Choice of film and lens

by J Floor Anthoni (2000-2005)
introduction We live in an exciting era where knowledge and equipment change rapidly.
large or small format? Most amateurs use small format cameras, for good reasons
The digital age brought more options, challenging the transparency
Choosing your type of film is still important
What you need to know about lenses
Know more about the front glass effect, the air to water interface
The Rebikoff-Ivanoff correction lens
Digital manipulation has many advantages but adds to cost
For suggestions and corrections, please e-mail the author.
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We live in an exciting era where old values appear to crumple. Knowledge changes rapidly, assisted by the flight of technology. It is hard to imagine that before the second world war, colour photography was rare and those using it regretted doing so. Their images no longer exist, faded by time. But the century old images recorded in silver, remained. When I started using colour in the sixties, I didn't know that even those images would fade to oblivion. Still many professionals and amateur photographers today, resent the way film suppliers pushed their products, while perfectly aware that they could not last the test of time. Even today it is impossible to get longevity data of any film on the market, although most film stocks have improved. Neither can one get longevity data for CDs and DVDs!

Back in the sixties Kodak came out with Kodachrome, an emulsion without colours. The colours are added during development through a laborious process, known to Kodak alone. This transparency film is used by organisations such as National Geographic, who also take exceptional care in storing their photographs in cool, dry and dark archives. In this manner the film can be retained for over 300 years. Other slide films, in ordinary filing systems, last only a human's life time or less. But now we can save images electronically on CDs. The aluminium CDs we buy can perish through aluminium 'rot' but the gold 'write once' CDs could last forever. Once in electronic form, images can be cropped, cleaned up, colour and contrast corrected and sharpened. For under water photography such manipulations can be of enormous benefit.

In this chapter we'll look at the suitability of various media you can choose and we'll also discuss the lenses you should use.

Large or small format?
In the beginning years of under water photography, the medium format (60mm square) was the preferred choice. Armed with Hasselblad and Rolleiflex cameras, our pioneers opened up the under water world. But these cameras were large, and suffered from a lack of depth of field (about four times worse than 35mm cameras). As film emulsions improved, the field was taken by the small format (35mm frame) cameras.

Because under water photography is best in close-up, depth of field is very important. Resolution can be attained by using low speed film and longer exposure times or by resorting to negative film.

Film types comparedSlide, negative or digital?
At the moment there are three basic options to consider: slide, negative or digital.

Slides and transparencies
Transparencies are the professional's choice for delivering pictures to printers and publishers. Their advantages are obvious: what you see is what you get. The slide is both the original and the finished product. It can be shown in a viewer or a projector. Each slide is packaged on its own, can be manipulated and stored on its own. Slides have good colour rendition and sharpness. They look like the printed image and the printing industry knows how to handle them and turn them into colour plates.
But slides also have their down side. Because they are the unique and finished product, they can easily be damaged or lost. Printers often remove slides from their frames and greasy fingerprints, and miniature scratches are often left behind. Although good copies can be made of slides, printers often demand the originals. Slides fade when used regularly in projection, so only copies should be shown.
Slides have high contrast, desirable to blacken the dark parts for projection. They show the world not exactly the way it is, with brighter colours, deeper shadows but the public has become accustomed to this, often demanding the postcard look rather than reality, particularly for advertising.

Because of its contrastiness, exposing slide film correctly is rather critical. Even half an f-stop (25% light intensity) can spoil the result. To cope, photographers take many repeats of the same shot with varying exposure settings ('bracketing'). When an artificial light source is used such as a strobe, the number of repeats becomes very high, resulting in high wastage, costs and time.
For under water use, slide film is often disappointing. Under water one cannot reload films. One has only very few chances to shoot more than a few photos of the same subject in the same situation. Bracketing then becomes a hard liability.

Negative film
The colour saturation and sharpness of negative film has improved quite considerably in recent years (1990s). It is the favourite choice for amateurs but also for wedding photographers who often can not bracket their shots, or re-do them. Prints made from negative film can be handled without the risk of damaging the original. But negatives need to be left in strips of four to eight frames. So when a printer needs the original, he receives a strip of several frames. Printers dislike negative film because the result may change and there is no visual original to compare the printed image with, unless the corrected print is supplied as well. For a photographic library or stock clearing house, negatives are unacceptable because of this. But for the private photographer, shooting negative film gives the best value.
Negative film is very tolerant to exposure, producing good results within a three f-stop tolerance. Negative film has low and linear contrast and portrays the world the way it is, much more so than slide film does. Prints can be enhanced by reprinting them lighter or darker. Negative film has very fine grain which allows one to use faster films. For nature photography under water, shooting negative film is very rewarding.Now that photographic images can be saved, filed and traded in electronic form, negative film has lost its earlier disadvantages and is rapidly becoming more popular for the professional photographer who wants quick, reliable and cost-effective results.

A baby pink maomao is found sleeping in a safe place inside the giant Rikoriko cave at the Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand.

Because the camera's aperture failed to narrow from f4 to f22, this photo was over exposed by 5 f-stops! Hardly discernible on the very black negative, it still produced this amazing image, with true colours.

Film: Fuji NPH400
Lens: approximately 100mm

Sleeping pink maomao

Digital cameras
Whereas progress in film emulsion technology has been slow, progress in electronic imaging has been rapid. Cameras now claim as many as 6 million pixels per image (a scanned 35mm Kodak Photo-CD image has 3000x2000 = 6 million pixels, compressed to some 6MB, about 80 lines per mm, the resolution of most slide films)
Digital images show the result immediately, allowing for on-the-spot improvements to lighting, exposure and even contrast. Digital cameras are more sensitive, being able to take pictures in low light conditions. The CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) is small, allowing for short focal lenses with vastly superior depth of field characteristics. Very recent digital cameras now provide resolutions comparable to the 35mm frame.

For the amateur under water photographer who wants immediate results that can be reproduced professionally up to sizes of 100mm across, the digital camera is the solution. In the past few years digital video has stormed the world, providing superior pictures that can be obtained with ease. The digital colours of 3-CCD cameras are 'additive' as opposed to the 'subtractive' colours of slides and negatives, making a whole new range of 'fluorescing' intensive colours available. Unfortunately these can not be rendered in print. Most still digital cameras, however, use a single CCD colour technique which renders colours subtractive. The most standard method of saving the image, is in the standardised sRGB (scanner-Red-Green-Blue) computer format, which prints beautifully, the way one sees it on the computer screen.

The digital image is made up of (square) pixels, each containing three colours, red, blue and green, much the way a television image is composed. Each colour can assume only discrete values, ranging from 0 to 255. At mid-exposure of 150 units, a picture looks rather dark whereas a one stop over exposure (2 times)  at this point would overexpose the image to 300 units, which is 'clipped' not to exceed the value of 255. So working with a digital pictures can be even more critical than working with slides.
Fortunately, the high quality end of the digital cameras produce images with 10 or even 12 bits colour depth('raw' format as opposed to JPEG), thereby extending the range considerably (from 255 steps to 4096). But the JPEG compressed file format has only 8 bit precision.

Slide films compared
The following drawing may help to understand how light, falling on the emulsion, results in density (blackness). To the left is the real world with objects of varying intensity. The checkered scale is in f-stops, each square representing a factor of two (one f-stop). Both horizontal and vertical axes are thus logarithmic, corresponding to how our eyes experience light.

film density/exposure curve

The art of exposing correctly is to dim the intensity of the real world, to that required by the film, and we do so by means of shutter speed and aperture. The diagram depicts a typical slide film with a range of 8-9 f-stops in density. Just to put this scale in perspective, prints in books have a density range of only 4 f-stops (1:16); prints in newspapers only 3 f-stops (1:8) and slides projected in a dark room 6 f-stops (1:64). So the scale at bottom right runs over 6 f-stops from white to black. But because of the contrastiness of the slide film, this corresponds to only 4 f-stops in the real world (which covers 10 f-stops from direct sunlight to deep shade), reason why exposure of slide film is highly critical. This is much less so for negative film. But the situation is even worse because the colours in the highlights are truly bleached, missing colour information, AND those in the shadows are mixed with black, which also reduces the amount of colour information. To sum it all up, colour slides provide only 3 f-stops of true colour, which explains why they are so difficult to expose right.

In the diagram, the 1:1 contrast line has been dashed. A film with this density curve would be ideal as a duplicating film to make copies of slides. A steeper incline means less contrast (soft film) whereas a flatter line means more contrast (hard film). As you see, most slide films are soft in their highlights but contrasty in their shadows. This explains why correcting an under exposed slide by duping (duplicating), results in very high contrast.

In the diagram below, a number of typical slide films of the 1980s are compared. As you can see, there are distinct differences between them, reason enough for careful selection. Notice how Ektachrome 100 follows a smooth soft density curve. It has been the preferred film for under water photography for many years.
As far as negative film is concerned, a similar comparison can be drawn. But the result depends also on the qualities of the print material used.

slide film densities compared
When plotting the latest offerings in slide film on this chart, remember that suppliers' technical data sheets show density on the vertical axis and exposure on the horizontal axis. Note that the f-stop scale is missing on the technical data sheets which show optical densities (0,1,2,3) instead. One optical density is a reduction in light of 90% (factor 0.1 or 1:10).So which film do you choose? One advice is to stick to only one film type and to learn to work with it. But differences in film can be used to advantage. For instance, tele lenses 'dilute' the light, causing contrast-poor images with watered-down colours. Use a high contrast film to counteract it. Likewise, wide angle lenses 'concentrate' the light, resulting in contrasty, over saturated images. Use a low contrast film to balance this.

Most under water photographers are obsessed with sharpness of detail, resorting to low speed fine grain film. But in doing so they cannot capture natural light and they waste much film on movement blur, poor depth of field and so on. Adapt your film type to how much light is available (much in the tropics, little in temperate seas) and accept graininess as part of the trade-off. For macro photography where enough artificial light is available, go for the finest film if you like.

My choice has been overwhelmingly for negative film because its softness captures the under water atmosphere best. It is tolerant to exposure and gives me a large number of good results. I am mainly using Fuji REALA (100ASA) which has good colour separation and density but also very fine grain. For higher speed, I used the Fuji SUPERIA range of films, of which the 200 and 400 ASA films stand out by their sharpness, colour and fine grain. Note that the SUPERIA 100 is much grainier than the REALA film. Recently I have been push-developing Reala 100ASA to 400 ASA with fine grain results but increased contrast. After digital scanning this option gives me the best results: both finest grain AND finest colour reproduction. Note that the most recent batches of Fuji Superia films now also contain a fourth colour layer, like Reala 100. This new technology reproduces fine colour nuances much better than any other film on the market.

My Mistakes
Previously I was using the FUJI NPH400 film, which gave nice looking prints, as the print material was well adapted to its characteristics. But since I have my NIKON Coolscan 4ED negative/positive scanner, I gained close insight in the graininess and other aspects of this film. It allowed me to compare other brands and types of film with precision. This made me choose the FUJI REALA 100 ASA film, because it is far superior to others. Unfortunately, it is made in 100 ASA only, and for higher speeds I now have it push-processed to 400ASA. That gives me the added advantage of having only one type of film on expeditions.
What was wrong about NPH400, is that it is a portrait film. In portraiture, there is little contrast, compared to landscape photography. So the film was designed to be soft and underexposed. In addition it desensitised the blue component to achieve nice skin tones. These characteristics are all unsuitable for the underwater world. (update: present-day NPH400 has been improved to become a good choice)

Before I had my own scanner, I submitted my films to a professional KODAK scanner, and these results were superior to those of other scanners I have seen. However, the Coolscan4ED with 4000 pixels resolution, and excellent software, allows me to achieve far better results (it is not easy though). In all, the combination of a super fine grain negative film and a high quality scanner, now beats slide film hands down in all respects. See the Kermadecs photo library for examples. It produces a very high rate of return, and complete control over post-processing on the computer. Note that the commercially available scan program Vuescan is better than that provided by the manufacturer, Nikon.

In order to save costs, and to get exactly what I wanted, I constructed my own underwater housing for a NIKON F601 with macro, zoom and wide angle lenses and lens ports. I also used a Nikonos 5 with 16mm Sea&Sea wide angle lens. However, in the end I was not satisfied with the lack of sharpness, and distortion towards the edges of the image.
A boating accident with loss of all gear, fortuitously enabled me to lay my hands on a used Nikonos RS camera with 50, 28 and 13mm lenses. These lenses are truly sharp and a delight to use. The benefits of the RS system cannot be overstated. There is just no comparison.

Some notes on film type, exposure and contrast
Transparency slide film was developed for slide projection in a dark room.  Its contrast has been adjusted for this purpose, resulting in a colourful but contrasty image with a deep black background. Although pleasing to the eye, this image is not a true reflection of the real world. Many photographers like colour contrast so much that they exaggerate it further by push-developing (underexposing and overdeveloping). So why this obsession with high contrast? 

In order to find an answer to this question, remember that the registration of colour in slides and negatives is by the process of subtraction. A red dye blocks the red light, while letting other colours pass. The colour orange is obtained by blocking both the red and yellow wavelengths. Remember also that the colours on film and in print are not true reflections of the rich colour scales in nature. Colour photography is based on the perception of the human eye, which is sensitive to three colours only (red, green and blue). By capturing only these three colours, the eye is fooled in believing that we have captured the full colour image, but this is not true. Only human eyes see similarity between a photo and the real world.

In each of the steps in the process of capturing colour, some of its intensity (chroma) is lost, but this can be made good by increasing contrast. In this age of electronic images, colour intensity can be enhanced electronically, reason why digital cameras can produce very colourful images. Computer-scanned negative film can likewise be colour-enhanced, resulting in colourful images with any level of contrast. Such images better resemble the real world.

A slide photographer is hampered by the shape of the contrast curve of his film. In the highlights, it gives soft colours, but in the low lights, it becomes quite contrasty. For optimal colour rendition, the mid tones are used, resulting in rather dark images and a reduced exposure range. For instance, a colour consisting of 80% red and 20% blue, needs at least 3 f-stops to reproduce faithfully. Overexpose it and the red component bleaches out, shifting the colour towards blue. Underexpose it, and the blue component is suppressed disproportionately, shifting the colour to red.

By comparison, a negative film has essentially a linear exposure-density curve, enabling it to capture the real world more faithfully, and with wider margins of tolerance. When scanned electronically, the image can then be adjusted to suit a variety of uses. But when printed on photographic paper, contrast is again enhanced (by the photographic paper) to achieve contrast and colour. The main problem with negative film is that true colour is difficult to achieve, because negative film and print film are often badly matched and commercial printing machines automatically make colour adjustments, which are often incorrect. However, with the help of a negative scanner, negative film yields beautiful and faithful digital images, particularly when printed by computer printers.

Although a film's graininess is fixed for slide films, it is variable for negative films. Underexpose it, and large islands of emulsion will form. To keep the grain fine, negative film must be overexposed slightly, and this means an extra f-stop when using wide angle lenses which look at the bright sky as well as the dark deep. 

Despite tremendous progress, colour technology has remained full of frustrations from the capturing of the image to its reproduction in print. Film manufacturers sell their products based on hype, often hiding technical specifications. One would have expected to find all technical data sheets on Internet, but this is not so. Often datasheets of new films are a copy of some old data sheet. Manufacturers are also not clear about the purpose of the film. Some films have been 'blue-desensitised' to 'better reproduce' (flattering) skin colours or to please underwater photographers. Other films have been tinkered with to produce 'acceptable' results in both outside and inside lighting situations. But users can be finicky too. If ever the ideal film arrived, pure in colour and fine in grain, many would find it 'too ordinary', 'not gutsy', 'characterizes', 'unflattering' and so on. Open any issue of National Geographic magazine to see what the world does NOT look like.

Lens types
lens types comparedCamera lenses are available in a continuum of focal lengths from 16mm to over 100mm (for 35mm cameras). But the practical range for under water is 13mm to 100mm. The super wide angle 13mm lens has good depth of field but is not able to take fish portraits. For sharp macro photography often a 100mm lens is used. The table compares the properties of wide, medium and tele -angled lenses.

In general, the 13-20mm lens is for people, large animals and seascapes. The medium angle lens is often a 28-80mm zoom lens, most suitable for fish photography and close-ups of people. The tele lens is often 60-100mm and is good for macro photography and detailed fish portraits or small animals.

The wide angle lens distorts the real world as if there is more space. Objects seem farther away. It creates a lot of emptiness and should be used with care. By contrast, the tele lens makes objects seem stacked closer together. Both lenses introduce new creative possibilities and surprises.

So what is the work-horse of lenses? It depends what you are after. In general the super wide angle lens (13-16mm) is difficult to use although it gives surprising results. You have to combine it with a super-wide strobe light and long strobe arms. The lens looks at the sky and at your fins all at the same time, introducing very high contrast. To counteract this contrast amounts to a fine art. But if you want to photograph reflections in the surface, the snell's circle, cathedral light, models and sea mammals you can't do without it.The medium focal lenses of 28-35mm tend to be good work-horse lenses, but for some reason (price?) they do not have a wide focusing range. I find the 50mm macro lens also very productive because it allows one to keep some distance from fish and without changing lens, focus down to 15cm.

Lenses of various camera systems compared. Focal lengths in mm.
6 x 6 cm 35 mm 16mm Super8
1000 400 120 65
500 200 60 35
240 100 30 17
120 50 15 8.5
85 35 10 6
65 28 8.5 4.5
60 24 7 4
35 15 4.5 2.5

Explanation of diopterA note on macro photography
The macro tele lens with or without close-up attachment lenses, places the camera at a sufficient distance from the object to allow the strobe light in. A macro lens is able to focus over a range of 5 diopters (from infinity to 20cm), whereas a standard lens would range over 2 diopters (from infinity to 50cm). With a closeup attachment lens of 2 diopters, the focal range would reach from 50cm to 14cm for the macro lens and from 50 to 25cm for the standard lens.
As far as depth of field goes, it would be better to use a medium angle lens (35-28mm) with extension tubes, such as offered for the Nikonos cameras. A 28mm lens has 16 times the depth of field of a 100mm lens but would need to be placed very close to the subject. 
Note that the Nikonos lenses are corrected for the frontglass effect, and deliver very sharp images under water (but less so above). 

Flat port and dome port
Flat front glass effectA port which is as flat as the front glass of a dive mask causes the same kind of distortion that makes all objects seem bigger and closer than they are. In fact, 30% bigger. It is interesting to note that our brains see this in three directions (1.3 x 1.3 x 1.3 = 2.2) and estimates a fish to be twice its weight.
For the photographer the apparent image distance is quite confusing to estimate because, again our brains get used to the situation. But auto-focus cameras will always focus correctly.

One immediate effect of the flat port is that it reduces the opening angle of the lens, turning a 38mm lens into a 50mm lens and so on, which in turn reduces depth of field by some 60% (double the effect).

The flat front glass works somewhat like a lens, simply because on the one side is an optically denser medium (water), but it does not have the precision of a lens. For instance, it does not change the distance to infinity. As light rays enter through the glass on a larger angle, they do not exactly appear to come from the apparent image, causing a blurring distortion and rainbow coloured edges. This distortion starts to become noticeable for lenses with less than 35mm focal length. Thus 20mm and 15mm lenses cannot be housed behind a flat port. Here is where the curved dome port comes in.The frontglass effect is very noticeable, even in 50mm and 100mm lenses, when pursuing high quality photography, no matter the quality of your lenses! It is worst for close-up photography and less noticeable further away from the glass. When taking photos through an aquarium window, it is particularly annoying. Only one manufacturer makes lenses that are corrected for the front glass (air to water interface) distortion: NIKON. All Nikonos underwater lenses have such correction, and they are the sharpest lenses one can use under water. The Nikonos RS with its automatic focusing and large range, is also very suitable for aquarium photography.
The dome portThe dome port places a perfectly spherical glass in front of the lens at the precise distance of the virtual centre of the lens (which may not be the same as the lense's focal length). The aperture is supposed to sit in this centre so that it will never project itself onto the film. The idea of the dome port is that light rays pass through perpendicularly, thus avoiding the distortion associated with flat ports. In practice this is not entirely true because the lens may move forward and backward while focusing and many dome ports are not very precise. The best dome port is the one that is part of the lens as is the case with the Nikonos wide angle lenses (Nikonos 5 and Nikonos RS). These are noticeably sharper.

A side effect of the dome port is that it introduces a negative water lens in front of the camera, which makes objects appear further away and which requires an equally strong positive correcting lens on the inside of the dome. The strength of this lens depends on the curvature of the dome and is often around 3 diopters. Note that without it, most lenses would not be able to focus at all. The correcting lens can be placed in front or behind, between lens and film. But please note that a 13mm fisheye is not just a 13mm lens in front of the film, because this would leave no space for the mirror. Instead, the lens is placed at the normal 50mm distance and additional optics convert it to behave like a 50mm one on the film side, and 13mm on the water side. Instead of a 3 diopter lens on the film side, you need one of much less strength (3/4 diopter).

As a point of interest it should be mentioned that the technique of taking half under and half above water shots, the part of the dome above water needs no correction whereas the part under water does. For such photos a special half lens is placed in front of the camera together with half a neutral density filter to correct for the brighter top half, by 1-2 f-stops. This half lens could also be placed behind the lens, between lens and film. Note that the Nikonos 13mm wide angle lens cannot be corrected this way unless a negative correcting lens is used between lens and film. With this in place, the lens is fabulously sharp above water (See Nikonos chapter).

Rebikoff-Ivanoff correction lens
Rebikoff-Ivanoff correction lensDemitri Rebikoff was one of the pioneers in underwater photographic equipment in the era 1940-1980. He designed an underwater correction lens that is also a wide angle converter, based on an inverted telescope. Because it does not change the camera's focus, it is said to be a-focal. As shown in the diagram, this correction lens consists of a negative lens as port and a flat positive lens placed 30mm further towards the camera. The lens can be put together from the parts supplied by a technician for eye glasses. 
It has a number of attractive advantages, not the least that it can be used both above and under water. It is also used as a 'wet-mate' underwater attachment. The Rebikoff 'port' is often used for underwater television cameras, but it is disappointing for still cameras, and cannot match the sharpness of the Nikonos lenses.

Digital image manipulation
Present-day Pentium computers have brought the digital editing studio in the hands of the amateur. With photo editing software such as Photoshop and Corel Photopaint, your photographs can be tidied up and cut-and-pasted into collages.
  • Scanning: negative and film positive scanners are still dear if you need good quality. Professionally scanned images using the Kodak Photo-CD method, cost about NZ$4 each and about 100 images can be stored on a single CD. This is well worth your best shots but may not be affordable for all the photos you wish to keep. For good negative scans, this is the best method, unless you can afford a high quality scanner yourself. But remember that no special care is taken to produce the best results.
  • Cropping and re-sampling: images can be cropped accurately and re-sampled to the resolution required (about 100 dpi for newsprint and 200 dpi for magazines to 300 dpi for art magazines.
  • Cleaning up: blemishes such as scratches, dirt and scatter can be removed effectively. Exposure and colour cast can be corrected. Light can be introduced where inadequately lit. 
  • Grain removal and sharpening: photographic graininess can be removed by various blurring techniques and the image can be sharpened to correct for motion blur and lens imperfections.
  • Colour enhancement: overall colour cast can be corrected like a photographic filter applied after-the-fact. Colour intensity can be enhanced or reduced to match reality or to achieve an artistic effect.
  • Other effects: a large array of special effects is available to achieve artistic effects.
  • Trading and sending: images can be compressed up to 10 times (in JPEG format) without visibly losing quality. They can be sent and traded by e-mail.
  • Printing: images can be sent to colour copy companies that have their copiers interfaced with the computer and printed in all sizes up to wall-size.
  • Storing: images stored on gold write-once CDs (CDRs) should not deteriorate with time. The medium offers very compact storage (about 100-200 images per CD).

For a detailed course on mastering the digital darkroom, visit the corresponding chapter.