Underwater photography: what it takes
by Janice Nigro
All in all, my recent participation in a local artists’ exhibition was a success. At least from my perspective. My name is officially listed under “artists” somewhere on the Internet.
There my photographs were. Three small prints hanging on a wall. They were unique in this venue. Surprisingly so, as the theme was water and wood, and the event took place in a beach community right at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The next thematically close artwork was a painting of a woman diving into the sea.
I love those photographs. They illustrated the ethereal quality of the underwater world well, even surrounded by other bigger than life works of art.
What I didn’t do well, was putting a price on my art. According to my brother, I failed.
I have to admit, those prices grossly undervalued my effort. I wondered at that moment, if any other individual viewing them could possibly be aware of all that goes into taking an underwater photograph. Or in creating any kind of art.
Even a photograph of a statue-still sea star takes some extra effort beyond the usual I-have-my-camera-in-my-phone photograph. You have to at least get wet-on purpose.
Beyond getting wet, underwater photography is not the kind of art you can just go out and do. Sure, someone out there makes you believe underwater photography is as easy as purchasing a housing for your iPhone and go for a snorkel (do not do this-ever).
No, the list is long before you showcase your art beyond that humble spot in your home.
Get used to the water. I guess it’s obvious – you need to learn to dive (free or scuba). Or at least snorkel. Courses are offered virtually everywhere, even in landlocked Tennessee in a stone quarry (an inauspicious beginning for me). Most anyone can learn to dive-I have been diving with some awesome physically challenged divers-but becoming a good diver takes hours of practice. Like anything.
Diving is not for everyone though. I loved to swim, and I loved the ocean, so diving was a natural fit for me. The critical skill for diving in general and especially for underwater photography is to remain neutrally buoyant. After so much time, I remain neutrally buoyant without thinking much about it.
It’s a risk. Scuba diving has some inherent risks. It’s water after all and a wilderness. Animals do not generally bother divers, but there are no guarantees. The worst I have endured are territorial anemone fish. They will viciously attack you as they guard their eggs and/or the anemone. Bam, bam they bump into your mask, nearly knocking themselves out.
Travel is also a risk, one we don’t like to think about. For me, the travel could be as little as across the street to the beach. The Pacific on this side of the world is cold, so I travel either way across it or to where it’s warm. Once you commit to the travel, you have to then hope a whole series of events goes according to plan in order to reach a potentially remote destination. Including weather although rain alone is never a reason not to dive.
The people who get you there and the great time they show you once you arrive are as important to getting an underwater photo as your actual skills to do it are.
An underwater photograph intrinsically then has more to tell than just the image taken. I remember vividly taking some of my most favorite photographs and even some rather unremarkable ones just because of the travel stories behind them.
You will never travel light again. Forget about that dream trip where you just take a credit card and see where it will take you. I travel with a huge amount of equipment-diving and camera equipment-and very few clothes. Any missing piece, and I won’t be taking photographs.
It didn’t happen all at once. I did purchase my first camera on a whim, a basic point and shoot, but adding a strobe to that simple camera was a sort of breakthrough. One of my most popular photographs today was taken with that basic camera on my first day out with a strobe.
My three cameras (yes all three) have survived ~ 500 dives so far. I would love to have a new smaller model with interchangeable lenses (~ 240 pairs of baby shoes in financing), but my strobes and my so-called simple cameras have been looked after as if they were worth much more.
Underwater photos from each dive are a gift. A compromise of any size in the seal of your housing on the next dive will end your photographing activity, for that trip anyway. The investment in a good underwater housing is well worth the money.
Learn from others. At first, I was a bit like a tourist underwater, shooting photographs of anything without thinking much about it. After I got the strobe, I started to take lessons and have done so with different photographers throughout the last 10 years. Liveaboards and resorts often offer such courses, even intense workshops where your work is reviewed.
Shooting photographs on dry land helps; the principles of composition apply equally on land and underwater. Composition has to be on the fly when diving. Second nature. A feather worm can be happily filter feeding in the current, tentacles openly exposed, and then disappear in a microsecond if you spook it.
One part fate. The rest then is up to fate. Or is it? Are any animals around? More importantly, do you see those animals that are around? A good photographer can always find critters on her own. I watch for the microenvironments where dive guides spot specific animals. Your eye also becomes accustomed amazingly to identifying the thing that doesn’t look like the others underwater-like a frogfish crossing the rubble below you.
Once you spot something, you have to be ready to set up the shot.
I tend to keep my shots technically simple, but they reveal how different marine life is. What I choose to photograph is what makes my photography unique.
Processing is part of the job. You will always travel with a computer. Or it’s smart to do so. Downloading photographs at the end of the day is educational as much as it is about backing everything up. Viewing your photographs, no matter how sleepy you are, at the end of the day can lead to some major improvements before your trip is over. Jet lag killed my first day of diving once when I had accidentally bumped up my ISO. It helped that I uploaded my photographs to my computer that night and diagnosed the issue before too many days had passed.
Most underwater photographs undergo some processing. Photoshop or some other equivalent will become your friend.
The reason for the processing is that there is always some backscatter in underwater photographs. The backscatter originates from particles in the water. The degree to which it appears in your photographs depends on how good you are at positioning the strobes.
Color also tends to appear more washed out in digital photographs, and especially in digital underwater photographs. Color has to be enhanced, or in some cases, you might take it all away to produce a black and white image.
Finally printing the photographs. You have reached the endpoint. You choose probably only a handful out of thousands of photographs to print. Printing seems straightforward now, but translation from your computer over the Internet to a printer located somewhere else is not always equal. I have had good luck printing my photographs, nearly all of them, with one company online. The prints come back to me exactly as I see them on my computer screen-in most cases.
In other venues, the final print comes after a few tries. To print on special paper, for example, requires proofs and possibly additional changes before the print comes out exactly as I have imagined it.
Are you bold enough to be in a show? Are you ready to showcase your work? I didn’t know I would feel a little exposed in an exhibition. It felt bold to put my artwork up in front of people. Especially other artists. Your work is personal-what you do and how you display it says something about you. What’s your message? Everything is all open for criticism as well as praise.
Not an easy route for just three out of thousands of my photographs to end up in an exhibit in Southern California. There is no simple pricing solution for my work or the work of any other artist, be they painter, sculptor, photographer, musician, or writer.
The odd bit about all of it is, I might never have gotten seriously into underwater photography, if I hadn’t gone to live in Norway. That’s another story…
©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com