Words and Photos by Gavin Parsons
Confidence is something I wasn't short of when I started underwater photography. After all I had been a photographer - both amateur and professional - for nearing five years when I picked up my first Nikonos. I'd been diving for almost six months and so knew how to breathe and use the equipment.
So I went for it and was deflated like a beach ball on a barbeque. The results were terrible. They were exposed correctly and most were almost sharp, but the composition was off, and the subject lost in the frame. I couldn't understand it and put it down to the unfamiliar equipment. The Nikonos V is a rangefinder camera and I hadn't used such an antiquated system since college. My second roll though was just as bad - one good image - I thought I'd better get some help.
I looked at books and magazines, noted the positions of the subjects and how the light had been set. I started to realise where I was going wrong and made notes on what I wanted out of the next roll.
I had fallen into the usual beginner traps - not moving close enough into the subject and shooting downwards.
Getting into the action
Underwater photography, unlike conventional wildlife photography needs to be conducted up close. To get the best results you have to put as little water between your lens and the subject as possible. Water is terrible stuff: it holds small particles that reduce the contrast and sharpness of your image; disperses light and absorbs parts of the visible spectrum. Thankfully, if you are very patient most fish and other marine animals will let you get so close you can almost pet them.
Add some artificial light into the picture and you should get a stunning result. Underwater, flashes are called strobes and are as essential as the camera itself. As I said, water absorbs various parts of the visible spectrum - reds and oranges first followed by yellows and greens - the photographer has to replace them. Strobes come in various sizes and while many photographers believe they need the biggest, a medium sized unit is perfect. Except for the most basic 'compact style' cameras, most flashes are off the camera and connected via an arm and lead.
When shooting with flash it is, obviously, important to get the exposure right. These days most units come TTL ready and should give the correct light in all, but the most tricky conditions. The photographer though has to ensure it is pointed in the right direction. Sounds simple, but that tricky little sucker - water - has another curve ball to throw. Not only does it muck up the quality of the image, but it also refracts the light so your subject appears closer and larger than it really is. Some photographers use a touch mounted on their strobe. It pinpoints the spot the strobe is pointed. However, it doesn't work in bright conditions. You can also get laser pointers, but I prefer the good old guess method. A little gamble actually makes the photography more fun for me - more human and with the potential to go wrong. It makes you experiment more than rely on the clinical technology.
With the quality of the image taken care of, the most important element must be tackled - composition. There is, of course, the rule of thirds. It is just as important under the waves as above it. But there is one rule above all others in underwater photography. A few exceptions aside (every rule must have an exception) an underwater photographer must shoot looking up at their subject. Marine life lives in not so much a survival of the fittest world, but a survival of the hidden. Good camouflage means you'll survive - probably - but it also means you're damn hard to photograph well. When the idea is to blend in with the background trying to get a clear shot is tricky. The secret is to get a plain background rather than a cluttered one. The best way to do that is to use the clear water above the sea floor. Makes sense when you think about it, but it's not always that easy to achieve.
When photographing in the tropics, the coral reef environment offers a cornucopia of subjects, but virtually everything you could touch is alive. Touch it and it will die. It puts a massive responsibility on a photographer's shoulders. Many take that and act responsibly. Some though want a shot no matter what they have to break, kill or damage. It is important to stress to anyone who is keen to start underwater photography that as well as learning how to take a picture, you must also be environmentally aware. If you have to damage anything to take a shot - don't take it.
There is a saying about underwater photography equipment that is quite apt: Take the cost of land photography and add another 0 on the end. It is expensive and if something goes wrong, you very often have to buy a whole new system.
There are two real routes to take.
Amphibious cameras such as the Sea and Sea MX10, Motormarine II or Nikonos V are perfect for beginners and provide a good starting block. All have interchangeable lenses, a choice of strobes and various other accessories to alter the style of photography from macro to wide-angle. Also the second-hand market in all these units is fairly buoyant meaning you can get a full system for a fraction of the price. If you decide on this option always ensure the camera and strobes are fully serviced and sound.
By far the most popular option these days is the housed camera system. This is a standard land camera such as a Nikon F90x or F100 inside a watertight case. Most are aluminium, but there are Perspex models as well. It gives the user full access to the interchangeable lenses and the technology of modern land systems. Housed cameras seem the best choice and arguably are, but they are also the most expensive. Housings are not cheap, and then you have to add the cost of a port and gears for the lens, a strobe or two and then pray none of it goes wrong.
If I haven't put you off underwater photography then I'm glad, come and join the rest of us. The euphoria of getting great results is addictive and the boost to your confidence at seeing that first great result is indescribable. Although it may take some time.
Gavin Parsons is a professional underwater photographer and has been the editor of Sport Dive magazine, madforscuba.com and is the owner of the picture library h2o-images. To see more of his work and even buy a print take a look at his website at www.h2o-images.co.uk