Learning underwater photography -- the easy parts

Nikonos V underwater cameraby B. N. Sullivan

A lot of the tales that will be told in this blog will center on a photo, or series of photos, that I've taken underwater.  I came late to photography as a hobby -- underwater and otherwise. Until the late 1980s, I had never taken any photos except for the usual family stuff -- holidays, birthday parties, trips -- and always with a point-and-shoot camera.

From the time I began diving in the early 1970s, I had often wished I could show non-divers the wonderful things I saw on my dives. I'm usually pretty good with words, but in so many ways there were just no words to describe the stunning scenery or the fascinating critters I saw beneath the surface of the sea. So, I began to think about getting an underwater camera. I couldn't afford a "good" one until the late 1980s, when I bought my first Nikonos V camera body and a submersible 35mm lens for it, just like the one in the photo above.

My first attempts at underwater photography were truly dismal. I understood nothing about photography, and even after reading a few how-to books, I still couldn't figure out how to adapt terrestrial photography techniques to the undersea realm. I sorely needed some instruction.

I heard about a week-long underwater photography course taught by the renowned underwater photographer Jim Church. The course was taught on a live-aboard dive boat in the Cayman Islands, so it served as a diving vacation as well as an opportunity to learn about underwater photography. We both enrolled.

The first day was a shock as we watched all the other "students" arrive toting multiple Pelican cases filled with massive amounts of camera gear. I wilted. We showed up for the course with the one camera and one lens between us. We felt so naive!

Jim Church, bless him, put us at ease from the start. On the first day, he chatted with each of his students in order to get a fix on how much they already knew, and what they hoped to learn during the week. I admitted that I was a rank novice -- and apparently gravely under-equipped at that. Jim patted me on the shoulder and told me not to worry: He said that meant I didn't have any bad habits to unlearn. As for the lack of equipment, there was a whole range of cameras, lenses, strobes and various accessories for rent aboard the dive boat. I tried them all!

Each day we learned a new technique or two in our ad hoc classroom -- the vessel's dining room. Then we went right into the water to practice what we'd learned -- five dives each day, shooting scenes, fish, critters, divers. And speaking of photographing divers, we even learned a lot about managing -- and being -- an underwater model.

We'd do wide angle shots one day, macro shots the next, and so on. We shot in natural light; then we tried out different combinations of lenses and strobes. We shot in morning light, afternoon light, and on night dives.

At the end of each dive, we'd turn in our film for immediate processing. In the evening we'd all sit around the light tables in the dining room looking at our day's worth of slides, critiquing each other's work.

The week went by quickly, yet we learned an enormous amount about photography, camera maintenance, and how to deal with the underwater environment as a "studio" from Jim and his then-sidekick, Mike Mesgleski. [Side Note: Jim Church passed away in 2002. Mike is still teaching underwater photography -- highly recommended!]
It was a great way to learn about the basics of underwater photography, but unbeknownst to me at the time, choosing lenses, apertures and shutter speeds was the easy part.

As we go along, I'll point out some of the more challenging aspects of underwater photography.

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Bobbie & Jerry