Getting Started
Peter Rowlands launches his beginner’s guide to taking up underwater photography with a rundown on what kit you need

It’s hard to imagine a more difficult environment in which to attempt to take pictures than the underwater one but, despite these limitations, we know it is possible to take good pictures and there is now a wider range of cameras available than ever before.

Underwater photographers tend to fall into two broad categories – those who take pictures occasionally as a record of their dive, and those whose sole aim in diving is underwater photography. At whatever level you wish to operate, there is a choice of cameras to suit you.

Underwater photography can be as cheap or expensive as you choose. Prices start at under £10 for a disposable camera loaded with 24 frames of 400ISO print film. This is a good general-purpose film and, with the camera’s depth rating of about 3m, you will have maximum light and colour. This depth rating may sound a bit limiting, but you’d be surprised how many successful shots are taken in very shallow water.

As soon as you start to go deeper, more complications set in. The light levels fall dramatically and colours fade until all you are left with are blue and black. Add limited visibility to the picture and you have a cocktail for disastrous pictures. But specially designed cameras and accessory lenses can overcome most, if not all, of these problems.

Whatever camera you buy will obviously depend on your budget, but for quality underwater photographs, there are three main camera options – Nikonos, Sea & Sea or a housed land-camera. The first two are amphibious non-reflex cameras, so you have to estimate the camera-to-subject distance and set the focus accordingly. However, accessory lenses are available which come with a framing device if they are close-ups or a wide depth of field if they are wide-angle, so this lack of reflex (through the lens) focusing is not as big a disadvantage as it first appears. In addition, composition is helped with either a framer for close-ups or an external optical viewfinder for wide-angle lenses.

The Nikonos V, Sea & Sea Explora and MotorMarine IIEX are all small and light, and easy to operate. They offer automatic flash exposures and their range of accessory lenses makes them very versatile. All have close-up lenses or extension tubes to let you focus closer, or there are wide-angle lenses for larger subjects. Most underwater photographs tend to be taken at extremes: either very close up or at very wide angles – so a Nikonos or Sea & Sea camera caters well for the needs of most underwater photographers.

A land camera in an underwater housing offers several advantages. Firstly, you have a choice of camera. The most popular is the Nikon range because the viewfinder size is bigger than most other manufacturers’ models. They also offer compatibility with Nikonos flashguns so, if you are upgrading from a Nikonos V, you won’t need to buy a new flashgun.

Housed cameras do have major advantages – in the choice of lenses. You can use anything from a full-frame fisheye to a 200mm macro lens (with the appropriate change of port); as well as zoom lenses, and you are not restricted to Nikon’s own lenses, for there are other manufacturers, such as Sigma, that sell lenses significantly cheaper.

Another advantage of a housed camera is the ability to see through the lens to ensure correct focus and good composition. In addition autofocus and motor drive are available which can be a big benefit in some shooting situations.

A final factor in favour of a housed land-camera is that it is more up-to-date than an amphibious one, so you can have the advantage of faster and more accurate electronics. The Nikonos V, for example, hasn’t been changed in basic specification since it was introduced in 1984.

The downside with housed land-cameras is that they are heavier, bulkier, more expensive and require more setting up, but if you want unlimited versatility, they are a sensible option.

If you want good pictures right from the start, a flashgun is an important accessory. They are essential for good close-up shots and ideal to add extra fill-in light for wide-angle shots. Flashguns restore the natural colours which water mutes and they also allow you to use a smaller aperture which will give increased depth of field. Most modern flashguns have sensors which read the amount of light falling on the film and, when the level is correct, they quench the output of the flash. This will stop your shots being over-exposed and make exposure calculation much easier, leaving you free to concentrate on the subject.

Finally, before committing yourself, talk to specialist suppliers as well as other underwater photographers about their choice of equipment. Their advice could save you money and make your entry into underwater photography a successful one.

• Next month: the basic skills

Cameras:from top; A Subal housing for a land camera, a Sea & Sea MotorMarine with a YS50 TTL flash, a Nikonos V

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