Scuba diving made me an “artist”
by Janice Nigro
I never took a photo until I went underwater. And when I did, it was a last minute decision. I was on my way to LAX about three hours before my flight to Nadi, Fiji eight years ago, when I stopped by Samy’s Camera in Los Angeles to purchase a camera, but for taking landscape and people photos. I had finally decided that maybe I should take some photos to show people where I was going because the dive destinations were exceptionally beautiful and different. My sales guy made some suggestions based on my initial intentions. Then I offhandedly remarked that I wanted a camera that I could get an underwater housing for…some day. I really was not thinking about buying one at that moment. He immediately changed tack and suggested another camera all together. Then I thought well I am on my way to Fiji, to scuba dive in fact, maybe I should get the housing? It was kind of one of those “no duh” moments. I bought the housing, and it was the best use of 600 USD ever.
I had no clue what I was doing, and my first trip photos underwater were pretty terrible-blue and blurry. Some were good enough though to impress my family who was skeptical about scuba diving in general. “Really, you see that stuff under water?” I started to pay attention to underwater photos in magazines and wherever I could look. And then I started to do a little better. On my first trip to Indonesia, we had a small contest on the boat and my cleaner shrimp photo won! A bag of cookies and a hat with the company logo from the boat. What an inspiration.
Based on what I saw and read, I started to think that I wanted a real machine, a DSLR. On a layover in Singapore just before another diving trip, I got some terrific underwater photography advice from the shop owner of ScubaCam. He told me that I had limited knowledge about how to use any camera let alone one underwater so he suggested that I stick with my mini-set up but add a strobe. The man opted not to sell me an expensive rig and instead spent 1.5 hours showing me how to set up just the strobe and arms. I never forgot that because his place was a typical stopping point for really famous underwater photographers who probably spent much more money than I did. I closed the shop that night.
The strobe alone, an Inon Z240, made a spectacular difference. All I had was a compact Canon. It was your basic point and shoot-nothing fancy and not a lot of pixels (from 2006!). Ironically, one of my favorite photos ever is one that I took on my first day shooting with the strobe. But there were no manual options on my camera. Frankly, I had not really considered manual options before going to ScubaCam, but the owner had suggested that I stick with my simple camera for underwater and purchase a good DSLR to use topside in order to become familiar with photographic technique. This strategy was a good one because I started to learn about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and composition.
It took the impetus of another imminent trip to push me to upgrade my equipment. There I was again in a shop deciding, maybe a week beforehand this time, to buy a Canon G10. A point and shoot with manual functions, raw files, and great optics, but it was small so it was easy to travel and dive with. It was a rush, but the Canon underwater housing arrived just before I took off.
I was somewhat frustrated learning to use this new camera (and very nervous to take it underwater the first time-I did take the empty housing down on the first dive), but I managed with the help of a cruise director who was also a photographer. Once I figured out what some of the nuances of the camera were, I was shooting all over the place. She sat with me each night to throw out the bad photos and tell me why the good ones were good. She mentioned that my strobe was top of the line, so that when I was ready to graduate to a fancier rig (or anything), I could keep it. It is a good idea to think ahead about items that can be easily transferred because you will want a new camera as you improve.
I still have the G10 with the original housing. The problem with the Canon housings is that although they work fine as long as you take care of them and change the o-ring periodically, eventually the springs for the buttons no longer spring anymore, especially under pressure. You will find yourself at 20 meters, and after taking a photo, the button will not release. You have to ascend a bit then to release the pressure on the button in order to take more photos. Probably springs become less springy even in the best of housings, but Canon considers these housings to be disposable so at some point you might have to chuck the whole rig, just because you can no longer get a housing for your “old” camera. So your camera is always only as good as your underwater housing.
That digital cameras become quickly outdated is a source of stress with underwater photography. Cameras change exceedingly rapidly so that your new camera is really pretty old within a few months even. It takes time for underwater housings to catch up to newer models as it is, but then once the next model in the series comes out, the housings are no longer produced. Replacing one or the other then is time sensitive. My last trip with my G10 after four years was in Bali where the black sand is very fine. It became lodged under the o-rings of the buttons. It is not possible to have it removed so I was forced to purchase not only a new housing but a new camera as well. I still felt that I had a lot to learn, so I bought the Canon G15, but invested in a good housing. I also decided to get a second strobe. I am able to change manual functions more easily with the Nauticam housing, and its construction also protects the o-ring from sand a bazillion times better, so overall it is an easier set up to use than the less expensive Canon housings.
Although technically my photos are reasonably good, I am still working on composition. Composition is the toughest part of underwater photography-making a photo that is not only technically correct but artistic as well. Inspiration is everywhere underwater even if you thought you had absolutely no right brain activity whatsoever. But there are additional considerations. Underwater photography is like a whole other sport. You need buoyancy control like you never thought before. Time is a factor, and animals move and so do you. Even the nudibranchs move sometimes.
As I read and looked at photos, especially on websites such as Underwaterphotography.com, I started to see what people could do with the kind of equipment that I had. I learned about wet lenses. A wet lens is added to the outside of a housing in order to magnify your macro subjects. These lenses can be stacked, i.e. one screwed into another, so that you can get super macro photos. I now have two. There are wide angle wet lens options now. I have tried one option, but got poor results with it, so basically my camera is a dedicated macro camera.
Personally I think you can take a great photo with any compact now, especially if you have a strobe, because the resolution and focusing capabilities get better and better with advancing technology. But there are some frustrating aspects. The main one is that there is a significant shutter lag. Clicking to take the photo is not in sync with when the shutter actually opens. So a fish that is moving is particularly difficult to photograph. Furthermore there is a lag for when the photo is transferred/saved to the card so that the camera is slow to take a subsequent photo.
The second dilemma is that you have to be physically extremely close to animals to get good macro shots. It is sort of a rule of macro photography, but with a dedicated macro lens you can be close but not so close so as to disturb the animal. Finally, the focus resolution is great with many of these cameras, but it can never reach the level of a DSLR. The main advantage, however, is that all of the equipment packs up into my backpack.
A couple of other equipment unrelated strategies will help to improve your skills. One is that you do not have to take a photo of every creature that you see. One photographer told me to try to focus on a few specific subjects during a dive-not many all at once. If you focus on a few subjects, you can test different angles, exposures, or lighting techniques so that one might give a desirable result. You start to become a photographer, not just a tourist underwater.
When you are first learning, practice on anything. Nudibranchs are easy, and even some of the more common ones can give striking photos if you become acquainted with some simple techniques. Tunicates, corals, and sponges are all great subjects because of colors and textures (some of my best photos are of such critters because they are unique), so that when you do have a more challenging subject, you will be prepared. I can still be slow, but I stick with my three to five shots rule if others are waiting and move on or go to the back of the line. Sometimes circumstances prohibit any chance of a good photo anyway so just have a look. I remind myself constantly that it is most important to see the critters.
With a compact camera, it does take more effort sometimes. I have found it to be more time consuming to set up for the photo especially if something is a little off with your first shot, and you are under pressure to move on because of other divers or decompression. Muck diving is a type of diving that offers rewarding photographic opportunities everywhere. There are always creatures to see so that even if the guide spots something really rare, you can spend your time photographing something else while you wait your turn to see it.
As an underwater photographer (it sounds professional but I am not), I am exceedingly conscious of where my body is under water. I have seen very nice people, who were good photographers even, but completely ignorant of their location underwater. If I can not take the photo without banging into or moving something, I do not. It is a privilege to see these animals and be in their world. A few good photos are better than a lot of poor ones which you will get regardless because of the nature of the “sport”.
Sometimes I have mixed feelings about underwater photography because you may spend more time photographing than looking around you! Once I missed a whale shark that did a “swim-by” because I was behind taking photos. I complained to my brother that I never get to see the big stuff and he said, “It is because you are always looking at the nudibranchs.” I have also felt frustration because others may seem to hog time in front of critters. The last time I felt that I thought if that happens again then the whole rig goes in the garbage because diving is for removing yourself from the conventional world. If you have a philosophical approach, there will be no poor feelings underwater. I have since become more focused on the process and not necessarily the end product. I still have not figured out how to take time to create an artistic photo and keep up with the guide. It must be terribly tedious for them to watch someone taking photos, and a buddy once without a camera expressed deep anger in not wanting to hang around while I did that. The most obvious dilemma that is unique to the sport is that I can not be under water all of the time. It truly helps to photograph subjects topside, however. Composition for example is a universal principle.
Scuba diving is a reason to travel, to be physically active, and to create art. Sometimes I get a desirable result, sometimes unexpectedly, but mostly I have the kind of peace that taking up an art form can give you, and I discovered it through scuba diving.
©2014 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiink.com
first published at http://www.scubaverse.com/2014/04/10/scuba-diving-made-artist/