Dive In
10 Easy Tips For Underwater Action

Want great depth of field in your close-up photographs, as illustrated in this picture of a sea anemone? Then shoot with a wide angle lens set at a small aperture. (Sea&Sea CX-600 housing, dome port, Canon Rebel G w/14mm lens, Kodachrome 64.)
Photos © 1998, Rick Sammon, All Rights Reserved

Last year in Shutterbug, I offered 10 reasons why a topside photographer might want to dive into underwater photography. My reasons included: challenging yourself with one of the most rewarding photo specialties around; putting your photo skills to work for a marine conservation organization; displaying underwater pictures on your home or office wall that will delight viewers; and traveling to tropical paradises around the world to have fun with your hobby.

This year, I offer 10 catchy phrases to help scuba diving shooters remember some important photo techniques. Here goes:
1. Testing, 1, 2, 3. If you don't test your gear, you may come back from a dive trip with washed out pictures--or your trip may be a total washout from a picture standpoint.

Here are the three tests I recommend. One, test your camera in a pool before you leave home. Two, test your camera in a pool once you get to your vacation destination. Three, shoot a test roll on the reef.

When testing your camera or housing, try all camera controls, shoot a roll of 36 exposure film, have your film processed by a reliable lab, and then evaluate your results.

2. The name of the game is to fill the frame. Want boring pictures? Then include lots of blue water and white sand in your pictures. Want interesting pictures? Then move in or zoom in close and fill the frame with interesting subjects: divers, fish, coral formations, etc.

3. Backlight, shoot tight. Natural-light silhouettes of manta rays, whale sharks, schools of fish, and divers swimming between you and the surface of the water can be very dramatic--if you shoot tight around your subject. If you don't shoot tight, the background (underside of the water's surface) will probably be overexposed when you shoot on automatic.

Two flashes provided shadowless lighting in this portrait of two long-nose hawkfish. (Ikelite underwater housing, flat port, Nikon N8008 w/60mm macro lens, Kodachrome 64.)

4. Hand holding is a good thing. The biggest enemy of underwater photographers is something called "backscatter"--particles that are illuminated in the water when a flash is fired. To eliminate or reduce these annoying and distracting white dots in a picture (which create what looks like an underwater snowstorm in a picture), hold your flash off-camera--as far as possible. When you hold the flash off-camera, only the sides of the particles are illuminated--and not the part of the particles that are facing the camera. The particles are still there, but they are less visible--and sometimes totally invisible.

Bracketing begets smiling. If you shoot slide film (like I do), you will want to bracket your pictures to ensure good results. The easiest way to bracket is to take multiple exposures varying your ISO setting with your camera set in an automatic mode. Here's how to do it: Take one exposure with your ISO set at the recommend setting, then take an exposure with the ISO set at 1/2 the ISO number, and then take another exposure with the ISO set at double the ISO number. Example: Shoot at ISO 100, then 50, then 200. Remember: Reset your ISO after you are finished bracketing your exposures.

If you shoot prints, there is no need to bracket because color print film has a wide (forgiving) exposure latitude. In fact, if you are just starting out, you may want to use print film while you are mastering the basics of underwater photography. For beginners, I'd suggest using ISO 400 film because it lets you shoot at a faster shutter speed (to stop action) and smaller f/stop (for good depth of field) than slower films.

6. Gettin' up-close counts--big time. Professional photographers choose wide angle (20mm) and super wide angle (12mm, 14mm, and 15mm) lenses for most of their underwater photography--because these lenses let them get close to their subjects--in an environment that is 800 times more dense than air. The wider the lens, the closer the shooter can get to the subject--and the sharper your pictures will be.
Naturally, close-up lenses and kits, extension tubes, and macro lenses will produce super sharp and super colorful pictures, too.

The advantage of using two flashes is that you can eliminate virtually all shadows in a picture, as illustrated by this picture of a frogfish. (Sea&Sea CX-600 housing, flat port, Canon Rebel G w/60mm lens, Kodachrome 64.)

7. Beware the background. The background can make or break a picture. When composing a picture, make sure a diver's fin, fish tail, anchor line, and so on are not "sticking out of your subject's head." Also, when taking fish and diver portraits, try to choose a plain background--like the deep blue sea or a evenly colored patch of coral.

8. Tell the whole story. During your dive trip, take wide angle and close-up pictures--above and underwater. That's right, capture the action on your dive boat and around your resort, too. Then, when you are showing your slides or photo album, your friends and family can relive your entire experience.

9. Get a camera caddie. If my wife, Susan, reads this, she'll kill me. Only kidding. Susan is my partner in our book publishing venture (we have 20 books). Topside, she helps with the planning, writing, and production. But underwater, she holds two cameras for me. She's a great "camera caddie," as well as an excellent fish critter spotter.

My point: If you can get someone to carry a camera or two for you, you can take a wider variety of pictures than if you are diving with just one camera.

10. Never give up. Hey, I know, first-hand that underwater photography can be frustrating--even with the very best equipment. When you are going through your pictures, please try to remember this: Most professionals, including yours truly, are happy with one great shot per roll. So, never give up. Don't get discouraged.

The old adage, "The name of the game is to fill the frame," applies when composing pictures underwater. In other words, avoid "dead space" (lots of open water and sand) in your pictures. (Sea&Sea CX-600 housing, dome port, Canon Rebel G w/20mm lens, Elite Chrome 200.)

Systems For Scuba Diving Shooters

There are many underwater cameras for scuba divers who are just getting their feet wet with underwater photography. Cameras are also available for serious shooters who are fortunate enough to have a small fortune to spend on gear.

Here's a look at just a few of the cameras around--starting with the least expensive (about $10) going up to most expensive (about $8000). In reading about the following cameras, please keep in mind that an underwater flash (from $100-$1000) is a must if you want accurate color, especially when diving below 10'. In-camera flashes may provide enough light to bring out the color of a subject, but off-camera flashes are the choice of advanced amateurs and pros.

One-Time Use Cameras. Topside, 35mm one-time use cameras deliver surprisingly good results. Underwater, these cameras take okay natural light pictures--if you follow the recommended shooting distance (usually about 6'). Another recommendation to follow: Don't go deeper than the maximum depth (usually about 15').

One-Time Use Camera Housing. Ikelite, one of the oldest names in underwater photo gear, makes a housing for popular 35mm and APS cameras. The two main advantages of the housing: one, you can use flash-model cameras underwater; two, the housing features a sports finder for easy fish framing.

Epoque ET-100 Plus. I'd call this camera the Epoque Easy because it's one of the easiest cameras to use underwater. This 35mm camera has a 45mm lens for fun, fish and fin shots, a built-in flash for flashy pictures, and auto film wind for action shots.
Sea Life Reef Master. Don't know a f/stop from a fish cleaning stop (spots on the reef where fish go to get parasites and dead scales picked off their body)? Well, check out the Reef Master. It's a fully automatic 35mm camera for novice dives who are just diving into underwater photography.

Minolta Vectis Weathermatic Zoom. The Advanced Photo System (APS) has made the news on land. Now, Minolta makes underwater news with its Vectis Weathermatic Zoom. Want a reef scene? Shoot at the 30mm setting in the "P" (Panorama) mode. How about a fish portrait? Then switch to the 50mm setting in the "C" (Conventional) mode. And how about those group shots of divers floating over the reef? Then shoot in the "H" mode (named after the wide High Definition Television format).

EWA Marine Underwater Housings. Please. Don't call these rugged plastic, flexible housings, complete with optical glass ports, "plastic bags." Sure, they look like thick plastic bags, but they do the job of a sturdy housing. Housings are available for still and video cameras.
Sea&Sea Motor Marine II EX. Want versatility in a viewfinder-type camera at an affordable price? Then, this compact and lightweight camera is worth checking out. Accessory wide angle and close-up lenses are available that, get this, can be switched underwater. Sea&Sea also offers a line of flashes and flash accessories for single and dual flash photography.

Nikonos V. This rugged workhorse of a viewfinder-type camera is popular among professionals and advanced amateurs. It accepts the super-sharp Nikonos lenses (15mm, 20mm, 28mm, and 35mm) and Nikonos flashes and accessories (including a close-up kit and extension tubes). Off-brand lenses and accessories are also available for this time-proven camera.

Underwater Housings For AF SLR Cameras. Have a Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Olympus, or Pentax AF SLR? If you do, and if you are serious about having total control of all camera functions underwater, then you might want to consider an underwater housing, available from Ikelite, Nikon, and Sea&Sea, to name a few. Housings, complete with flat ports (for macro lenses) and dome ports (for wide angle lenses) can run from $1000 to several thousands of dollars.

A Way Cool Accessory. For the super-serious underwater shooters, Ikelite offers an underwater flash meter. Cool, don't you think?
Want in-depth information on the latest and greatest underwater cameras, systems, and accessories? See the manufacturer's list above.

Beseler (Epoque; Novice camera)
1600 Lower Rd.
Linden, NJ 07036
(800) 237-3537
(908) 862-7999
fax: (908) 862-2464

310 S Racine Ave.
Chicago, IL 60670
(312) 421-6000
fax: (312) 421-2804

Ikelite Underwater Systems (Housings,
flashes, accessories)
50 West 33rd St.
Indianapolis, IN 46206
(317) 923-4523

Mamiya (Sekonic
underwater light
8 Westchester Plaza
Elmsford, NY 10523
(914) 347-3300
www.sekonic.com or www.mamiya.com

Nikon Inc. (Pro/amateur camera, flashes,
1300 Walt Whitman Rd.
Melville, NY 11747
(516) 547-4200
fax: (516) 547-0362

Pioneer Research and Marketing (Sea Life Reef Master; Novice camera)
97 Foster Rd., Ste. 5
Moorestown, NJ 08057
(800) 257-7742
(609) 866-9191
fax: (609) 866-8615

RTS (EWA Marine; Flexible housings)
40 -11 Burt Drive
Deer Park, NY 11729
(516) 242-6801
fax: (516) 242-6808

Sea&Sea Underwater Photo (Pro/novice cameras, housings, flashes, accessories)
2105 Camino Vida Oble, Ste. L
Carlsbad, CA 92009
(800) 732-7977
(760) 929-1909
fax: (760) 929-0098

Subal USA (Housings)
201 S Milpas St. #103
Santa Barbara, CA 93103
(805) 965-2290

Underwater Photo Tech (They can repair your leaky gear)
16 Manning St., Ste. 104
Derry, NH 03038
(603) 432-1997
fax: (603) 432-4702