This page is not a  photography course (I'm not so expert) . What I want to do here is just to share my experiences with all those amateurs who want to start trying taking underwater pictures

To be short ,I structured this page taking the assumption that the reader already knows the fundamentals of photography such as strobe guiding number, exposure and shutter concepts , film speed , depth-of-field and so on. However these principals could be found in any of the thousands books which are  available in specialized stores or on line .

Of course I hope that these few lines will be useful to those who , either by chance or by choice, are browsing my site .If so and  if , by using my tips and suggestions , some one  has made some interesting picture, just let me know , I'll be willing to share them in my site.

This page is divided in 7 sessions . In any of each I'll try to say my point of view . Sessions are:

1. WHAT YOU NEED TO START

2. EQUIPMENT

3. THE STROBE

4. FILM

5. CLOSE-UP PHOTOGRAPHY

6.LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY

7. EQUIPMENT MAINTENANCE

 

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1. WHAT YOU NEED TO START.

First of all two 'must' :

1) A good underwater diving experience  .

2) Basic knowledge of photography.

Of course passion and patience are considered as default . Regarding the above item 1) I consider this as a  ''must'' prerequisite . If you have just attended a 3 days  course during your latest vacation, just wait a while before buying an uw camera . Taking pictures underwater requires a series of variables to be handled (focus, exposure , strobe, etcc) which are on top of those that any good diver is supposed to control. If you are not well familiar with the latter yet , take it easy and make more practice . If you have a real passion and , really, look forward to making your first snapshot, just consider your first dives as a good way to exercise your ability by seeing . Right ! I said by seeing . How many divers are really able to see ?  I mean looking at the particular or recognize a fish or whatever . So start seeing! , freeze some image in your brain and , when the dive is over, try to classify what you have seen by using a good underwater life book or magazine . I may suggest a wonderful site ,  www.mondomarino.it  (in Italian), whereas you may find thousand of pictures classified by biologists with a search engine which will give you the possibility to easily recognize any animal or vegetable.

Item 2) is less important . Who is seriously thinking to buy un an underwater camera , I suppose ,has already had some photography  experiences .All what you know about photography is , somehow, valid underwater as well . 

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2. EQUIPMENT

We can not escape from the evidence ! The main enemy of  UW photo amateurs is the wallet . Don't pretend to take good pictures with your ''use once'' camera closed in a plastic bag . This may be acceptable to keep it dry when you sail .If you are spending time in reading this page , I suppose you are a bit over and you have set more aggressive goals ! Well , here your pain is starting ! Even though you start with a low-cost motomarine (excellent !) well soon You'll wont to add a new lens , a more powerful strobe , a particular feature to make close-up-photography  . All this will cost much more than an equivalent out-of-water equipment. However let's start to take at look at this equipment. UW cameras can be divided in two major categories : A)  amphibious and  B) housing.

A) AMPHIBIOUS CAMERAS . As far as I know there are a couple available : The Sea and Sea Motomarine and the ''mythic'' NIKONOS , heiress of the historic CALYPSO , idea of Jacques Cousteau. Even though it is out of production I prefer a bit more the second one (to be honest I never used a motomarine), mainly because You can use excellent lenses . I owned for 20 years a NIKONS III , fully manual, with a 28 mm , a 35 mm and the superb 15 mm . Most of the pictures You may find in the photo gallery were made with this camera. It was a fully manual camera (electronic chip was not even invented at that time) . Everything had to be evaluated from experience , from the focus to the exposure . Nevertheless I would still suggest to buy one . It is possible to find some well reconditioned and perfectly working . Don't expect to realize more than 10 - 15% of good pictures from each film , even after a long practice, but,  believe me its is an excellent school . Once you own one of them you'll never sell it . In the session dedicated to both close-up and landscape I will give you some suggestions regarding the use of manual cameras  . The last  version of the no-reflex NIKONS series is the model V . It is an automatic camera even though the electronic is older than 15 years . Last but not least, let me spend few words upon the NIKON RS . It has been  the first  and unique, UW amphibious reflex camera. It is an object I never understood . It weights a lot, is larger than an housing, it costs much more and , the electronic is the same of the NIKON 801 (8008); revolutionary for the late 80's but nothing compared to the latest (I'm not talking about digital). However , I suppose that many photographer had my same idea regarding this ''object'' since the RS was put out of production few years ago and, as far I know, it has never had a deep market penetration. 

Figure 1: The Nikonos III: A myth

B)  HOUSING. Congratulations ! If You have got this point of the page , you are pretty crazy like I'm. Unless you are a professional (and an expensive housing is an investment) , or  rich enough , You will spend entire nights asleep before doing this step.. but... at the end you'll do it. There are different types of housing: Plastic made and metal made. The first are a bit cheaper and, usually, adaptable to more camera brands . The latter are more expensive and can dress just one camera model. In 90% of the cases these are dedicated to NIKON cameras while the remaining 10% are dedicated to mostly CANON . Housing for other brands such as CONTAX and OLYMPUS are very unusual (Who knows why ?) At this point you raise the mother of all the questions : What comes first :the camera or the housing ?.. I mean , is it better to buy the housing for your trusty loved F90 or find the perfect housing with a new camera inside ? If you own either an expensive or an old camera (you would never change) such as an F5 or 8008 , my suggestion is not to buy an housing for these camera. You may buy an entry model of the same brand and an housing for this model (eg NIKON F65 for this brand). In this way you may use all the lenses and  the housing is for sure cheaper and smaller. On the other end , if you are just an  amateur ,  you don' t need underwater all the expensive automatism that high level models can offer such as fast shutter speed  or focus tracking and so on. Last but not least advantage is that ,in case of floo.... (this words should not even mentioned) , the economic impact will be much lower. Whit this approach , make sure, you will have all what you need from the autofocus , to the TTL mode to the possibility to use the best optics of your preferred brand . I personally own an F60 (out of production) NIKON Camera within a HUGYFOT housing . 

Figure 2: Subal Housing for NIKON F100

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3.  THE STROBE

An other object you can not avoid to buy is the strobe . Don't worry, I'm not going to cover here the theory of light transmission through the fluids . Whoever , who has already put the head under the level of the water has already an idea why a strobe should not be considered a feature. Over 10- 15 meters  50% of the colours are gone . Underwater , a strobe is not just a light source but, above all, the only way to give back to a subject its own real colour. You can find a lot of strobes on the market with different characteristics and prices . Two variables should be taken in consideration when buying  a strobe:

1) The guide number GN (ground value) . This is the aperture we should set in air to take a good picture one meter (feet) from the subject . Since the GN is a number with a dimension (distance/aperture) you should take attention when interpreting the GN and see whether it is calculated  in meters or feet.  Underwater , the guide number should be approximately divided by 2 depending on the visibility , etcc . The GN is a good parameter of the power of the strobe. You may find in commerce strobes with GN from 17 (in meters) , good enough to be used for close-up,  to 30 and over.

2) The second parameter is the illuminating angle (in degree ) . This is the angle of the cone of the light . If you are planning to use a strobe for close-up photography, 70 should be more than sufficient. Different story if your passion is the 15 mm wide angle lens or a fish-eye . You will need a strobe with more than 100 of lighting angle. Of course the price increases more than proportionally from the first to the latter.

I did not mention an other parameter since  I consider it a bit less important : the colour temperature (K Kelvin degrees) . I will not cover the meaning of this parameter since I would like you to continue reading this page. You just need to know that a good strobe should have a colour temperature around 5400 K which is pretty similar of that one of sun in normal conditions. Cooler strobes (less than 5000 K) tend to advantage red colours while warmer strobes (higher than 5600 K ) may advantage the blue colours. Special filters may be used to correct the colour temperature.......OK, got it ! ...I stop it !  

Unless you already own an old strobe, as of today , all new strobes have the TTL feature . TTL is an acronym (Though the lens) .These strobes are able to ''speak '' with the camera. The amount of light they shut is based on what the camera sees and depends on the setting of all parameters (shutter speed, aperture, ISO etc..). To my opinion this is a very good feature but, be careful, it can bring excellent results just in particular conditions. If in your image there are strong contrast (eg a dark animal against clear corals ) and /or the subject covers just a small part of the image, the TTL may be a trap and completely fail .

Figure 3: Ikelite SS200 . A latest generation strobe.

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4. FILM

Very good !! Amphibious or housing here we are . Ready to wet your brand new equipment . In front of the sea, You feel mixed: From one side you already image  the next coming winter when you will invite all your friends to share with you your 2500 pictures you made last summer (the same stupid fish in 25 positions) . On the other end.... my good .. I'm gonna put underwater all these money ...I may be a bit crazy ! But before taking the important step , an other question, what about the film ? Don't waste time , all what you know about film is valid underwater as well. Either your goal is close-up or landscape, my suggestion is to use low speed films (100 ISO max) . I personally use only 2 types of films : KODAK ECHTACROME 64 EPR Professional and FUJI 50 ISO VELVIA: They cost a bit more than normal films... but . .. with all what you have spent so far  do you want to save money on the films ???

Finally you are underwater ! along with your equipment and your camera . While You go down you look at it . Once at the bottom, just a stop of a couple of minutes to be sure everything is ok . Ready to take the first picture. At this point a couple of tips . Start with taking several pictures of the same subject changing from time to time  the main parameters in manual mode (bracketing methodology)  , then try with different modes (aperture priority, shutter priority), again changing the parameters , Now the strobe in manual and TTL mode. If possible take some notes. You should spend the first dives in this way moving from close-up to landscape.   

If your camera is either manual or electronic used in manual mode with also the strobe in manual mode, let's begin to exercise your eye. Trying is the rule not the exception !. Let me give you a suggestion based on my experience . If you are taking close-up pictures with a film speed of  around 50-60 ISO and a medium power strobe, let's say GN 24 (in meters ground value) , try with f 11-16 on dark subjects and 16-22 on clear ones. With the same film and strobe but for landscape picture you may use as reference the table above which is based on my own experience.. 

 

Distance in meters from the subject Aperture
0.8 f 11
1.0 f 8
1.2-1.4 f 5.6

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5. CLOSE-UP PHOTOGRAPHY

Up to now we have been talking about technology . All this knowledge will not  be useful if not to properly used . In this and the following sessions I will try to give you some basic tips regarding what to do and what not to do to avoid the major and common errors . These simple notes come from my own experience and hundred of pictures finished into the waste basket . However I want to be clear : an handbook for the ''perfect picture'' has not been written yet . Your eye and creativity will always make the difference. A picture you love may be considered worthless by other. These notes are a starting point . The remaining depends on you. .

I start with close-up photography since , to me .this is the practice which gives to beginners  the first good results . Either you use amphibious cameras with add-on close-up lenses or housing with specialized optics. this will be enough to obtain  interesting snapshots.

To take close-up pictures you have 3 possibilities . 1) close-up extension tubes , 2) Add-on lenses  3) specialized ''air'' optics named micro (or macro) within an housing.  Options  1 and 2 are available for amphibious cameras . There are a couple of differences between the 2 options .Extension tubes ( option1) must be mounted between the camera and the lens . They can offer higher close-up ratios (up to 2:1) . The option 2 can give you the possibility to mount the lens on top while you are underwater without the need to dedicate the entire dive to the close-up but , usually can not go over the 1:2 enlargement ratio .Both options  guarantee a perfect focus since, usually, the focus area is well identified in mechanical mode by a metal arm (with the  right length) built in with the lens or the extension tube. This advantage is , at the same time , the major disadvantage of this system. If your subject is a vegetable or , anyway, static, no problems . Different story if your subject is a fish . It will be very difficult to convince it to stay frozen while you put on its head a metal square or arm . It will disappear in  nanoseconds  letting you very upset. I said difficult but not impossible! You should use  patience. Get closer and closer to the fish like a predator making possible it gets used to your strange presence . Then , You do not have to touch the fish head with the close-up arm. Just stay few centimeters (the closer the better) far from it and shut. In this way the in-depth field , very small with this kind of equipment, should guarantee the image to be at focus anyway.   In my page dedicated to the Mediterranean  you may see same ''big faces'' of fishes . I made those picture by using the just described technique.  Option number 3 is , to my opinion, enough to justify the investment of a ''normal '' reflex with a dedicated  housing . There are superb optics specialized for macro which can give you the possibility to make 1:1 ratio close-ups staying over 20 centimeters from the subject. I personally use a NIKKOR 105 micro f 2.8. Uncredible!

When You take close-up pictures , an element which usually is not taken into the correct consideration is the background . If your subject is not big enough to cover the entire image, the background is , usually , on a different layer. A good use of the background can be used to give better evidence to the subject while a wrong use of it can destroy a potential good snapshot. My suggestion is to freeze the subject from the background. When subject and background are on the same layer , the best is  to have both well at focus and illuminated. Try to get out (not destroy !) of the field any other element which could by on a different layer such as seaweeds or other. Those could, in fact, either  appear not at focus or over exposed . Any time the main subject is somehow manageable try to cut it of the background by using a closed aperture (f16-22) in manual mode in order to obtain a dark background . This should intensify colours and details of the subject.

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6. LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY

Landscape photography is a continuous experiment .  Variables to be handled are many and the '' behavior'' of each of them could give different results from time to time. However what for sure is a must is the perfect knowledge of your equipment  Experience does the remaining part of the job. 

The first element to be taken in consideration is the subject which should appear well harmonized with the background to give the snapshot a depth . Easy to say that a wide angle lens should be used (28 mm minimum). In a good composition of the image the main subject should appear on the first plane lightly moved form the center. Ideally cut the image into four quadrants and put the main subject into one of the quadrants at the corner close to the center of the image. Focus and light will be calculated with the main subject taking in consideration the influence of the background in order not the have it too much under or over exposed . Be careful  to the automatism (TTL) of the strobe . It considers just the center  of the image to calculate the amount of light which will be shut (see also chapter # 3). An other suggestion: never take pictures from above to the bottom . I do not personally like to much those pictures which seems to be taken from a plane . To me , while making photos underwater, all the landscapes should be from the bottom toward the surface in order to use the sun light and  give depth to the image. When doing that  be careful not to touch corals and other delicate elements.

Understood that the natural light has to be present the most possible in  landscape photography, a second element to consider is the correct dosage between this and the artificial light. If used electronic cameras, this operation will be easier (caution nevertheless to the rigidity of the automatisms of the  programmed cameras). If worked in manual , take the exposure on the background and use the flash in such manner that the distance between this and your subject is such to require  the same aperture. By working between f 5.6 and f 8 with distances from the subject of about a meter, in sufficient clear waters and with strobes of middle power, You should be able to obtain good starting conditions from which to take additional snapshots with one stop +/-  When photographing in this manner take also in consideration the importance of the colour of the subject on the final result.

The correct utilization of the strobe is a third element to consider. If you own just one strobe , better to use it not mounted on arm, carrying it 10 to 20 cm  ahead the lens level  and  toward the subject sideways trying  to have a sufficient  angle subject / strobe / yourself. Do not exaggerate, you will risk, to take a picture of your strobe (I could fill-up a whole gallery of strobe portraits). The advantage of the utilization of the strobe in this manner is  to reduce the disagreeable effect of the suspension reflection  and  to approach the light source to the subject to be photographed. If you own  two strobes, not being an octopus, you will have to use arms mounted on your camera . 

A final advice for those , like myself, who use to organize their dives with diving organizations around the world. Most of the times you will be the only one carrying a camera . You will have to manage the group since no one will share your needs .One of the major defects I address to these organization is the bad habit to dive at ''high speed'' . The must is not to observe the sea life but to finish the tour whatever it happens. If this is the case ask your guide to get the possibility to dive on your own with the agreement to remain visible to the group anyway . In this  way you may have a possibility to get that bit of calm you need reducing the risk to photograph dozens of fins ,legs and other unwanted ''pieces'' of divers. Do this just under agreement. If not possible , better you switch your camera off and follow the breed. You will avoid to get frustrated. 

 

 

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7. EQUIPMENT MAINTENANCE

The following few lines are about the maintenance of your equipment. You will be with me that so much money put in water  deserve   a special attention.

Maintenance , like for homes or cars, could be split into ordinary and extraordinary. The first is quite simple. However some basic rules should be followed to avoid unexpected effects. Before diving is suggested to inspect all the external o-rings and  lubricate them if needed  with silicone grease.  Please do not use a ton of grease each time Put a small amount of silicone onto your fingers and draw the o-ring through your fingers until it is evenly coated . In this manner you can also double check to the touch  the integrity of the o-ring against small abrasions or microscopic residues.. When fully coated let wait few minutes before re-installing the o-rings into their channels. You may use a moistened cotton swab to clean the o-ring channel.

After diving wash everything with fresh water . Do not use either air or water under pressure since you could risk to condense the humidity which is in the air closed into the housing or camera. Even though the humidity is not salt , the electronic components of your camera do not love it for sure. 

For the strobe are valid similar consideration with one suggestion in addition. If your strobe has in-built batteries, before storing it for a long period fully make them flat  and re-charge them completely. Repeat this operation average any other month. In this way the life of the batteries will last longer .

The extraordinary maintenance should be done by specialized labs. Usually it consists in cleaning all the o-rings which can not be reached externally .  When you dive the salt water under pressure gets the sealing margins of the internal o-rings with a pressure much higher than the ground-level one. Even though you wash your equipment after diving, the clear water will never reach the same pressure with risk that some salt residues may remain ''captured'' ruining the integrity of the o-rings. Depending on the usage an extraordinary maintenance is recommended once a year or any other year max. 

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Luciano Fiorentini. 2004

 

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