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Come in! There are a few adventures I’ve written about, but most of the content offers classes in photography and mentoring for photographers, including photo theory, which, although a vital part in our profession, is largely an overlooked subject in all published media that profits from and feeds our gadget minded mindset today.

Q&A explores underwater photography -A16 & A17

September 19 2009 - Photo Technical

324photo by Marc Furth

Welcome aboard photo enthusiasts.  Dedicated amateurs and professionals tend to use more expensive equipment, but there has to be photo opportunities for those crew members that have some free time to jump overboard and take a few snaps with less than ideal and very expensive equipment.  This is the direction I’m taking, underwater photography for hobbyist fun, and I have asked Mark Furth, underwater photographer extraordinaire, who exhibits his fine photographs at the St. Lawrence Gallery in Ft. Lauderdale, for his input by asking the following questions:

James:  Is there a compact camera suitable for underwater photography?

Mark: Yes, there are quite a number of compact cameras I would consider suitable for underwater photography including Cannon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, Casio, and Olympus.  I recommend the website didideep.com as a great resource offering an extensive database on both compact and professional cameras as well as available underwater housings.

James: Do they have housings for any compact cameras?  Are there any you recommend that are inexpensive yet functional.

Mark:  There are many inexpensive camera housings available to the consumer. Some camera manufacturers offer their own camera housings and some are offered by third party manufactures.  The clamshell style housings are typically made from inexpensive polycarbonate plastic and come with full controls.

James:  What do you look for in features in underwater cameras?

Mark:  I recommend looking for automatic cameras with a functional, manual override for the shutter, aperture, and white balancing.  The point is that you can start off using your camera system on automatic and then grow into utilizing full operator control to achieve better images.

James:   I think there are some throw away of inexpensive models.  Have you tried any and what do you think of them?

Mark:  For high quality images, I don’t think much of throwaway cameras.  They are great for catching a shot during an underwater snorkeling adventure but offer little emphasis on quality.

James:  Light changes behavior when passing through water.  What have you noticed from this phenomenon in taking your underwater photographs?  How is the light altered?  How are subjects altered?

Mark:  Water filters color and the deeper you dive into the natural darkness; the color spectrum will become absorbed by the water.  At 100 feet most light in the red spectrum has already been absorbed.  In deeper depths, you cannot get true color using natural, ambient light alone.  If you are trying to achieve color-balanced images using natural light you need to stay in shallower water so that the water does not filter out the color.

James:  Going further lights ability to travel is diminished.  How does this affect your choice of the flash power required?  Is this the main impediment to using compact cameras, that is, their limited flash capacity?

Mark: Yes, the flash is also absorbed just like natural, ambient light.  The further away your flash is from your subject the more flash power you will need to illuminate the subject.

It is recommended to be 3 or 4 feet away from your subject. At three feet from your subject you are actually filtering your flash through  6 feet of water.

James:  With those limitations taken into account, is there a depth limit and/or distance limit to which you think are usable?

Mark:  The main stumbling block of compact cameras is that the internal flash is not properly located to take good pictures.  A flash should be externally positioned to minimize back-scatter, the floating particles in water which reflect light and cloud the picture.

With the use of an optional external flash your limits are the housing manufacture depth rating, usually around 100 feet for a better made housing.

One other option available if you prefer shallow water and not using the internal flash is the use of a color correction filter. Made by several different manufactures like UR Pro and Magic Filter, these filters absorb some  of the  predominate blue spectrum of light while passing the red. I’ve had excellent results using these filters to a depth of 50 feet.

James:  What do you look for in regards to the best conditions for taking underwater scenes in terms of general weather, water clarity, surface conditions, currents, bottom surface, and the depth range where you find the best action, etc?

Mark:  While an avid underwater photographer always appreciates picture-perfect conditions of blue sky, calm seas and clear water, that is rarely the case! For wide angle photography, clear, blue water is essential for me.  However, for macro photography, the water and light conditions are less of a problem because you are illuminating your subjects with a flash. Only if the water has excessive amounts of suspended particles will this affect your images. You often can’t pick your weather or water conditions so you learn to plan your dive accordingly by accessorizing your equipment to meet differing conditions.

James:  Do you have to sneak up on your underwater life?

Mark:  Rather than sneaking up on a subject,  I spend time blending into the surroundings, trying to position myself within the subjects space and patiently allowing the fish life to become accustomed to my presence. Becoming part of the natural underwater rhythms helps the sea life lose their fear of me, and begin resuming their normal activities.  That is when I take the shot!

James:  What do you have to watch out for?  Have you had any scary experiences? What are the precautions one should take?

Mark:  Of course, divers should always avoid coming into contact with stinging corals and should stay away from unfamiliar fish life.  Getting local knowledge before diving in unfamiliar dive locations is advisable. Asking a local dive shop or experienced dive boat dive master is also an invaluable tool in any unfamiliar area. They can also tell you were the best photo opportunities will be.

James:  Have you had any scary experiences?

Mark:  While I have photographed the normal array of underwater creatures including sharks, manta rays, octopus, eels, etc. the most frightening experience I ever had was on a night dive.  When I jumped in the water and turned on my dive lights, I was instantly bombarded by thousands of little silverfish hitting my body like machine gun fire.  It was so unexpected that it made my heart race.  That was a lesson for me to never take the underworld world for granted!

James:  What are the precautions one should take?

Mark:  Please do not put yourself in danger just to get the shot and know your limitations.

James: What, if any, are the difficulties in just operating your equipment underwater?

Mark:  Most important is becoming familiar with your equipment by knowing how to operate your camera through your housings controls. You also need to be a proficient diver before you can operate your underwater camera by second nature.  They key to great photos is good buoyancy, keeping your camera steady will yield the sharpest pictures. You don’t want to find yourself banging or kicking corals while going after the shot.  Often, underwater photographers will also find themselves holding their breath to keep their buoyancy and should be careful about ascending while chasing their subject.
James:  Do you do all your photography scuba diving?  Is it possible to have success photographing while snorkeling, with or without flippers?

Mark:  You don’t always have to scuba dive to get good underwater photographs. There are many great opportunities for good pictures while snorkeling.  The disposable underwater cameras are great for snorkeling in very shallow water. While snorkeling, I occasionally take half-in water/half-out of water photographs which are quite beautiful.  Wearing fins is not a requirement for catching a good photo opportunity.

James:  Are there ways to select the best underwater locations for photography? I suppose reefs are always best?

Mark:  Not necessarily!  One of my favorite places to take photographs is under my local fishing pier where I consistently see all manner of fish life, large and small.  Wrecks  also provide great backdrops and, of course, coral reefs provide an array of breathtaking corals as well as fascinating reef fish. Again, obtaining local knowledge is advisable.

James:  Are there any ham fish or underwater sea life?  Are there snobs?  Are there unfriendly subjects?
Mark:  There are a lot fish that will come right up to you.  Many fish are naturally inquisitive about divers and their camera equipment.  They become fascinated by their reflection in the housings dome ports (the front of the cameras housing viewing port). Fish are also attracted to the noises made by digital electronic signals coming from the cameras.  Their curiosity can make for great photo opportunities!  But a lot of fish are also frightened of diver’s bubbles and that is why I just hang around for a while until the fish get used to me and my bubbles.

James:  Can you, do you preplan any of your shots knowing the subjects in mind?

Mark:  I am never sure what I will encounter on my dive but I do preplan whether I will be taking close-up or wide angle shots, so I arrange my equipment with that in mind.

James:  What do you enjoy most from underwater photography?  Is it the uniqueness, tranquility, the rhythmic motions, vibrant colors, or all of the above?

Mark:  I just love it all!  I enjoy the peace and tranquility of the underwater world.  For me, the inhaling and exhaling is like a meditation and it is so peaceful and quiet that you can hear the reef crackling with life.  I like the euphoric sense of weightlessness and the adventure of seeing something new and different on every dive, capturing it, and bringing it back to share the underwater beauty with others.

James:  Last, but never least what are the safety concerns?

Mark:  When you are an underwater photographer you are probably the worst buddy a diver could have!  You become so absorbed in your work because your world shrinks to the size of the viewfinder of your camera.  Diving with two people with cameras means you might as well be diving by yourself!  Diving with a patient, non-photographer is a much better idea.

James: Not to be overlooked were there environmental things to note, especially on the positive things to consider that could improve the overall underwater photo safari?

Mark:  The reefs all over the world are deteriorating at an alarming rate.  I hope that the photos I capture won’t be the last evidence of the underworld world that once was.  I am personally attempting to address this serious issue in a small way by promoting a unique project to build the first structural artificial reef in the United States in my local seaside community  of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.  It has the potential not only to regenerate hearty new reefs but also to attract underwater photographers who are interested in capturing images of this unique process of growing a living reef. For information about the unique process visit Global Coral Reef Alliance website, www.globalcoral.org

James:  Is there anything I have overlooked asking you on the subject that you feel is essential to it?

Mark:  I would like to stress how important it is for divers leave the reefs undamaged after their diving experience. That is why I believe in only taking photographs home with me rather than samples of coral or tropical aquarium fish.  Promoting respect and reverence for the beauty and fragileness of this underwater paradise is what matters most to me.

James: Thank you Mark for sharing your experiences and advice.  By the way to all seafaring travelers, I would like to mention that Mark and his lovely wife Cristie own and operate the Blue Seas Courtyard, in Lauderdale By the Sea.  This is a truly clean and beautiful spot if you need a place to place to hang your cap when visiting.  It’s a great place for me when I have permission to come ashore.