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Becoming a deep-sea photographer

Steps to taking good deep-sea pictures


Top-quality, deep-sea picture-taking requires comprehensive knowledge of both diving and photographic principles. Photo of leather star by Tom Sheldon.
Top-quality, deep-sea picture-taking requires comprehensive knowledge of both diving and photographic principles. Photo of leather star by Tom Sheldon.

SO, YOU WANT TO BE A DEEP SEA PHOTOGRAPHER?

You must first be a diver, and a good one. Then, you must be a photographer, and a good one. After that, it's easy.

1. BECOME A GOOD DIVER

You should become proficient as a diver before taking a camera into the water. This means you must:

  • live, eat and breathe the rules, guidelines and habits of underwater safety;
  • be so competent that you are completely relaxed with yourself and your capabilities underwater;
  • remain alert at all times for changing conditions and warning signs of danger;
  • know your limitations, and be knowledgeable of the dangers;
  • know your diving equipment inside out, and what it can and cannot do for you;
  • not be a risk-taker - contrary to popularly-held belief about divers;
  • and you must have accomplished and be certain of all this before you touch an underwater camera.

Why should you be a good diver first, as opposed to being a good photographer first? Survival. You should know everything you can about diving and how to survive it before you consider taking up deep sea photography. There should be no possibility of your attachment to photography over-riding an interest in your safety, so we recommend you learn diving first and photography second. We hope you agree.

2. LEARN PHOTOGRAPHY WELL

You may have been a pretty good photographer before you developed an interest in diving, giving you a definite edge. If not, you should learn the principles of photography - above the surface. If you can’t take great pictures out of the water, you don’t stand a chance of taking good pictures underwater.

  • Begin with black and white film. There is no better way to learn the fundamentals. A good black-and-white photographer can easily switch to color film or a digital camera and make good images, but it doesn’t necessarily work the same way for a good color film photographer.
  • Shoot color slide film when you switch to color film, and don’t shoot anything else until you feel you have it mastered. It has less tolerance for error, and will make you a better photographer. A top transparency film (slide) photographer can always shoot color negative film and achieve good results, but the photographer who shoots negative film exclusively may find his or her slides are not the quality desired.
  • As an undersea photographer, you will need to know - more than a surface photographer - how to see, find and manipulate light. There is so little of it below the surface that you must master photographic technique using minimal natural light and mainly artificial light. Experiment above the surface with electronic flash. Learn its limitations first, then learn how to use its limitations for effective composition.
  • You will also need a good understanding of close-up photography, since so much of what you photograph below the surface will be in close-ups.

3. LEARN ABOUT YOUR SUBJECTS.

Learn everything you can about your undersea subjects. Know what you want to photograph, what you can expect to encounter in your diving area, how to find your subjects and what to expect from their typical behavior.

  • Visit the library and the aquarium. Take a course or two or three on marine biology. Buy some books about the sea and its inhabitants and their behavior.
  • You will need to be an undersea hunter to find your photographic quarry, and the more armed with knowledge you are about your deep sea subjects, the more successful will your hunting be.
  • Knowledge is king, and you will miss many opportunities for good pictures if you don’t know what is going on around you.

The sudden appearance of a potentially-unfriendly face should not catch a trained deep sea photographer unprepared. Photo by Tom Sheldon.
The sudden appearance of a potentially-unfriendly face should not catch a trained deep sea photographer unprepared. Photo by Tom Sheldon.

4. YOU’LL NEED UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT

Acquire the proper photography equipment for underwater photography

  • Buy the best gear you can afford. If you can’t afford quality undersea photography equipment, then don’t buy it until you can.
  • What should you know when buying gear? Lots. For instance, you will need a long arm for your undersea flash unit, and you must know how to position it for ideal lighting of your subject. You will need a sharp, fast lens, quality film of the right speed and the right characteristics for your subjects, or a reliable digital camera and many other things. Talk to other deep sea photographers. Do your homework, and buy the right equipment. Remember, in photography, price often makes perfection, and the best equipment often costs the most money, but the best equipment usually produces the best results and also lasts the longest.
  • The best item of "equipment" you can possess is a human one - a diving buddy, who knows your objectives, can be of help in achieving them, and will be alongside you to help and keep a watchful eye

5. BEGIN IN SHALLOW WATER

  • Test out your photography gear thoroughly in a swimming pool, pond, clear lake or ocean shallows, until you are totally familiar with its operation and limitations. The importance of this phase should not be underestimated, since this is where you learn to use your equipment and become completely familiar with it and the results it will produce in the relative safety of shallow water. Minimal learning and no equipment familiarization should take place in the deep.

Your first underwater photography junket should be in shallow water.
Your first underwater photography junket should be in shallow water.

6. THE BIG MOMENT - YOUR FIRST DEEP-SEA PHOTO DIVE

You must be able to concentrate on two things at once - your safety and your photography, with safety over-riding any photography consideration.

  • Take your first (and any following) deep sea pictures with a diving buddy along.
  • Don’t shoot your entire roll in a minute. You will be enthusiastic about anything that appears to be a suitable subject, but remember your training and wait for the best shots. Patience under adverse conditions is the mark of a good deep sea photographer. Wait for things to change; they always will, and often for a better picture.
  • Be excited. Take good pictures. But, always be aware of your environment, and always keep in mind that photography is secondary to safety.

In deeper water, concentrate on taking good pictures, but always remain aware of your environment.
In deeper water, concentrate on taking good pictures, but always remain aware of your environment.