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Wreck photography

by Peter Rowlands

Reproduced from in focus 32 (May. 1989)

One of the most difficult underwater subjects to photograph seems to be a wreck, and yet to obtain the most effective shots of these large inanimate objects the level of underwater photography expertise required is surprisingly basic, but It does rely on equipment to solve most of the problems.


When talking about wrecks, I am going to refer to the virtually intact type, which usually reside in deeper water rather than the shore based version which tend to be broken up scrap heaps of very little photographic Interest.

The main problem Is that wrecks are comparatively large and the water clarity surrounding them is far from perfect. In addition, because we are dealing with intact wrecks, they usually reside in deeper, comparatively still water where light levels are much reduced.

Despite these basic limitations, wrecks are a magnetic subject for a great many underwater photographers. If not just for the structures themselves, the prolific marine life they attract.

Equipment - Lenses

By far the most important piece of equipment for wreck photography is the lens fitted to your camera - whether it be an amphibious camera or a land camera in a housing. However, land cameras in housings do have an advantage here in that they can use full frame fisheve lenses, which cover 180°, from corner to corner. On land, these lenses give a distinct curvature to straight lines towards the edge of the frame, but luckily there are very few straight lines underwater and this curvature is mostly unobtrusive.

For amphibious cameras, such as the Nikonos or Sea and Sea Motor Marine 35, there are prime wide-angle lenses which replace the standard lens or supplementary lenses which fit onto the front of the standard lens.
Optically the prime lenses such as the Nikonos 15 mm and Sea and Sea 15 mm are. superior, but the quality of the supplementary lenses such as the Sea and Sea SWL16 and Subawider are very good at a fraction of the price. Whichever you use, the maximum angle of coverage with these lenses is about 94°. This angle of coverage should be considered as the minimum for wreck photography.

Equipment - Cameras

There is no specific advantage between one camera and another (for a change) but the most beneficial function is the ability to give automatic exposures with available light in low light levels. With these cameras, you set the and the camera provides the correct Shutter speed. The Nikonos IV and V are the only amphibious cameras which will do this, but most land SLR cameras have this ability (known as aperture priority metering or APM for short).

The reason that this form of metering is so convenient is that the most effective shots are taken by available light and the APM systems cope well with this. The best systems are the most sensitive (capable of metering very low levels of light) for they can read light levels in which the human eye would have difficulty. For, example, the Nikonos V will give accurate exposure down to around 8 seconds @ f4!

The reason that aperture priority automation is so convenient is that wrecks tend to be in deeper water where the ambient light levels are very low. The ability to use long Shutter speeds in these situations is vital to the production of successful shots.

If you don't have an automatic camera, you will have to take a light reading with a separate meter and then set the Shutter speed and aperture. However, most light meters don't read very low light levels and most manual cameras such as the Nikonos III have 1/30th second as the slowest Shutter speed. For longer speeds you need to use the 'B' setting where the shutter stays open as long as you hold the shutter button down. This means you have to count the time, which is far from accurate or use a waterproof stopwatch.

Additional light from flashguns should only be considered for lighting foreground detail rather than large areas of wreckage or if you move In closer for detailed shots of smaller sections.


The most effective technique for wreck photography is to use the available light to capture the atmosphere and, if necessary, add a small amount of flash to give colour and detail to the foreground. This additional light should not overpower the available light, otherwise the atmosphere will be upset.

Shooting by available light is very, very simple with an aperture priority camera. All you do is set the and the camera does the rest. What usually happens In dark waters is that the Shutter speeds are longer than usual. It is possible to hold a camera steady enough for a 1/30th second exposure, but for longer speeds than this there is a possibility of camera shake.

The solution Is to brace the camera on a solid piece of wreckage during the exposure or you could even use a tripod, but these tend to be cumbersome and slow down your production. which is usually already being limited by decompression time. Whichever method you choose, it is vital that the camera does not move during the exposure.

To try to keep the exposure times as short as possible, you might consider using a faster speed film - even as fast as 1000 ASA - this will give grainier results and more muted colours. If you want the sharpest results it is best to use the slowest Film speed possible.

In diving terms, you should always work as quickly as possible without rushing. This Is because you will be stirring up visibility as you go along and the best shots are taken when the water is at its clearest. This Is especially true when working under wreckage, for your exhaust bubbles will dislodge debris and cause it to rain down into the picture.

Most shots are enhanced in terms of scale and composition by including a diver in freed and their presence Is further justified if they have a torch lighting up a significant piece of wreckage which gives a focal point to the final shot.


As well at being large Inanimate objobcts, wrecks are home for a wide variety of marine life and you should not miss the opportunity to capture them on film.

Colourful marine growth thrives on bulkheads in the sheltered areas, while shoaling fish swarm around the structures. Most nooks and crannies are home to small marine life and there is usually a large conger or two, not to mention lobsters and crabs on each wreck.

For this sort of marine life a close-up lens is probably the most versatile and a flashgun must be considered essential to restore the colour and detail.


Wreck photography, especially in the UK, is a difficult task. but the structures themselves, combined with the marine life they attract, provide us with a habitat in which we can capture a wide variety of good shots.

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