Getting it together
Underwater photography cannot be reduced to a series of numbered instructions, but some
actions and decisions naturally come before others, and by establishing some sort of flow
based on priority, you can help yourself get those decisions right first time.
- What sort of shots are you going to take?
- What speed film are you going to use
- What sort of lens/port are you going to mount
- Are you going to use 1 or 2 strobes
- Are you going to need a spotting light
- Are you going to need a model
- Will he/she need a diving light
- Will he/she need a first time briefing about positioning etc.
Getting it all ready
- Load your film & batteries
- Prepare the camera / strobe / housing / arms and accessories
- Who is your dive buddy - what is their experience level and area of interest
- What is the dive plan, including air and decompression requirements
- How are you going to get in and out of the water with your camera
- Do the conditions preclude photographing - can the dive go ahead
- Is all your diving equipment working properly
Spotting your subject underwater
- What are you looking for? big or small?
- Picking one out
- Is it likely to make a good photo
- Is there a good angle to take it from
- Does it look moveable (could be placed in a better position)
What type of photo are you going to make
- Composition and framing
- The technical stuff - ambient light, stops and speeds
- How are you going to light it?
- Visual design - making the most of it.
- Creeping up on the critters
- Wait until you see the whites of their eyes
- Shoot it again in landscape (or portrait)
- Bracket your exposure
Learn from your successes, and your mistakes
- Criticise your results
- What worked (do it next time)
- What didn't work (don't do it next time)
There is no doubt that there is a wide range of subjects that only come out at night,
and which you will never even be aware of during the day. Some of them, such as the
translucent coral polyps, the shrimps, and the Spanish Dancers, are subjects many times
more beautiful than most of the subjects you are likely to see during the day.
You will certainly need some form of light, if only to see by, and if you have an
autofocus camera, then you will need a reasonable light shining straight in front of the
lens to permit the camera to focus. Be aware also that certain creatures, such as feather
stars and coral polyps are light sensitive, and will curl up or retract as soon as you
shine your torch or spotting light on them, so keep your focusing light as dim and diffuse
Environmental awareness is as important at night as during the day, so don't bump into
coral any more than you would during the day. Certain fish at night are also much easier
to approach, as they are asleep, but be careful not to disturb them, as they can swim off
blindly into the dark and may damage themselves and the coral they bump into.
I find that while many night creatures are welcome, every urchin in the sea comes out
at night, and I have had problems in the past finding a clear patch of sand to kneel
gently on without filling myself with spines. For this reason buoyancy is even more
important at night than it is during the day, and your diving skills have really got to be
spot on. The darkness at night provides few visual clues, and navigation becomes
consequently harder. If you are not an experienced night photographer, then I would
recommend that your first few sorties are accompanied by someone with more experience, who
isn't taking a camera, and can guide you round, letting you take photographs without
worrying about the environment.
Let's hope it never happens to you, but it's worth examining what to do if you 'burn
I'd like to think that burn-out occurs when one shoots a lot of film but fails to
produce anything new that you consider worth showing, effectively reproducing the same old
stuff over and over again, and getting more and more frustrated doing so.
Try and examine what you are doing wrong. Usually in my case, it happens when I dive in
a group, and don't get enough time to give the shot what it deserves. On other occasions I
have been fooled into thinking there is more light than there really is (the human eye is
enormously adaptive), and I come home with a lot of dark shots.
If it's a 'creative block', there are various ways to break out of this, including
- Start looking in more detail at land photography, particularly landscapes and
macro-photography. Go to a local park or botanical gardens and shoot one roll of
wide-angle and macro shots using the same techniques you would underwater, then shoot
another roll using a more traditional land based approach. Ask a non-photographer which
shots they prefer and why.
- Take a break - do something else completely unrelated for a while (not Diving!) and do
it well, then come back refreshed, and ready to take a new view.
- Find another artist, not necessarily a photographer, and have a good brain-storming
session with them. Don't let your ideas become initially limited by budget, but let them
establish in their own way, then, try to work out a way to achieve your vision within your
- Study your photographs. From the failures, create a list of areas that need improvement
including both objective and subjective elements. Write down the notes on the photographs
concerning form, lighting, colours, contrast and composition, then sit down and write out
an assignment that focuses on only one of the areas to be improved, stating the success
criteria, so that you know when you have reached that goal. Then go out and do the
assignment. The process of evaluating and improving your photography should be an ongoing
process that produces its own rewards and helps over come burn out.
- Walk out of your house early one morning, and walk for exactly 20 minutes at a brisk
pace in any direction you care to. At the end of the 20 minutes, commit yourself to
shooting a roll of film from within a five-foot circle of where you ended up, using
whatever equipment, film, and gadgets you have at your disposal.
- Phone up your local aquarium stockist, and ask if you can take some aquarium shots of
their marine animals. Not only will you get to see some wonderful creatures that you
probably have never seen in the sea, but you will be faced with a new set of challenges to
overcome with lighting, diffraction, reflections etc., all of which should help get your
brain in gear again.
This page was last updated on 11 August 1998
Please address any comments to Mark