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If You Can’t Take a Joke Don’t Take Up Underwater Photography
BobHalstead - 4/29/2013 9:25 AM
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Category: Photography
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By Bob Halstead

Some thoughts on taking underwater photographs with helpful hints for the innocent.

It is all very wonderful to see beautiful underwater photographs published in Dive Magazines, but it is about time someone confessed! Some of the younger readers might not understand the suffering and sacrifices necessary to get those images, and end up with entirely the wrong idea.

I’ve seen grown men cry. I’ve seen others, in a frenzy of frustration and rage, smashing their cameras and strobes on the rocks. It is not an uncommon occurrence for me to offer comfort to some sad soul staring in total shock at a dripping mess when, after spending hours cleaning and greasing “O” rings and studying instructions, the diver’s camera filled with water on its first dive.

Once I shot 6 rolls of film with a Nikonos 15 mm lens just back from a $450 overhaul, these were some of my best shots of Dinah swimming with Silvertip Sharks. Since I lived on a boat in Papua New Guinea, I sent my slides to Melbourne in Australia for processing and was at sea continuously during this period, it was two months later that I saw the results … guess what … all the pictures were out of focus. The lens had been assembled incorrectly. So what did I do? … I LAUGHED! Yes the Gods of underwater photography got me again!

The most important thing I can tell you about taking pictures underwater is “IF YOU CAN’T TAKE A JOKE DON’T TAKE UP UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY”.

If you are really worried about your cameras and strobes filling with sea water you should sell them as soon as possible because, have no doubt about it, THEY WILL. It’s very depressing for everybody else on the dive trip having to listen to you moaning about how much you paid for it all, and how few dives it has done, and how careful you were, etc. SELL IT ALL NOW!

One of the most important facts that most people do not realize is that “IT DOES NOT MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE HOW CAREFUL YOU ARE”. There are no gold stars awarded for cleaning “O” rings after every dive, in fact the Gods just love these conscientious types. You are setting yourself up for the fall! Logic has nothing to do with underwater photography, this is warfare, and if your strobe has its number up nothing you can do will prevent it from filling with water. Just take the view that it is a good thing that it is the strobe that is full of water and not yourself.

Now if you take the other extreme of not servicing your cameras at all then of course that also is tempting fate … although it does have the advantage of not having wasted so much time. If cleaning “O” rings is your thing then go for it (personally I find it incredibly boring). Just as long as you don’t think you are scoring points and that it will have any effect at all as to how long your camera will repel the deep. What method do I use … I believe that you should “CLEAN O RINGS WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE IT”.

As a professional teacher for many years and a full time diving instructor for many more years I’ve ended up teaching just about everything that I know, and a few things that I do not know, at one time or other. I have resisted, however, teaching courses in underwater photography. I’m quite happy to give the odd tip and some friendly advice eg. NEVER LEND YOUR CAMERA GEAR TO ANYONE IN ANY CIRCUMSTANCES (This is the Gods’ absolute favourite, the gear is certain to stuff up), but have never taught a full course in underwater photography. I have started a couple of courses, but no one could pass the first lesson. To be able to take underwater photographs YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO DIVE WITHOUT USING YOUR HANDS. So my first lesson consisted of a dive where the divers arms were strapped to his/her sides with a spare weight belt. I was quite happy to supervise but never had any takers.

Even when your strobes are not full of water they have the habit of firing perfectly on the surface but failing when under water. I use a technique that I thought of after reading “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance”. It’s got nothing to do with the book but that is when I thought of it so I call the technique “ZEN AND THE ART OF GETTING YOUR STROBE TO FIRE”. Basically the technique calls for intense concentration and split second timing. As you are composing the picture and all the elements of composition are combining to perfection you must totally focus the power of your mind on the strobe so that at the instant the shutter is released you send a massive pulse of energy to the strobe commanding it to FIRE! I have found this to be very successful although once I must have overdone it as the whole strobe exploded.

Please do not think that just because you have descended to the bottom and fired off a couple of successful test shots that you can look forward to a whole roll of gold medal winning exposures. I well remember a dive with master photographer Carl Roessler, who had been having a few strobe problems on previous dives. Meeting him on the bottom he gave me a confident OK sign and pointed to his camera. About two minutes later a grey reef shark, anxious for a change in diet, came up to him and bit his strobe cord in half. THINGS ARE MOST LIKELY TO GO WRONG WHEN EVERYTHING IS WORKING PERFECTLY.

EXPERIENCE DOES NOT HELP. On one cruise with ten members of an Underwater Photographic Society (that had a total of 112 years of experience taking underwater photographs) I witnessed the drowning of five cameras and four strobes. I also saw 36 frames shot with no film in the camera; a camera opened before rewinding the film; a diver take a camera down with one shot left to shoot fifty minutes of close shark action; a diver try to take photos with no battery pack in his strobe; a whole roll shot at 1/2000th of a second; a lost close-up lens; and a roll shot with the strobe turned off. Someone also left their land camera on the sun deck overnight … yes, you’re getting the idea, OF COURSE it rained.

One very bad mistake I made was letting my favourite model buy an underwater camera. NEVER ALLOW YOUR MODEL TO TAKE UNDERWATER PICTURES. Since then she refuses to model for me as she is too busy taking her own pictures. This is how I got into fish photography.

Since fish come in all sorts of shapes and sizes the question arises as to what lens should be on the camera for a particular dive. I get asked this question a lot. I wish someone would give me the answer. David Doubilet of National Geographic solves the problem by taking down eleven cameras, each with a different lens, on every dive. WHATEVER LENS YOU SELECT FOR A DIVE IT WILL BE UNSUITABLE FOR THE SUBJECTS THAT ARE FOUND. Understanding this will prevent a lot of disappointment and make those dives where, by mistake, a creature passes by that can be photographed with the lens that you have on, occasions of absolute joy.

When asked by a fellow photographer as to what exposure I used for a particular image my response is usually “the right one”. Discussions as to f stops and shutter speeds are almost as boring as cleaning “O” rings. THE BEST WAY TO GET THE CORRECT EXPOSURE IS TO GUESS. Being lucky is a great help for a budding underwater photographer. If you are not so sure of your luck and your uncle owns Fuji, you could try another technique. I once overheard a diver ask Australian Kevin Deacon what exposure he used to produce one of his perfect prize winning shots. “ALL of them!”, was the reply.

I’ve been taking underwater pictures for nearly 30 years, and have had success using Nikonos model two. I have eight of them, all but one bought second hand. This means that I always have one or two in good working order while the others are being repaired, I think this is the main reason for my success. I’ve used all sorts of strobes but my favourite manufacturers are selected not because their product works better but because they provide excellent repair service. A good rule of thumb is that you should have ONE COMPLETE SET OF CAMERA GEAR FOR EVERY THREE DAYS OF DIVING YOU INTEND TO DO. This gives one day to get it working, one day to shoot some pictures and one day for it to screw up.

Underwater photography is a tough game to play, but if you are determined then GOOD LUCK TO YOU. I have to admit that some of my most exciting moments in the sea have been looking through the viewfinder at the incredible images that are forming. Capturing them on film is some thing else … in fact sometimes you can get so excited that it is impossible to control yourself and the camera, and you miss the shot. This is why I advise budding underwater photographers to PRACTICE BY TAKING EXCITING PHOTOS ABOVE WATER. The more exciting the better. Pick subjects that make you shake the same way you would if you turned round to see an fifteen foot great hammerhead five foot away and you know you have two seconds to get that perfect shot before the beast either swims away or bites you. Personally I use this argument to justify to my wife why it is necessary for me to take photos of other beautiful women in skimpy bikinis. Darling! … please put that strobe down … Ouch!

I finally bought myself a very expensive professional land camera with a cast aluminium housing. It is a beautiful machine but I worry about it filling with water. Perhaps it is time to take up golf.