2016 11 - Underwater Photography

29th November 2016
Retford & District Photographic Society - Press Release - Joy Allison
17th November 2016

Underwater Photography

Jack Perks from Nottingham returned for a second visit to Retford – an endorsement that we had enjoyed his previous talk and this one was even better. He brought us a different view of the world showing us his underwater images.

Jack has found a niche as an underwater photographer, gaining a reputation particularly for his fresh water work and becoming a more frequent contributor to programmes such as Springwatch. He also runs courses and works for the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts.

It is easy to imagine that capturing images under water is a relatively new aspect of photography, but we learned this is far from the case. The first example was taken using a camera mounted on a pole in 1856 and the first underwater motion film dates from 1914. The first flash image in this environment was taken using a magnesium flash inn 1923, and we, with Jack, could only wonder how ever they kept it dry.We also learned that much pioneering research and development was carried out by the people working on the James Bond film 'Thunderball'.

Jack quoted Brian Pitkin - 'Scuba diving is like ice skating in fog with a leotard on.' Underwater work is clearly quite a challenge. Turning to how he works Jack suggested that any aspiring exponents of the art should spend at least 100 hours working on their diving before they consider trying to do it with a camera. Using the camera within its waterproof housing is a further challenge and one which is best tackled above water initially until it becomes second nature.

There are obvious drawbacks. It is not possible to change lens, memory card or battery once you have dived, so it is important to pay particular attention to ensuring that your kit is properly prepared and the shots you want carefully thought out before you dive – and that you go with a ‘buddy’ for safety. If you need a selection of lenses to build up a picture of the subject, you need to plan for several dives in the day.

We learned that the physiological effects of being in the alien environment under water, and particularly deep water, limit what divers can do. Both the number of dives a year and the duration of each have safety limits which must be observed. The weather affects plans as do tides and currents for inland waterways - yet more things to be planned for.

Jack is qualified to dive to 30m, which sounds deep, but we were told it is not in diving terms. He has little need to go deeper for the work he does because he has a preference for working with natural light where possible. This is another challenge as water absorbs light and the colours are absorbed differently as you go deeper, beginning at the red end of the spectrum. Below 15m things take on a blue look as this is the last colour to be absorbed. Below 30m it is too dark generally to work by natural light. Strobes can be used to illuminate the subject, but they give a different effect and are not necessarily kind to the fish’s eyes at close quarters.

One asset we learned of was that there are fewer straight lines under water than above, so distortion is less evident in images. You need to be very close to your subject - ideally under 1m away because water also reduces contrast and sharpness. For these reasons a 10 - 17mm fish eye lens is popular.

Jack explained that he does not feel bound to stick to the rules of what to photograph and how to do it and follows his instincts. His favourite method is to snorkel rather than dive as it is more flexible and there is much to study not far from the surface. He is a fan of rock pools and of shallow streams. He dives all around Britain and abroad when he gets the chance, appreciating the clearer waters he has found overseas.

Jack entertained us with shots of grey seals off the British coast. They seem to enjoy investigating divers and often hide behind them and will nibble their flippers to explore this alien being. This can be frustrating when you really want them in front to photograph! As one photograph showed, they can be quite alarming when they are in front of you and chewing gently on your lens housing. Jack said he moved his head back quickly in case it was next.

With all photography the angle from which you shoot has an impact on your images. Because of the properties of water, shooting down is seldom a good idea as the light will be much poorer than if you shoot straight ahead or up. The fully 3D nature of the environment needs to be considered. A blue sky above can really boost an image.

Jack has photographed every species of British freshwater fish and is now increasingly developing an interest in photographing birds underwater. He has learned that using a decoy can help to gain their confidence and now needs to develop his technique in creating them. We saw images of puffins - very cautious and skittish - swans, and ducks. The underwater view of common creatures shows them in a quite different way and here video has a role to play in addition to still photography.

After the refreshment break Jack spoke more about the kit he uses and what is needed to get into this discipline. The first requirement is deep pockets as the kit is expensive. Normal cameras are used and they fit into camera-specific housings which are sealed with a greased O-ring. Needing a separate housing for each camera is limiting for an entry level photographer and this is only the beginning of the kit.

Wet or dry suits are needed along with waders and polecams for shallower water. Whatever depth you are working at and no matter what kit you have, Jack recommended staying with one creature to fully observe and record its behaviour. This way he feels you get the best shots. The fine particles in shallow water are a real difficulty as they cause 'back scatter' of the light and create a murky look, which is undesirable. In addition to everything else the photographer has to avoid disturbing the silt or sand, but it may be disturbed already by currents, weather, wildlife or other divers, causing a shoot to be abandoned.

Jack's advice was to use the camera on its manual setting, with autofocus switched on and with the ISO at 100, especially if using strobes. As with all photography, eye contact with the subject is the ideal along with an uncluttered background.

Jack concluded with some examples of split shots showing some of the image above the waterline. These create a totally different effect and require yet another set of skills to be practised.