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Is equipment the solution?

by Peter Rowlands

Reproduced from in focus 26 (Feb/Mar. 1988)

A resumé of the Basic Course Talk given at the January meeting


It is an unfortunate fact that underwater photography is the one branch of photography which is dominated by the need for equipment to solve the problems. As developments occur, this situation is nowhere as dire as it first sounds. By combining wisely chosen equipment with effective techniques, most of us can produce a good range of varied and effective underwater images.

The biggest problem we face is that we have to go underwater to take photographs and it is the water which causes all of the problems. It absorbs the very colours we need for eye-catching results and it holds minute matter in suspension, reducing light levels, contrast and clarity. Add to this its ability to be very cold in certain climates and to make your skin go wrinkly and you have a difficult environment in which to operate

But it isn' t the difficulty part of the attraction - Would it still be an achievement if it was easy - It seems the devil which plagues us is also the stimulus!

Given these difficult conditions, we have to rely on a combination of equipment and techniques. How much you do so will depend mainly on your bank balance and your attitude to the sport, but one thing is certain - the equipment is only as good as the driver, and simply buying more gear won' t guarantee instant success. That' s why underwater photography is a combination of equipment and techniques.


Compared to land photography, our choice of equipment is very limited. There are really only two amphibious cameras - the Nikonos and the Sea and Sea Motormarine 35. Apart from these two, you can choose to put a land camera in an underwater housing. This will give you a much wider range of cameras and lenses from which to choose, but there are only two manufacturers of inexpensive housings and another two or three who make expensive ones. Fortunately, the camera is not too important, so this limited choice is not as drastic as it sounds.

The most important piece of equipment is the lens. This device can minimise the effect of t he water between the camera and the subject and so improve clarity, contrast and colour, The only secret for underwater photography is to try to reduce the effect of water as much as possible, lenses help you do just that, For underwater use there are three broad categories of lenses - close-up, wide-angle and ultra wide-angle.

There are two ways to take close-ups with amphibious cameras, either using extension tubes or supplementary lenses. Extension tubes are placed between the standard lens and the camera body. These enable the lens to focus much closer than normal. The exact distance varies depending on the length of the extension tube used, but distances of 4' and closer are the norm. The actual point of focus is fixed and the depth of field is minimal, but extension tubes allow you to capture the exciting detail of small marine organisms on film. They are very simple and effective to use and offer the easiest way to start underwater photography as you can virtually guarantee results.

Supplementary lenses, in contrast, push over or screw onto the standard lens. They reduce the focal point to between 9' and 18' depending on the type. As with extension tubes, the actual point of focus is fixed, although the depth of field is not quite as poor. Frames or probes are supplied with extension tubes and supplementary close-up lenses to show the exact point of focus and the area covered.

Macro lenses on land cameras in housings are slightly different in that they can focus continuously from infinity down to 1: 2 (an area four times the size of the film frame). This versatility is a big advantage, and being used on a reflex camera, there is no need for focusing frames or probes.

For large subjects such as divers, a wide-angle lens lets you get closer, so reducing the amount of water between camera and subject, yet still allowing all of the subject to fit in the frame. This will certainly improve clarity, contrast and colour without any adverse effects. The wider the angle of the lens you use, the closer you will be able to get. That's why ultra wide-angle lenses are so popular underwater. The 16 mm, full frame fish-eye lenses cover 180°, allowing you to take a full frame shot of a diver from about 3 feet! A common misconception is that, because a wide-angle lens can focus close it can be used for close ups. This is not the case, as they are still covering a wide-angle and small objects in front of the lens will appear tiny in the photo.

The standard ultra wide-angle covers around 90° and is excellent for most underwater photographs of divers and scenery. The Nikonos primary 15 mm lens and the Subawider and Sea and Sea SWL 16 supplementary lenses are all good examples. Normal angle lenses such as the Nikonos 28 mm primary lens, cover around 70°, but they tend to be less popular than the ultra wides, which perform so well. Good compromises are the 20 mm lenses available from Sea and Sea and Nikon, but since these are primary lenses they are less versatile than a combination of a standard 35 mm lens with a 90° supplementary lens, which gives two options whilst underwater. Moreover the overall cost is far less and the optical quality is not affected too much.

Water absorbs light and colour. Filters can restore some of the colours which water absorbs but they are only practical in shallow water so we have to use additional light from an electronic flash. These devices improve shots by restoring the bright natural colours which abound underwater, making the underwater world look fantastic. But since the flash is underwater, its light too is absorbed quickly reducing your effective range underwater to not much more than 10 feet, even with the most powerful flash. This does, however, allow you to light the foreground of a scene and so bring back the colour and detail as well as adding a pleasant balance to the shot. In macro and close-up photography, electronic flash is used almost exclusively to restore colour and to allow small apertures which give increased depth of field.

All of the above cost money, but they do solve most of the problems. The secret of success is to buy as much equipment as you need and can sensibly afford and then use your techniques to squeeze the maximum performance out of it.


The first most Important technique is to only dive to take pictures. You cannot concentrate if you've got buddies to look after and timetables to adhere to. If that's the way you dive (and most diving clubs do) then it will show in your results, you will feel frustrated and underwater photography will (unfairly) get the blame.

The next technique is to buy equipment wisely, New equipment is tempting and should always be considered if you can afford it, but there are some excellent secondhand bargains if you keep your eyes open. Nikonos cameras last well and can still be repaired and serviced, If funds are tight, then think secondhand. This is especially true of land cameras in housings. They are very expensive new, but you can pick up real bargains from time to time. Outfits usually include extra several extra items which add to the value for money. You may have to wait a while but it will be worth it.

Once you've started to dive for underwater photography, the basic limitations of being underwater (reduced clarity, contrast and colour) can be improved by choosing when and where you dive. Diving in calm, crystal clear waters at midday, when the sun is at its peak will ensure the maximum amount of light. This is not always possible, especially during the British winter (or summer!), but there are rock pools and areas of undisturbed water where you will get better water clarity. That' s why so many people go abroad, for the water clarity is almost guaranteed, making underwater photography much more productive.

To give your shots a bit of impact, tilt the camera up slightly to include a star burst of sunlight, which will add drama and instant appeal to any shot. It costs nothing and can lift a mundane image, The old adage of 'only take a picture with the sun behind you' is a rule of the past.

If your subject, such as a wreck, is at depth, an effective technique is to use a long Shutter speed rather than add additional light. This costs no more but you have to keep the camera still, either on a tripod or held against something solid.

No amount of technique will make a standard lens become a wide-angle or a close up, but the supplementary lenses are very good value and will increase your versatility. Whatever the lens you are using, try to get as close to your subject as you possibly can, so that it fills the frame for maximum impact. Don't forget that the smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field and this will let you get a bit closer. Every little helps.

With macro/close-up equipment, keep the subject simple an concentrate on the angle of approach. If you can isolate it against a neutral background, it will be more prominent. Vary the angle of the lighting to enhance the shape or texture of the subject. Side lighting and back lighting are particularly effective and don't cost a penny extra.

If it's diver you want to photograph, liase with your subjects and tell them what you want and also tidy them up, tuck in loose and ungainly straps etc. Try to time your shot when they are breathing out and avoid taking shots from behind them swimming away (this is basically true for all subjects) Also try to have the subject doing something rather than just being there; looking at or pointing at something add much more purpose to the shot.

One vital technique is to control yourself and your fins! Marine animals are shy at the best of times so approach them with gracefully smooth movements to avoid frightening them. Control over your buoyancy is crucial if you are to avoid spoiling the visibility.

The techniques are endless and so should be the amount of time you spend underwater, for that is where the work is done. Force yourself back even if the enthusiasm is low for you never know what the animals will have in store for you. They seem to reward hard work and the more you visit them, the more they will accept and relax with you, and that's when things start happening.

Underwater photography is a definite combination of equipment and techniques, each dependant on the other. Finances permitting, the equipment is comparatively simple to acquire. but once owned, it's up to you to drive it to its limits and squeeze every advantage onto the film.

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