We’ve all seen Blue Planet, but what could you realistically get with amateur kit in unexotic places?
First – amateur kit. Going any deeper into water than being splashed requires an underwater housing. If you thought cameras were expensive, look at housings. They are specific to the make and model of the camera, so any thought of changing your camera becomes at least twice the investment. I regularly dive with someone who uses a video camera, and the housing alone cost more than both of my family cars.
But, there are plenty of people who give-up the sport and sell their kit, or who do upgrade to something better. So the usual online markets are your friend, if you are happy to use a modest camera. There is also the ever-present risk of a leak, so I am happier risking £40 than £400 or even £4,000. I’ve got a second-hand Canon Digital Ixus 750 which was originally advertised as “With its sleek Perpetual Curve design, the contoured all-metal body of the Digital IXUS 750 represents the pinnacle of Canon design excellence”. Does make you wonder why Canon didn’t stop right there and not build another camera. It has a 7mpixel sensor, which is adequate. It also has a built-in colour correction mode for underwater, of which more anon. This, with housing, cost about £20.
Next – unexotic places. I regularly dive in a flooded quarry and off the cost of East Scotland. The quarry plays host to large groups of training divers, so the bottom gets very stirred-up (the quarry’s, although I’m sure some of them also feel the tingle). Visibility in the quarry can be less than two metres. There may be less silt in the water in Scotland but it also gets darker at depth.
The answer is to get close. The less water there is between the camera and the subject, the less silt and haze. So most underwater photography is done through wideangle lenses or as macro. The little Canon camera has a half-decent macro mode enabled through one button on the back.
The other problem is dark. Water absorbs a lot of light, and not all the colours are absorbed at the same rate. This is why the Canon has an underwater setting – to boost the red part of the spectrum and make up for the losses. For snorkelling depths this works pretty well. Any deep than a couple of metres though, and you need flash.
The little Canon point-and-shoot has one of them too. Right next to the lens. This is the ideal position for illuminating the silt in the water. Get in very close in macro mode and it works reasonably well. Try to take a picture of a person and you get the ‘diver in snowstorm’ look.
So you get as close as you can.
I found a second-hand underwater flashgun on that usual online market. This one was ideal, as it had a built-in slave cell. This means it can be triggered by the weedy built-in flash, or even used as a second fill-light. It’s a reasonably handy rig – small enough to hold out one-handed at arm’s length to get close to a fish without scaring it with your body bulk.
And sometimes you get lucky and find the entire seabed covered in a carpet of starfish.
So, surprisingly, you can use modest kit to take reasonable pictures. The limitations are that you probably can’t enlarge much from a small sensor, but the muck and refraction can make that a challenge even for big cameras. Lighting can be a problem, as can getting close and using very wide angle lenses.
It will never be a challenge to the BBC, but it will do for me.
A lobster eating a jellyfish. Never seen this before. Taken on cheap kit.