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Capturing Underwater Beauty

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Sometimes the Sea life cooperate with the camera

By John Christopher Fine

            “Take only pictures. Leave only bubbles.” That catchy slogan has become the buzzword of dive operations worldwide. People that earn their livelihood taking divers and snorkelers to see magnificent reefs know degradation of the marine environment will directly impact their financial return.

            Financial return or not, the marine environment, like our world’s terrestrial home, is finite. I never imagined that I would ever witness depletion of fish stocks in the oceans of the world. Never. When I began diving as a kid, ocean resources seemed unlimited, impossible to deplete. Today even the great Grand Banks fisheries, herring and sardine fishing, krill and shellfish harvesting is impacted by too much. Too much taking before reproduction can replenish supplies.

            I harvest a lobster now and then. Those succulent Florida spiny lobsters certainly make me popular at barbeque time. Every year, usually during mini-season, a weekend before regular season opens at the very end of July, Florida marine enforcement officers catch greedy divers with more than the six-recreational lobster limit in their boats. Too much taking will deplete the reproductive population, then there will be no more for anyone. This is true for every species we depend on for food.

            I mostly take pictures underwater. I wrote books and articles about underwater photography. I taught divers to take underwater photographs. I made underwater documentary motion pictures. The digital revolution in photography repealed my knowledge. Finally, at long last, I had all the best, the very costly, underwater photo gear I needed. It took years to buy it. Years to figure out how to use it properly. Underwater strobes cost me $750. More with their arms and brackets. I still own the finest ground optical glass Nikon underwater lenses that cost $2,200. I never use them now. 

            I have an extensive color slide library. Recently I had to go into it to scan slides into the computer. While it is not a difficult process it is time consuming. With digital photography, I simply take the picture—and since it costs nothing at all and photo cards or chips have near unlimited capacity for still photos—I take lots of pictures. When I get home, I download them into the computer. With a little effort, I can select pictures and send them via email to my editors to illustrate my articles.

            When digital cameras first made their appearance for underwater photography I tried lots of them. I tested some of them for magazine reports. Some were not bad. Some were made by people that had no clue about what diving is like. Most photographers have no clue as to all the features on their digital land cameras. Most of us never even use them. We take a picture and that is that. Auto focus and zoom lenses make good photographers out of the most amateur. People use their telephones to take pictures. Some phones have better resolution, and thus can take better pictures, than many cameras. I have seen divers come aboard dive boats with plastic bags into which they pop their phones and go underwater with them to take pictures.

            My first digital underwater camera had thirteen buttons on the housing. The little flash was incorporated into the camera. Most digital cameras today are little boxes with an electronic strobe or flash near the lens. All I wanted underwater was one button. I was used to manual focusing. I set my film camera for one setting: one aperture and one shutter speed. When an underwater creature appeared, I was ready. 

            I cannot manage thirteen buttons underwater. I do not want to preview, review or delete pictures underwater. I cannot be bothered with little groups of buttons. I cannot manipulate little buttons with my dive gloves on and hardly can work them without gloves. Some diabolical little inventors, somewhere on the planet, even placed shutter release and on-off buttons so close together that on land it was difficult to operate the camera without tuning it off let alone use it underwater.

            In photography, in general, big is better. Heavy is better. Heavy and big cameras give the support structure necessary to make the camera an extension of a photographer’s body. The camera provides heft and size needed to hold it comfortably in most situations. Some underwater photography camera companies decided that little is good. Every week on our dive boat out of Boynton Beach a photographer lost a tiny camera underwater. Head straps gave away. Lanyards came loose. The little camera floated away.

            I do not want buoyant cameras. I teach diving. I cannot have a camera floating up. If I must put it down I want it to stay there. I use lead fishing weights I find underwater on a flat mounting plate on my camera tray. The tray also mounts my cinema lights. That too is an innovation for me. I’ve gone from those headlight strobes to cinema lights. When strobes fire they reflect particles in the water. These particles create backscatter and ruin pictures. With film, using my large strobes, I angled them backwards to avoid or minimize this problem when the water was less than crystal clear. With a fixed headlight strobe, that cannot be angled to avoid striking particles in the water direct on, many pictures have backscatter.

            SeaLife Cameras invented a small but ergonomic camera they call the Micro 2. It fits my hand. It has a convenient shutter release button and can be bought with a 32 or 64 GB memory. The Micro 2 has 16-megapixel (1080 p) resolution. More than necessary for good clear photos. The camera is warranted for use up to 200 feet.

            Micro 2 is self-contained. There is nothing to be opened, nothing to be changed, nothing to be installed. There is a waterproof port that enables the camera to be charged or pictures downloaded. That’s it. No zoom, no buttons other than the shutter release and nothing to flood. There are no consumer serviceable parts to be touched. No chips or camera SD cards are put in or removed. The camera has its own rechargeable batteries and large memory

            For underwater lighting, I have fastened my Micro 2 to a metal tray. I have two arms coming off the tray. I use SeaLife cinema lights to provide lighting. They have perfected underwater lighting in small, battery operated Sea Dragon lighting systems that offer color corrected lighting underwater. Computers can color correct digital images if they are not perfect. I do not use that feature. I want to take the picture the way the subject appears. I do not try to enhance it or fool with it later on. 

            That is exactly what I like about the camera system I use with great success. I press one shutter release button and get good pictures underwater.

            I was the last of the stubborn of film photographers. The last one editors permitted to send slides in with my articles. The final hold out for film. If I can make the transition to digital anyone can. I have been converted. My Micro 2 is exactly what I sought after my trusty Nikonos underwater film cameras bit the dust. 

            Sure, I can get huge housed cameras. I could spend $20,000 on a camera set up, more depending on the lens. I do other things underwater. I work on shipwrecks. I participate in treasure recoveries. I take water samples. I teach divers and instructors. I perform rescues. I cannot do that with a huge housed camera. It is rare that I have time to just take underwater pictures.

            Underwater photography adds a degree of difficulty to any dive. Any extra piece of equipment requires concentration. I have always had the teaching philosophy that a person must master diving skills before taking on other responsibilities. I still shepherd underwater photographers that encounter difficulty trying to manage their cameras in Gulf Stream current off Boynton Beach where we dive. Good divers make good underwater photographers. Get good first. Gain diving experience before taking on other burdens.

            Sharing the thrill of ocean exploration is a great way to include family and friends in your underwater adventure. Digital photography has made it easy and relatively inexpensive. Choose the best camera gear the first time, I counsel students. Cheap is not always a smart purchase. The learning curve shoots up rapidly. After a few dives, a basic camera will have to be replaced with an enhanced one. Once I find a camera set up I like, that’s it. When I push the button, I want to take a picture not fumble with gadgets.

            About the Author: Dr. John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist, Master Scuba Instructor and Instructor Trainer. He is the author of 26 books many dealing with ocean science and marine biology.