Introductionto underwater photography 

by J Floor Anthoni (1997-2005)
Many skills are needed in order to become a good underwater photographer. This section looks at a number of issues that are not directly related to the actual taking of a photo, such as diving skills, your buddy, the camera housing, managing your resources, expedition skills, the weather and much more.
An introduction by Floor Anthoni
In order to be creative, you must have enough diving experience to feel safe. You must be able to lug a large camera with lights along, do all things with one hand and be fit enough to make multiple dives on a day.
Dive etiquette requires you to dive with a buddy which could be a good and a bad thing. What do you expect of your mate? Can you be trusted to dive alone? 
Most camera systems today do not take to water until properly housed. What should you look for?
Underwater everything seems to run out: dive time, air, batteries and much more. How would you manage these?
Going on expedition is a costly thrill but so many come back disappointed. Why? Tips for making a success of your expedition.
Every shot is a chance affair, no matter how experienced you are, but how can you increase your chances? What are your disciplines?
Not every day is calm and sunny, so what to do with all the other combinations of waves, wind and sunshine?
Is it better to be a photographer who learns to dive or a diver who learns to take photos? What makes a photo good?
Light is all we see and from it we conclude the shapes of things. A camera does likewise but it produces a flat picture. For this course you are supposed to know how all this works, but we haven't told you yet. Maybe sometime . . .
For suggestions and corrections, please e-mail the author.
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Welcome and good luck
For over thirty years, underwater cinematography and photography have held a never ending fascination for me. It allowed me to share my experiences with others, to learn more about the underwater world and to maintain an accurate record for later reference. In this section I'd like to share my experiences with you, hoping that you won't make as many mistakes as I did. I have included the hard-to-get theory of light under water, tips, mechanical solutions that you can make in the home workshop, diving techniques and more. I am not ashamed to show my mistakes and of course, I am delighted to show my successes as well.

Many books about underwater photography have appeared and disappeared, the earlier ones being the most thorough. Many articles devoted to underwater photography have been printed in dive magazines, yet the information you'll find in this section is hard or impossible to glean from elsewhere.

My interest has always been in the biology and ecology of the sea. It is the reason why I have concentrated on taking pictures of organisms, how they live, what they do and how they all relate together. I have not been interested in photographing people under water because they do not live there. But a diver in the frame can contribute to the excitement of the moment and translate the viewer's feelings. I have endeavoured to make my photos look like the underwater world, with its transparency and depth, rather than resorting to effects caused by enlarged contrast, distortion and the like. It has also always been important to me to bring back good results for very little waste, which may explain why I have spent much effort in improving techniques, skills and my equipment.

You may wish to take photos of what people do, their work or of fashion products, dive products or you may wish to document your own research. Whatever your motivation, you will find yourself in that ever changing optical medium, the sea water. You cannot escape the effects it has on your photography and you will need to equip yourself with the knowledge and skills to take good pictures inside this medium.

You will need to be a good diver, able to manage precious resources such as body heat and air. You will dive with or without a buddy and carry an underwater camera that may give you more trouble than pleasure. You will need to gain expedition skills to go out to pristine natural places. You'll need to spend money and you'll need luck too. In this chapter we'll look at general issues -  what you need to have, know, and do.

Good luck,
Floor Anthoni.

Diving skills
Photography is a creative activity exercised in a hostile, even potentially fatal environment. The American psychologist Maslow discovered that, in order to be creative, a number of human needs must be fulfilled first (see box below). One needs to be safe, well fed and socially recognised (loved, esteemed, valued). When diving, particularly the most important need, that of being and feeling safe, is easily upset. Humans' greatest fear is that of suffocating, because within minutes death will follow. A diver who does not feel safe, can never become creative. Divers who cannot hold their breath for a considerable amount of time will never feel safe. Divers who cannot snorkel-dive to ten metres or more will never be adequate divers. So learn breath-hold diving first and keep practising. Besides, almost half of your photo opportunities occur while snorkelling and for most photos on SCUBA, you'll need to hold your breath to minimise movement blur.

Divers trained in warm and tranquil tropical seas will not have the skills needed in cold temperate seas with currents and waves. Here they need to wear a thick wetsuit with a heavy weight belt, and they need to master the art of buoyancy compensation. In these conditions it is important to adapt the weight on your weight belt to suit the occasion - whether you go deep, need to weigh yourself down in currents and whether you carry extra heavy batteries and so on. When pushing a camera with strobe and auxiliaries through the water, much water friction needs to be overcome and you need to be physically fit to do so. If you are a smoker, you will most likely never become an successful underwater photographer. If you fear the swimming back to the boat along the surface, you'll start with a serious handicap.

You'll need to have the skills to avoid making dust - settling on the bottom and leaving it. You'll need to be happy to do all dive operations with one hand only, leaving the other free for the camera. You may need to change the hoses on your regulator around to do so and you may need a small side exhaust regulator for left- and right-handed use while allowing you to press your face closer to the camera (which also steadies it better). You may need to have a split lens mask with close-up lenses in the lower half, in order to be able to read the fine camera controls and settings.

The American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow (1908-1970) is best known for his self-actualisation theory of psychology, which argued that the primary goal of psychotherapy should be the acceptance and integration of the self (id).
In his major works Motivation and personality (1954) and Toward a psychology of being (1962), Maslow argued that each individual's basic needs must be satisfied first before being able to be creative and self-actuated. He also established an order of importance between these needs. As each following need is satisfied, the next higher level in the emotional hierarchy dominates conscious fuctioning. Thus, people who lack food or shelter or who cannot feel themselves to be in a safe environment, are unable to express higher needs and to ultimately fully integrate the components of their personality.
His proposed sequence of needs has often been criticised but as a concept has been widely accepted.
  • Safety: immediate threats to life like suffocation, war, fights. Not feeling stressed.
  • Food/water: a sufficient level of nutrition and having fed recently; not feeling hungry or thirsty.
  • Esteem: belonging to a group/family, being loved and playing a role, being needed.
  • Creativity: being creative, able to learn, to be a self-actualiser, playing.

    Tip: Read Floor Anthoni's Snorkel course, here on this web site, to master the essentials.

    Your buddy and diving alone
    If you wish to take shots of a model, your buddy is very important. Besides, it is considered safer to dive with a buddy. But is your buddy really adding to your safety? Many serious photographers dive alone. They have trained themselves to cope with every kind of failure except for heart failure. They are the best divers around. Think about it.

    Your buddy can help you carry your gear, hold your lights under water, add interest to your shots and share your experience. But a buddy also brings twice the disturbance, dust and worries. If your buddy runs out of air, gets colder or  fatigued faster than you do, you've got a liability. Spend time training your buddy and don't change them too frequently. Otherwise it is better (and safer) to dive alone.

    The buddies and models of advanced photographers receive a lot of flak under water and often after the dive too. Somehow they never seem to do things right. Often the impatient photographer is blamed, but does your model know what skills she must have and what is expected of her? It is my experience that a model needs about two years of training and practice before becoming a true asset for every dive. So here is a list of what she needs to be able to do (I assume a female model here for ease of writing):
    What is skip-breathing and how do you do it safely?
    We all need to breathe to stay alive. When working hard, we need to breathe more than when sitting still and the body regulates this by taking deeper or more shallow breaths and also by the frequency we breathe. So why skip your breathing?
    Under water we breathe compressed air and at 10 metres depth this air has twice the concentration of oxygen at the surface (at 20m 3x, at 30m 4x etc.). The body's breathing regulator does not know this, and we keep breathing at normal rates, consuming less of the oxygen that is there. Our breathing impulse works on the amount of carbondioxide in our blood (not on the oxygen level), and having consumed the normal amount of oxygen, we end up with the normal amount of carbondioxide, prompting a new breath. So the extra oxygen is breathed out unused.
    Skip-breathing consists of consciously ignoring the urge to breathe in order to consume the remaining oxygen, which of course raises the amount of carbondioxide in the blood. Skip-breathing does not work well at the surface, but the deeper you dive, the better it works and saves air. It works best between 10 and 20m. The problem is that a raised carbondioxide level in the blood is poisonous, causing symptoms identical to a migraine when overdone. But it can't kill you even though a migraine may last all day.
    The symptoms are a head ache combined with neck cramp - discomforting but you won't need to stop diving for it. The good news is that your body can get used to raised levels of carbondioxide without causing a migraine. You just need to ease into it during an expedition. If you don't dive frequently, you won't be able to skip your breathing by much.
    When you do work under water or swim a lot, you can't gain much from skip-breathing. It is really for the very calm photographers and it works best when you move very little indeed. Being perfectly trimmed and swimming streamlined in a perfectly horizontal position is the secret.
    Being frugal with air brings another advantage. I now dive with 8 litre tanks (60 cuFt) which still gives me a dive time of over an hour in most cases.

    giant grouper Epinephelus daemelii
    f031613: unstructured behaviour of the model, or playing can lead to surprising moments like befriending a wild giant spotted black grouper (Epinephelus daemelii). It took 3 hours to get here. 28mm lens.
    a diver befriends longfinned eels
    f027512: longfinned eels (Anguilla dieffenbachii) showing no fear of the model in a freshwater stream. It takes much patience to get to this situation, while time is running out due to the cold. 16mm lens.

    Assisted snorkelling with a pony tank
    I've missed some terrific opportunities with dolphins because I could not stay down long enough while also keeping up with them. The solution was simple: assisted snorkelling with a pony tank. A pony tank is a very small tank (2 litre, 15 cuFt) which does not impede snorkelling much. Attached is a regulator and contents gauge. You wear it while snorkelling, without BCD of course. When you need to stay longer than breath-holding allows, the air is there and you can complete your photo sequence, resulting in fabulous shallow water opportunities while degassing from a previous dive. It allows you to go deeper and stretch your bottom time, because you know that you can always reach the surface. It is particularly valuable for balancing a freediver's weight at, say 15m depth. This is where you become too heavy and begin sinking (depending on the thickness of your wetsuit). A single breath overcomes this problem and makes you weightless again, thereby saving much energy. So a pony tank extends your freediving considerably and thereby also your chances. Believe it or not, but this little tank can last for an hour.
    I use it a lot for spot dives to see what the environment is like. Such spot dives may take me to 40m depth where trimming by one's lungs only, becomes a problem (again, depending on the thickness of one's wetsuit). During such dives one should also bring one's dive computer. Spot dives typically consist of swimming a long distance with the least amount of friction. They last 20 minutes at most on a tank this small, but the distance covered can be substantial.
    Note that you need an oldfashioned 'backpack' to mount the pony tank on, and finding one has become very difficult since modern BCDs also function as integrated backpack.

    Camera housings
    The era of building your own waterproof housing has perhaps come to an end. Yet knowing the technology of sealing will help you look after your gear and perhaps prevent that disastrous flooding (see tips and tricks chapter, in progress). Camera housings are now offered in all developed nations for competitive prices. You will have to make a trade-off between price and sophistication. This is not the place to guide you through the minefield of options. Many books are doing this and are becoming obsolete as rapidly as newer camera housings enter the market. Many good Internet sites exist to help you choose and buy.

    My advice is to buy the smallest housing (both for flash and camera) with the most controls (the dearest). You'll notice that the cost of the housing often exceeds that of your camera and lenses. A small housing weighs less above water, is easier to push through the water and is also easier to carry along. Your housing will have a selection of 'ports', the glass between your lens and the water. Wide angle lenses need dome ports whereas normal and tele lenses work fine through a flat port. Often plastic dome ports are not optically precise or they are not precisely placed, thus reducing the sharpness of your lens. Wide angle lenses for the Nikonos 3-5 underwater camera do not have this problem but this camera is rather primitive and no longer in production.

    It is very important that you can observe the whole frame of the viewfinder through your mask. 'Sport' finders are unacceptable for good photography. Likewise close-up frames such as used for Nikonos cameras are not really adequate. Make sure your housing allows you to mount both a quality macro lens and one 2 or 4 diopter close-up lens or filter.

    Please note that the Nikonos RS (Reflex System) is perhaps THE most sophisticated and easiest to use camera with the sharpest lenses ever made. I have been using this camera to full satisfaction since 2002. A full chapter will be devoted to this camera and how best to use it.

    Managing resources
    Every diver sooner or later learns to manage his vital resources. When running out, the dive must end. But photographers have to manage a few more. Here they are and some advice on how to stretch them to last longer.
    Performance comparisonThe graph compares temperature performance of Lithium iron disulphide batteries with Alkaline manganese or 'standard' alkaline batteries. Although their capacity ratings do not differ very much, they do differ significantly performance wise. Whereas a standard AA alkaline battery is rated at about 2.5Ah, it can deliver this energy only when used in low current applications like transistor radios. Once current is demanded as required for recharging a strobe light, its capacity drops to half its nominal value. When the temperature furthermore drops to close to 0ºC, it performs at about a quarter of its rating. Here is where lithium batteriesrated at 2.7Ah, with their very low internal resistance, , make an enormous difference. Whereas alkaline batteries degrade gradually, extending the recharge time from 4 to 10 seconds, lithium batteries die rather suddenly, extending recharge time from 4 to about 6 seconds, which can be a nuisance.
    Note that a D cell has about six times the capacity of an AA cell and a C cell about 3 times.

    Lithium batteries have exceptional shelf life of over ten years! It means that you can leave batteries in unused equipment without running the risk of them leaking and damaging it. It also means that their internal leakage is very low and that they retain their capacity for very long periods. They are excellent to take with you on expeditions.After replacing batteries preventatively , the used ones can still serve in other items like torches, GPS, etc.


    Expedition skills
    Many of your photos will be taken in far away places, often while out on a boat with very little comfort and facilities. Such photographic dive expeditions can become a treasure trove of opportunities or a sequence of unmitigated disasters. Here are some tips to enhance success.

    Better chances
    Every good photo requires a stroke of luck because it would be impossible to control all circumstances. When taking natural photos of unco-operative subjects, luck becomes even more important. But it is possible and necessary to make luck strike more often. Learning from other people's experiences is one way (through books, clubs, magazines) but most you should learn from your own experiences. Make it a habit to analyse your pictures before tossing the bad ones in the waste bin. You should see gradual improvement as you improve your methods. Tallying my mistakes by the following categories helped me improve my techniques considerably:
    Try to treat every photo as the one and only, last opportunity.
    Analysing your failures
    I may sound a bit like a school master but the reality is that you will forget about your failures or not analyse them properly to learn from them. Have you studied the many questions above? Do you really know how to recognise them in your work? Don't be so sure. Cut this page out and keep it handy. You must be asking these questions all the time, even under water.
    Take a sheet of paper and draw a table with rows for each film and columns for each category above. For each frame of the film, tick one or more columns that apply. Do it for each film. A pattern will emerge, showing your wastefulness of resources (money + time + effort). You need to do something about it and change your ways. It taught me quickly that I needed a different kind of camera, another lens, change the strobe bracket, bring variation in bracketing my shots and much more.

    Clouds, waves and visibility
    Weather, waves and visibility have a decisive influence on your under water photography.

    Photographer or diver?
    Is it better to be a diver who learns to take photos or a photographer who learns to dive? Obviously both skills are required and more. In practice, only the amateur photographers who learned to dive, became good under water photographers. But your prime interest must be photography. Ironically hardly any professional photographer has made the transition to the sea, perhaps because it would constitute a considerable loss of income. You should be familiar and capable of taking good pictures above water if you ever want to take good under water pictures. Under water photography is much more difficult than above but above water photography has been refined to a very high degree, which makes it hard to excel in.
    If you have never taken good photos before, don't expect to be able to take good photos under water. A snapshot on the land taken by an automatic camera may look great, but that same camera in an under water housing produces very poor under water pictures.

    The most difficult question to answer is: What makes a good photo? Eventually I narrowed this down to the following list of qualities:

    Transmitter or receiver?
    In the photo and film industry realising ideas and dreams is the mode. The shots are driven by an intense desire to create, to enact, to fake. It is the transmitter at work, sending out his ideas and pushing others to fall in line.
    While taking movies underwater, I had a couple of terribly unproductive years, and I did not understand why. What I was doing, was finding the finishing shots to complete a number of stories. I had my mind set and wanted nature to comply. I was diving as a transmitter, wanting my way, and as a result I did not see the opportunities that presented themselves. I was hopelessly unproductive because I had my receiver turned off.
    Now you know that you can't both talk and listen, and you also know that those who talk a lot, are poor listeners, and vice-versa. You cannot transmit and also receive at the same time. What this means is that if you are out there to take photos of nature, you must have your transmitter turned off and be receptive to whatever opportunity that presents itself. I had to tell myself specifically that I didn't dive for film (but my camera was 100% on stand-by) but for fun. It was a hard lesson that I won't forget. Think about it.

    Light is all you see
    Taking pictures is all about light, how it interacts with substance and how our eyes perceive it. Why can we see three dimensions (depth) in a two dimensional (flat) image? Why do we see colour? How does colour arise? Why are some images more pleasing than others? There's obviously a lot of helpful theory to learn about light and photography, knowledge that I found extremely hard to obtain. Yet, in this course on under water photography I have to assume that you know it all or pretend that you don't need to know. One day, when pushed a little, I may put it all on Internet, because it did change my life profoundly and it may change yours likewise.

    You are supposed to know about the properties of light, film exposure, depth of field, composition, subject separation, saturation and contrast, use of filters, use of artificial light, cameras and lenses. Or do you?