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Underwater Photography

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I cannot imagine going on a dive without a camera in my hands. I recently sold my trusty Sony Cybershot P150 to another diver and it felt like losing a close friend. This small compact digital camera enabled me to enjoy many a rewarding hour underwater, taking pictures of the vibrant ocean creatures and was a permanent part of my dive equipment. Today it is difficult to remember when exactly I first took a camera with me on a dive.

What I do remember is seeing underwater photographers with equipment that made them look like underwater spaceships. At that time I also thought that this unique art form was only reserved for the select few who had the know-how and the eyebrow-raising, jaw dropping finances to afford this type of photographic equipment. With the arrival of digital compact cameras this notion soon changed. There was an aspiring underwater photographer on almost every dive that I accompanied as dive leader or instructor. I was regularly asked for help and advice.

I decided to purchase my own compact digital underwater imaging equipment, i.e. Sony Cybershot P150 and housing. My first try was surprisingly successful and I was amazed at some of the pictures that appeared on my computer screen after downloading the images from the memorycard. Yes, there were dark-ones (underexposed), washed out ones (overexposed), blurry or fuzzy ones (out of focus) and many other common photography mistakes. And I still get them today. Working with the digital camera made for a steep learning curve.

One of the first lessons was to read the camera manual, which most of us don’t like doing but it does make it easier to use the camera underwater knowing where to turn it on or where to change from still photography mode to the video mode.

Practicing the art of underwater photography takes time, good buoyancy and a lot of patience. Being an experienced diver, comfortable underwater and able to maintain good buoyancy made it easier to get into this new "hobby" of underwater photography. For most open water divers just getting used to all the scuba-gear can be intimidating.

Proper buoyancy makes it easier to get close to those skittish subjects. Good buoyancy also protects the reef environment against diver damage. While you learn to be a good diver you can practice with you camera on the surface, getting to know and understand what all the buttons and settings are for and what the functions, modes and menus do.

Once you have your camera, practice by photographing your pets, your kids or your friends. There is no obligation to have the pictures printed. If the pictures are bad simply delete them and retake. This way you quickly learn how and what your camera is doing. Remember to have a look at the File info or look at the properties files once you have downloaded the images, to see what settings was changed to get a better exposure. This way you will be able to change camera settings easily while working with your camera underwater. Most of us hardly ever use a camera and is not always sure of what or how to set the camera for the best result. Now you want to use it underwater while monitoring air supply, divetime, depth, buddies and try to find subjects to photograph.

I recently upgraded to a DSLR/35mm type digital camera in an underwater housing and had a hard time getting good pictures. It was back to square one as they say. Getting familiar with the housing and which buttons are triggered by which levers took time.

Having the basic photography knowledge shortened the learning process considerably. I still get the odd out of focus, blurry, over-or underexposed pictures.

Another handy scubaphoto skill to acquire is to become a ‘pro’ underwater naturalist. No, I‘m not saying you should dive in the nude. Learning to see or find those rare, colorful, small creatures underwater is not a skill reserved for experienced divemasters and pro photographers. Reading fish identification guides, actually reading them, will help you find them quicker and more easily and give you more time to get the best picture of these animals. Some small critters aren’t always in the obvious places, like on top of a sea-star or out in the open.

Good ID guides give a good description of habitat, food preferences and description of the creature’s size and coloration. Knowing what you are looking for and where to look for it will make for more rewarding photos.

Be patient and take your time to take the picture. If your first try doesn’t look that good, try a different setting, change your position or camera angle. If you’re running out of memory space simply delete the image that you think is no good, recompose and retake.

Photographing the small, slow moving, bright coloured nudibranchs with macro mode is the easiest underwater photography to start with. Remember to test your camera’s shortest focusing distance on the surface and to use the built in flash if you do not have an external light source. This focus distance information can also be found in the user manual.

The use of the flash close-up will improve the cameras focusing and emphasize the colours. Alternatively you could ask your dive buddy to carry a good quality underwater torch to light your subject. This way you will not be alone and the extra light, even during daytime, will improve the camera’s auto-focusing abilities.

Macro photography is also the way out when visibility underwater is no good. Getting close to your subject will enable you to utilize the built- in flash light more effectively. Less water between the camera and the subject makes for better quality pictures. This practice will also improve your wide or open water pictures. Using the digital zoom does have its uses but it is better to zoom with your fins. This is where all that buoyancy practice and u/w naturalist knowledge will help you to get closer to that ever evasive blue-and-white-striped fish. Once again, be patient, observe and try again if the first shot was not so great.

Then, if the images are not all you thought them to be, you could always work on them with an image editing program such as Photoshop. Who said you have to take the perfect picture? It is better to have at least a good, well focused, properly exposed and generally good photo to start with.

Things like exposure, contrast, colour corrections and unwanted spots can be edited in Photoshop. You can spend days editing, adjusting and improving or creating interesting images of your pictures once you return from you dive expedition.

Having the spaceship-like photo equipment isn’t always the best place to start your underwater photography ‘career’, specifically if you are new to photography. Starting with a small, simple set-up or compact camera and progress from auto-mode to using the manual-mode and understanding all the photography lingo will have you progressing to all the cool-looking equipment soon enough.

Nicolene is an editorial photographeror one of the biggest news and media companies in South Africa. She is qualified as a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor and has worked at various resorts and dive operations in Mozambique as a dive master, instructor, boat skipper and general beach watcher. Inspired by the work of underwater and adventure photographers, she has spent many hours diving with Manta Rays, Whale Sharks, dolphins and equally interesting scuba divers.

Be realistic when purchasing the camera equipment and think what you want to achieve with your underwater photography.

Your dive frequency, level of aspiration and purpose will all influence your equipment.

Is is rewarding and amazing to be able to show your friends and family photos of your underwater experience - that is, after all, one of the reasons we want to be able to take pictures of all those amazing aquatic creatures underwater.

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