My Day As An Underwater Photographer

Me trying very hard to hold still as I take a photo of Nemo (photo by Peter Mooney)
Me trying very hard to hold still as I take a photo of Nemo (photo by Peter Mooney)
There are lots of places in the world you can go SCUBA diving, but Cairns just might have the biggest concentration of dive shops and and the largest diving industry in the world. The size of the industry is big enough that it has dedicated businesses devoted to underwater photography. I figured this would be the best opportunity for me to really do some serious underwater photography with a real camera.

I’ve taken underwater photos while diving in the past, but it has always involved renting a simple point and shoot in a plastic enclosure for the day. It is a far cry from what professional underwater photographers do, and given I have a semi-pro camera, I wanted to use my gear to do the real thing.

I went to Scubapix in Cairns and talked to Peter Mooney. Scubapix is pretty much the best shop for Cairns underwater photography. Peter is a real photographer who has had underwater photos on the cover of several SCUBA journals and in Time Magazine. He’s the sort of guy that when film crews from the Discovery Channel come to town to shoot the Great Barrier Reef, he’s the guy they talk to.

Sea fans
Sea fans
I told Peter what I’d like to do and we planned for a day of underwater photos out on the reef. I had no idea where you would even begin doing something like this. I knew you had expensive enclosures for cameras and lots of lights, but I didn’t know much else. What ISO setting do you use? What sort of lens do you use? How much battery life does a dive eat up? How many photos can you reasonably take during a dive? I had no clue where to even begin in answering those questions, so I figured it would be best to just have Peter come with me and dive for a day.

The day before the dive I brought in my camera and got it fitted with the custom electronics and the enclosure. Pretty much all of the knobs and buttons on the camera are accessible on the outside of the enclosure via a special cable. You can zoom, change settings, review photos on the LCD, pretty much everything you could do it if you weren’t underwater.

Giant Clam
Giant Clam
These enclosures are not cheap. They are custom to the camera. Getting the setup which I used for the day would probably have run me over $4,000. The cost is due to the low demand and the work which has to go into each design. You will spend more on the enclosure and the lights than you would on the camera and the lenses, probably by quite a bit. I once looked into buying an enclosure for my camera, but the price and the idea of lugging a big thing I’d hardly ever use around didn’t make it very appealing.

The morning we left to go was like most dive trips. The boat we went out on was larger than what I’ve been used to for diving. The great barrier reef is about 40 miles away from the shore so you have to take a somewhat rough trip over open water to get out to the reef, as opposed to island diving where the reef is right off the edge of the island. There were at least a dozen people on the boat who were diving at various degrees of experience. It was the largest number of divers I’ve seen in one spot.

Peter gave me advice about what to do: move the strobe lights in the closer you get, try to be within a arms length of the subject, and try to shoot from the side or looking up and not looking down. He also brought his own camera (Nikon D2X) and didn’t use any external lighting.

Oooooh, Barracuda!
Oooooh, Barracuda!
Trying to take photos while diving, especially when you don’t know what your doing, is a real trick. You see those beautiful photos in National Geographic and don’t put a lot of thought into the process. Take for example the photo I posted yesterday of the clownfish in the anemone. You are shooting with a wide angle lens, so you have to get almost on top of the fish. The fish have no desire to cooperate with you so they are moving around. There is probably a current which is moving you around and you try to steady yourself and keep body off sharp coral, so you are probably only using one hand. If you want to get the photo right, you are probably going to have to fiddle with lights and settings on your camera while all of this is going on. Oh, and you also have a giant tank on your back and a hose in your mouth so you can’t talk.

For every beautiful underwater photo you see, there are problems a whole bunch of ones which got thrown out or didn’t make the cut. Peter told me he spent two weeks in Indonesia diving and came home with 12 usable photos. Of the ones I uploaded from my day of diving, I’d guess that none of those would probably be good enough for print. In fact, the best ones are of me, because they weren’t taken by me.

Leather Corals
Leather Corals
My first dive only lasted 30 minutes, which is really short. This is because I sucked through air faster than I ever have on a dive. I’m not sure why, but I’m guessing it was because I was so focused on the camera I wasn’t really paying attention to my breathing or anything else. We also had to swim out against the current and were down around 18m for a good amount of time. There is also the dragging the camera around factor. Still, 30 min is pretty short when you aren’t deep diving.

My next two dives went much better after I had an idea of what I was doing. One thing when you are diving is that you are often hovering over what you are looking at. This for the most part makes for bad photos, something that was really driven home after I was able to look at the photos I took.

All the photos you see on this page and all the others which I uploaded from that day were touched up with Photoshop. All of them. The biggest thing being correcting the white balance. Because I shoot in RAW this is trivial to do in Photoshop. Most of the other changes involved adjusting shadows, exposure and making adjustments to the light curves. From what I saw, I’d almost say it is necessary. There were only a few photos I probably could pass as presentable without Photoshop, one of which was the fan photo on this page. Underwater photography would be very difficult with film.

I’m glad took the time to do this. It was something that I might never be able to do again at this level, so it is a feather I can put in my travel and photography cap. If I ever find a place that rents enclosures for a Nikon D200 and if I can find a place that rents them at some affordable rate, then I might do it again. Plus, I got some great photos.

7 thoughts on “My Day As An Underwater Photographer”

  1. Judging by the photos, I would never guess you “didn’t know what you were doing”. I could turn the “Sea fans” into a screen saver any time, it has such a relaxing aura about it.

  2. Beautiful photos. Thank you for sharing your adventures, I quite enjoy the site. Happy travels to you.

  3. Hi Gary!

    Nice photos.

    I was wondering if you could tell me how to get in touch with Peter Mooney as I would very much like to take some real underwater photos myself when in Cairns. I’m equipped with Canon EOS350, but it is not so essential for me to use my own gear.


  4. I tell you what, Gary, I’m utterly impressed by your underwater photography. It’s superb. And to be able to generate photos of that calibre AND dive at the same time? Well, I take my hat off to you!

  5. Well, Gary — you are your own worst critic. These are gorgeous photos and worthy of any magazine layout. Your description of the difficulties involved in taking them has certainly lent a better appreciation by me of anyone attempting to take underwater photos.

    I can’t wait to see more of your photos!


Comments are closed.