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Underwater photography - an overview

by Peter Rowlands

Reproduced from in focus 31 (Mar. 1989)

Underwater photography would be identical to land photography if it wasn't for the water. The water is the medium in which we have to operate and it imposes considerable restrictions and limitations to our photographic horizons.

Being much denser than air, water is able to hold matter in suspension which reduces the distances we can see underwater - the visibility. However, this suspended matter includes some very special marine food which sustains the very animals which attract us so much, so we can't have our cake and eat it. All we can do is to try and operate in the clearest water possible so that our results will also be as clear as possible.

In addition to clarity, the water can also vary in temperature. This affects us far more than the marine life since, in cold dark water, our ability to take photographs underwater is greatly reduced because we are cold and inefficient.

Just as we try to dive in the clearest water possible, so we aim to dive in the warmest water. Photographically we are trying to reduce the limitations imposed by the medium.


The reasons for taking photographs underwater are many and varied but they all stem from the desire to communicate. This communication cnn take several forms

Probably the most common reason for the amateur diver is the simple desire to show non-divers or friends just what it's like underwater, combined with a desire to create a permanent record of an environment which we are only capable of visiting for comparatively short period of time. Such an application is fine but it does lack a certain sense of direction and, more often than not, a novice underwater photographer will soon get bored with this approach unless they start to build some form of purpose into their diving and underwater photography.

The next avenue is to apply photography to record scenery and animal and plant life for later study. This more applied purpose is ideal for marine biologists/scientists who want to record the life in a particular area and their pictures usually make non-scientific divers much more aware of the marine environment.

The artistic side of underwater photography is one which receives little attention from the majority, but water is probably the most interesting artistic medium left to exploit. Since most underwater photographers are divers who have learned to take photographs underwater, we have a rather undeveloped sense of the artistic although this gradually changing.

Finally, the reasons for continuing are many and varied, as are the individuals who partake, and long may it be so. What will never change is the rule 'Effort in equals results out'. You cannot expect, even in these days of capable electronic camera systems, to pick up underwater photography for your annual two week holiday and expect to take up where you left off 50 weeks ago.


The equipment we use to take underwater photographs is special. Water is much denser than air so we have to design different camera systems to cope with the alien environment. Even as recently as 15 years ago, there was very little commercial equipment available, and individuals were beavering away producing, specialist equipment to overcome the restrictions imposed by the denser medium - water.

The first obvious problem to solve was how to keep water out and the land camera dry. For a long time, housings were constructed to keep land cameras dry and fully operational. The quality of these housings varied enormously, but they all aimed to do the same job and allow a diver to expose film underwater.

Such individual effort was fine, but it needed a large financial commitment to produce commercial equipment to solve the special limitations of the medium. Spirotechnique did just that in the late 1950's and marketed the Calypsophot, the world's first 35 mm serious amphibious camera. Nikon bought it, renamed it the Nikonos, and have been manufacturing and expanding its range and capability ever since. It is now the most widely used amphibious camera for serious underwater photography.

Nikon's commitment to this specialist field led them to produce lenses designed only to be used underwater. This resulted in lenses which are optically superb underwater and have expanded the capability of the underwater photographer. The most obvious area in optical design has been at the wide-angle end. The advent of the 15 mm Nikonos lens bought a quality of results previously unheard of and surely put a great strain on several bank balances.

The small detailed marine life lends itself to being recorded by close up equipment and the method varies little from land photography in that we use close up lenses which enable normal lenses to focus much closer or extension tubes which physically move the lens further away from the film or we use macro lenses, which can focus on any subject from infinity right down to a few inches in front of the lens, on land cameras in housings. The Nikonos being non-reflex, does not have a macro lens but the framing/focussing probes help to eliminate the variables of focus and composition.

There is no special underwater film and we have benefited from enormous advances in film technology over the past few years. For black and white and colour prints and colour slides we now have slow films which can record incredible contrast and detail, medium films which offer an excellent compromise of speed and quality and fast films which enable remarkably grain free images to be recorded in very low leveI of light.

Talking of light, we have to add our own, sometimes in the form of electronic flash and, just as with cameras, there are purpose built amphibious units and land flashes which can be put in housings.


As was mentioned right at the beginning, water temperature and clarity varies enormously around the globe so we have an almost infinite choice as to where we operate.

Where we choose to operate depends very much on our horizons and our budgets, but the unfortunate truth is that it is far easier to take shots in the warm clear tropical waters than it is in the cold murky temperate waters such as the UK coastline. However, master the techniques in the UK and you can produce results anywhere. It will take a lot of effort, but it will be worth It.


BSoUP is primarily a society of stills photographers, but in the not too distant future electronic imaging, which is already here with video camcorders, will start to become available in the stills world and the quality is improving rapidly.

Regardless of the future, the old adage 'Effort in equals results out' is still true with underwater photography and maybe that's what keeps us going.

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