matching of dome and lens often results in softness in a photo’s corners as well as image distortion. When you have a proper wide-angle setup in hand, it is possible to make some truly interesting images.
As with all photography, much of one’s individual progression will depend on practice. Get out there and be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. As on land, the benefits of digital capture allow us to significantly shorten the learning curve relative to the days of film. Despite the additional complexities involved with taking your camera underwater, I hope this information might entice some of you to take the leap.
#1: Spotted Moray Eel portrait, Canouan, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, August 8, 2010.
#2: Spiny Head Blenny looks out from its home in a large brain coral, Canouan, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, August 8, 2010.
#3: Banded Coral Shrimp portrait, Canouan, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, August 8, 2010.
#4: Banded Jawfish portrait, St. Vincent Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, August 9, 2010.
#5: Assorted reef fish greet the photographer at Horseshoe Reef, Tobago Cays Marine Park, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, August 7, 2010.
#6: Assorted reef fish at Horseshoe Reef, Tobago Cays Marine Park, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, August 8, 2010.
#7: Wide-angle photo of soft coral and ledge with exposures balanced for flash and ambient light, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, August 9, 2010.
#8: Assorted reef fish swimming near a dramatic ledge, Soufriere, St. Lucia, August 10, 2010.