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Excerpt from 'The manual of underwater Photography 1989

Article text
Picture of Robert Bailey by Arthur Kingdon, Scilly Isles, UK
Forward by David Doubilet - contract photographer for National Geographic Magazine

To me this really sums up underwater photography and I enjoy the humerous aspects of how it's expressed.



One night about fifteen years ago I gave a slide show on the shores of the Red Sea. My wife, Anna, and I were in Eilat, Israel shooting an assignment for National Geographic. Our friend, Harvey, was in Eilat on vacation taking a scuba diving course. He asked me to show some underwater pictures to his class. We sat on the beach in the front of the Aqua-Sport Diving Centre.

The screen rippled slowly in the evening breeze and halfway through the show the moon rose over the mountains of Jordan across the gulf of Aquaba.

The next morning, as Harvey reported, the class discussed underwater photography. Everyone in the class was fairly impressed by the images from the sea except Shlomo, a huge nineteen-year paratrooper who knew EVERYTHING and whose self-assurance stretched to the known corners of the universe.

He said: "Underwater photography, easy. You jump in the water, you see the fish, you take the picture. Easy"

Harvey looked at him sideways and replied: "Brain surgery. Easy! You open the head, you fix the head, you close the head. Easy!"

...

Underwater photography may possibly be the most difficult branch in all of photography. It puts extraordinary demands on the photographer and it happens in a completely alien environment.

Underwater photography is an extraordinary combination of hunting and art. You have to be able to see into the lives of the creatures that live there. This demands a great storehouse of marine knowledge. In essence you must stalk the fish and then try to find a place "to land" in order to make an intimate photograph. The image of the eye of a fish, the shark, or the seal must penetrate the through the sea and onto a digital memory card, or a piece of film, and after all the post processing finally into the viewers eye.

Light falls into the sea in many different ways. If you look towards the surface the light sparkles, dances. Sometime the sun forms shafts of light. There is delicate rim light or backlight, which gives depth and dimension. On overcast days, light comes into the sea like a soft blanket. Natural light is often not enough. Almost every image taken underwater requires supplemental lighting. Basically this means electronic flash, one or two, attached to arms of varying length, depending on the lens you are using.

This produces a dangerous tendency for underwater photographers to act like fish paparazzi. They end up cornering some fish in a coral alcove (especially with the advent of digital cameras which give us almost endless shots during the course of dive) and blasting away as if the poor creature was a minor celebrity in a greasy nightclub. I try to use the flash as a paintbrush, and bringing out a catch light in their eyes. The flash uncovers hidden colours of the deep. The surprise shows up on the instantaneous review screen of the camera, or when picking up the roll of film from the lab.

The sea does not give up its images easily. Underwater photography is a technical nightmare, a kind of photographic warfare fought beneath the waves. The sea seems to have a diabolic need to ruin cameras. The water comes in, the air goes out and in moments your state of the art, desire of a lifetime camera turns in an electronic bouillabaisse. Pity.

If you amortize the time, the expense, the sheer effort, and put that up against the time you actually spend in the water making pictures, it's not a cheap activity. Add to that the fact that in the end for many us discerning, bordering on obsessive photographers the images we make will end up in bin. Not quite good enough, when it does work though it certainly fuels the desire for more.

I have added some comments to the article about digital photography which didn't exist when this book came out in 1989.

Can't wait to get back in the water.