Underwater Photography – Finding Your First Camera
By Skip Straus www.ScubaWithSkip.com
Believe it or not, I have only been diving for two and a half years. HOWEVER, I have almost 150 dives in that short amount of time. I now hold certifications from NAUI (Advanced, Nitrox), PADI (Rescue Diver) and PDIC (Dive Supervisor). I also hold several Specialty cards... including Search and Recovery, Deep Diver, Navigation and Underwater Digital Photography. I am already at a point where I have sold two of my photographs and am about to launch a shop to sell a bunch more (hopefully).
Two people have made a huge impact on my abilities as an underwater photographer. The first is a person named Carl Epstein. I met Carl over a course of six dives while photographing the USS Vandenberg. He is a PADI Instructor and is himself, an underwater photographer. I had just purchased my current camera system (Canon 30D in Aquatica housing) from none other than Paul Spielvogel... a shark photographer extraordinaire... and I reasoned that some of Paul’s abilities/talent would rub off on me if I had his old system.
Anyway, I took the U/W Photography specialty from Carl. He explained every aspect of shooting underwater in way that I could actually understand... not retain, mind you, but understand. I have learned that photography basics have to be repeated over and over again for me to grasp.
The other person that helped mold me as a photographer is Amanda Cotton of “A Cotton Photography.” Her work has been in more magazines than I can count and she has been featured on Discovery Channel and tons of websites. I got to go diving with her and a small group of divers that included a weeklong workshop with her- putting on film the magnificent Oceanic Whitetip Shark. She would sit with us every night and explain things in detail... including editing techniques. She remains a close friend and I am looking forward to diving with her again this year.
Therefore, when Greg Davis, the owner of DiveBuddy.com, asked me if I would write some articles, Amanda was the first person I called. She, as always, was very encouraging. So... here we are; the first in what I hope will be long list of articles on the basics of underwater photography....
Think back... after your first “real” dive in blue water, if you were anything like I was as a new diver, you wanted some way to explain to your non-diver friends what they were missing. Shoot, I can even recall the excitement of seeing my first boat underwater while doing my open water dives during class at the local dive hole... an awesome little place called the “Blue Lagoon” (just up the road a’ piece from Huntsville, Texas). I tried to express what it is like to my non-diving wife.
I saw someone at the Blue Lagoon with a small underwater camera and said to myself, “Self, you gotta get one of those things.” So, I did. But, where do you start?
First point: find a good “starter” camera. Especially if you are like I was back then - new to diving and new to underwater photography. So, what is a starter camera? Believe it or not, you don’t have to spend a ton of money (need to save that for the actual diving, right?) to get a decent camera with a high megapixel resolution (in simple terms – the higher the megapixels of resolution, the crisper, the “cleaner” the photo). If you do your homework and look around, you can find such an animal for under $300.
Be careful, though... read the fine print. A lot of the inexpensive housings (housings are the plastic or composite “cases” that protect your camera from water damage and yet still allow all/most of their feature buttons to function underwater) are only good down to 10 feet or 33 feet. I don’t know about you, but I tend to go a tad deeper. Look for a housing that will protect your camera down to 120 feet (or better). I purchased the ultra-compact Intova CP8 through a closeout special with an online dealer (Now, don’t bash me here! This was not life safety equipment). Anyway, the camera came with a protective housing and, as a bonus, came in a soft case with a single strobe and strobe arm and extra o-rings for the housing. I had never heard of Intova, so I did a little research and discovered it is made by Samsung.
I pulled out my logbook (yes, it is a useful tool) and I logged that I took that camera on 57 of my first 75 dives, beginning with my sixth dive (Initially, I didn’t take it on night dives – I was still a little tenuous about taking a camera down when I would prefer to be holding a light – I have long since discovered there is a way to do both... topic to be covered in a future article). And, I got to shoot some pretty spectacular dive sites, including; Cozumel, USS Vandenberg off of Key West, Antigua, St. Lucia, Tortola, St. Thomas, the Grand Turks and a week-long live-aboard in the Bahamas (where I did my first shark dive – which, if you have seen my website has become a passion!). I took that little camera with me and got amazing photographs of reefs, shipwrecks, eels, sharks, turtles and rays. It went with me all over the Caribbean.
... See some actual shots from my little Intova....
I recall coming back from dive trips and would get emails like, “We were really impressed with the quality of the pictures you took while we were diving and I wanted to know the model number of the Intova camera you were using. Also, if you could tell me what kind of strobe and handle attachment you have. We hope to see you at the Post Dive party.”
I love that little camera... still own it. But, a year and a half ago, I upgraded to a “real” system. But, more about that in another article.
Take your “starter” camera and go have fun! Experiment. Play with the settings. Most, like my little Intova, have a video mode. The quality isn’t superb, but you finally have a way of showing friends and family what it is kind of like at depth. And, you will also be pleasantly surprised at some of your work!
Some other suggestions;
- Use photography-specific rechargeable batteries for the camera and strobe. NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) work best and will let you get about 300-400 shots before they need recharging. I found a set of four with a charger for around $20 at Radio Shack.
- Get as big a storage card (SD card) as you can. While most digital cameras have on-board memory to store your pictures, it is usually very limited. I believe the largest SD card that the Intova will accept is a 2GB (Gigabyte)... that works just fine.
- As a beginner, take a lot of shots, keeping in mind data storage and battery power. As you dive more, you will become accustomed as to what and when to shoot.
- Don’t do as I did in the beginning – I would take pictures of anything that moved. Then, sure enough, there would be “THE shot” at the end of the day and my battery would be dead. (As I have progressed to a professional quality camera, I know I can shoot about 600 shots on the battery).
- Download your shots at the end of every dive day.
- Create folders for each day of a trip and then create subfolders for each dive. For example;
- Day 1 – Cozumel
1st AM dive – Punta Sur
2nd AM dive – Columbia Shallows
- After you download, review your pictures and get rid of obvious “oops shots”, such as too dark an image or too blurry of an image. A good rule of thumb is this- if you have to ask yourself, “What in the world is this supposed to be?” – Well, it is a shot you could probably delete.
- Find a good photography mentor, as I did with Carl and Amanda.
You will amaze yourself how well you do. You will have “miniature art pieces” of places and things that most people dream about.
Discover the “artist” in you. I hope to see you down there. Let’s go blow some bubbles and get some pics!
In future articles, we will cover things like:
- Basics of editing
- How to get that “perfect” shot
- Basics of use of light
- Framing the shot
About the author:
A Fire & EMS Chaplain, a Paramedic, a Dive Supervisor and someone who loves God, his wife, scuba diving in general (but diving with sharks especially) and underwater photography... Skip lives with his wife Cindy in a suburb of Houston, Texas. He also runs the website: www.ScubaWithSkip.com.