Taking Colour Out of the Picture

Anyone who has taken still pictures by available light underwater will almost certainly have been disappointed
Underwater photographers tend to be blinkered by colour and there are obvious reasons for this. Most underwater life is so vibrant in colour that it seems pointless not to use colour film. But there is a world of artistic possibility if you decide to shoot black and white.

Black and white film, as its name suggests, captures images in either black and white and the various shades of grey in between. It is a negative film, so will need to be printed on to photographic paper for a positive result. This has several advantages, including much reduced cost and more control of the image in the printing stage.

Just as with colour films, black and white is available in varying film speeds – slower speeds have finer grain and are less ‘contrasty’, faster speeds show noticeable grain and contrast. Colour photographers tend to be obsessed by slow, sharp-grained film whereas the black and white photographers often use much faster films which accentuate the grain structure and give a punchy mood to the final result. This shot was on 400 ASA film which is slightly grainy.

Unlike colour slide film (and to a certain extent colour negative film) black and white film can be processed to increase the contrast and this can then be increased again in the printing process. A black and white dark-room is simple and cheap to set up and it will give you total control of the final image for far less cost than colour film. Black and white photography underwater is all about graphic simplicity. The viewer’s eye cannot be distracted by the bright reds and yellows of colour film, so will be more affected by shapes and moods.

It takes some time to adjust your eye to the type of subjects which will work best in black and white but it’s a very useful exercise to do because it changes the whole way you look at the underwater world. A coral reef, for example, ceases to be about vibrant colour and becomes a study in shape and texture. A solitary fish’s striking colour is irrelevant but it’s composition in the frame becomes much more important.

Some landscapes which are difficult to capture in colour work so much better in black and white as you are more interested in shapes and contrasts and, since you have total control over the contrast, you can look at these subjects with a totally new eye.

I know it seems a waste not to use colour film in such a colourful environment, but it’s good to make the effort now and again to use black and white film and experience the discipline of seeing and capturing a whole angle on underwater life.

A model set-up

After hiring a camera while on holiday, Alan and Sarah Usher, of Exeter in Devon became so enthralled with underwater photography they bought a Subal/Nikon outfit and began diving solely to take pictures rather than for the sake of diving.

Since then they have immersed themselves and their camera in the Pemba Channel, off Kenya, been to Sipadan, the Maldives and Grand Cayman. This colourful trumpet sponge (above) photographed in Grand Cayman last year, is a good natural history illustration but it would benefit from being cropped at the top. Additional shots with a sunburst in the background and also a sunburst and diver, would greatly increase the potential of this subject, which appears ideally situated for ideas.

A couple diving together, such as a husband and wife team, should always have such additional shots in mind. They should dress for a modelling role, ensure they have no dangling gauges or consoles, and practise precision buoyancy control so they can suspend themselves in a suitable posture. With a housed camera, posing is easier because they can study their reflection in the dome port and adjust their position accordingly.


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