My first underwater camera was a Kodak single-use disposable: 27 exposures of ISO 800 film (good in low-light conditions) wrapped in bulky blue and yellow plastic. I was 15 years old and as excited to try underwater photography as I was inexperienced. Two of the prints were worth keeping; the rest went straight into the bin. Colors were muted, images were grainy, there was no contrast, and my composition was tragic.
Professional results require a professional set up
I’ve since learned that a decent underwater photo starts with a wide-angle lens (to keep everything in focus) and a flash (to restore the full color spectrum to your shot, since water absorbs the red and orange wavelengths of sunlight, making everything appear to have a blue-green cast).
A professional underwater housing (or waterproof casing) for your DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera) will cost upwards of a thousand dollars, and then a flash unit or two will be another few hundred dollars.
A number of underwater housings are available for compact cameras in the $200-300 range, bringing point-and-shoot photography into the hands of the diver. However, without a flash or dedicated lens (specific to this type of photography), the results are likely to compete for a place in the trash with my early attempts.
Today’s digital cameras make it much easier to capture something worth keeping, thanks to instant feedback and virtually unlimited exposures. Most people today use digital cameras, since they help even amateur photographers take some truly spectacular photos. Film is now primarily a medium for those who develop their photos themselves – expert photographers who have mastered every step of the process can get more out of a standard film camera than its digital counterpart, and most professional photographers today work in both film and digital. Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, however, I find underwater photography is best accomplished with a digital camera.
HD technology and underwater filming
Underwater filming has improved dramatically since Ernest and George Williamson produced their silent black-and-white film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1916, 26 years before the aqualung was invented. It’s amazing what those filmmakers were able to accomplish merely by waterproofing their camera equipment and using mirrors. Fortunately, the development of breathing apparatuses has kept up with advances in camera equipment, making underwater filming much easier for modern videographers.
HD technology has had a similar effect on underwater filming as digital technology has had on underwater photography: it brings great shots more easily within your grasp. With high-definition videography, hours rather than minutes of footage can be captured; camera settings can be altered as light, color, and visibility change; the equipment is lighter and more maneuverable.
Appropriate equipment will rectify many of the problems I encountered with my old disposable, but all the high-tech gadgets in the world can’t help a diver maintain composure under the water. That all comes down to spending plenty of time below the surface and becoming familiar with aquatic environments. It’s a different world down there, and it requires considerable skill to manipulate yourself and your (often bulky) equipment without disturbing your surroundings. An amateur photographer wielding a point-and-shoot can quickly become his own worst enemy as he clambers to snap anything that moves and bumps into fragile coral formations with one eye fixed to the viewfinder. It’s even tougher if the water’s cold or there are currents to fight.
Belize is a great place to attempt underwater photography and filming – the calm Caribbean waters of Belize’s coral atolls and barrier reef rarely drop below 80 degrees, while offering a fantastic array of coral species and aquatic life.
Capturing scenes below the water is not purely a physical activity, but also an exercise in storytelling, and there are some staggering examples available online. A few worth checking out:
If you’d like to share your experiences with underwater photography and filming, or if you have questions, leave a comment on this post!