Beginner’s Guide to Underwater Film Photography

Beginner’s Guide to Underwater Film Photography

2200 1462 Chloe Ellison

For beginners, shooting film can be a challenge. But shooting film underwater? The learning curve swings up exponentially when you add in variables of constantly changing light, the vagaries of scale focus, and remembering how to swim.

Getting your first underwater rolls of film back from the lab can be a sobering experience. Your images of the undersea world, which had looked so vivid and alive, are inexplicably dull, dark, and blurry, a seascape like nothing that you remembered. In those early days you might be tempted to give up.

I’ve been shooting the Nikonos V, Nikon’s most advanced manual focus underwater film camera, for eight years, and I’ve shot my fair share of images that didn’t turn out as I’d hoped. Through years of trial and error, I’ve learned a few things that I hope will help you to make underwater images that you’re excited about, and that my experience might inspire you to try new things with the camera.

These five tips are a place to start so that you can troubleshoot what is working and what needs adjusting in your Nikonos / underwater film photography process.

How you use the camera to make the images you want is really up to you!

Step 1. Take care of your camera

Dry-land care is arguably the most important part of owning a Nikonos V. I remember when I got my first Nikonos. It came with a stern note from the seller– if I broke it, I’d better not come crying to him! I was entering the Nikonos Fellowship, and members who neglect a strict cleaning regimen will be shunned.

There are several things to remember. First, when you are buying your Nikonos, make sure you also buy some Nikonos O-ring grease. It costs about $10, and is critical because, before you even load a roll of film, you need to grease up four of your camera’s O-rings. You’ll find these O-rings behind the film door, on the base of the detachable lens, on the battery compartment cover, and on the flash sync socket cover.

Remove the black rubber rings (a credit card can help leverage out tight o-rings, but take care not to scratch them) and coat each ring with a thin layer of the grease. You don’t need much, just a dab. This will keep your O-rings from drying out and cracking and helps to create a waterproof bond between O-ring and the surface to which it’s mounted. Be sure to keep the O-rings clean of lint, sand, and debris. I recommend being pedantic about this, as just the tiniest piece of lint in the wrong place can cause your whole camera to flood.

Once your O-rings are greased, secure, and inspected, your camera is ready for a swim.

Whenever you get out of the water, give your Nikonos some tender loving care with a freshwater bath. I take an old pot with me every time I go diving, and as soon as I’m back at the car, I put my camera in the pot and fill it with water. This is especially important if you’re shooting in salt water. Over time, salt water will damage your cameras’ internal o-rings, especially if you let the camera dry before drawing its sanctioned bath. Once it’s submerged, twist the knobs and press the buttons to help flush out extra bits of salt.

And, finally, you should send your camera in for servicing about once a year. This means a professional will check on your internal O-rings and pressure test your camera to make sure there are no leaks to worry about. Because it’s almost impossible to access your internal o-rings (unless you’re really confident you can put it all back together by yourself), getting your camera serviced is essential to keeping your camera alive as long as possible. I always send mine to Narcosis101, who is very knowledgeable, responsive and friendly.

It was built to go where other cameras could not, but its brick-like body is deceiving– the Nikonos V was first released in 1984, so some of these cameras are more than 40 years old, and earlier Nikonos models can be 70 or 80. A single drop of water in the wrong place will short out your electronics or corrode a delicate mechanism, leaving you with nothing more than a beautiful (and otherwise useless) paperweight.

Once they’re dead, they’re dead– that’s why we prescribe preventive care for your Nikonos V!

Now onto the fun stuff–

2. Learn how to scale focus (or zone focus) underwater

You finally have your camera in the water, and the reef is so beautiful! It’s hard to believe this is actually what you’re seeing! Well, the truth is, your vision is a little warped. That shark that appears to be ten feet away is actually about thirteen feet away.

That’s because the magnification index underwater is 1.33 (whereas air has a refractive index of 1). I’m no scientist, but put simply, that means objects underwater are actually about one-third further away than they appear to your eye.

The Nikonos lenses use a scale focus system. A distance scale on the lens indicates the currently-selected focus distance. Scale focus on land is hard enough, but luckily we don’t have to do any compensations for apparent distance underwater. Nikonos lenses were designed for the human eye, meaning the measurement readings are calibrated for apparent, rather than actual, distance underwater. They are designed to see what you see! That is helpful because it means we can do some dry land practice to train the eye and nail scale focus (at least most of the time).

Holding a yardstick in your left hand out of sight of the viewfinder, use the right hand to point your camera at an object that appears to be 3 feet away. When you’ve adjusted your distance to the estimated 3 feet, bring up your yardstick and measure between the lens and the object. The idea is to train your eye to judge what is 3 feet away from you. If you want extra practice, gather some sticks of different lengths and continue this dry land practice using various distances.

I’ve heard of people bringing yardsticks into the water, but your handiest measuring tool is already attached to you. Your arm goes where you go, and is the easiest appendage with which to assess distance. For example, my arm from shoulder to fingertips is about 2.5 feet. For this one you have to work backwards: Since my camera sees as I see, if I can extend my arm out underwater and touch my subject, I know to pre-set my focus distance to 3-ish feet. What my arm says is 2.5 feet (actual) will render in the camera as I see it at 3.25 feet (apparent). Measure and do this math beforehand, and then when you’re diving always remember to use the apparent distance of your arm extended.

3. Adjust for parallax

Because the Nikonos V is a mirror-less camera with a fixed viewfinder, what the viewfinder sees is not always what the lens sees. This is called parallax. When your subject is more than 5 feet away you can trust your viewfinder completely, but when your subject is any closer, you need to remember that the lens sees the image just slightly below what the viewfinder sees. This means that if you don’t adjust the camera, you’ll be cutting the head off your subject!

To compensate for this, you have to tilt your camera ever so slightly and shoot about 3 inches above your subject (I find it helpful to pretend that you’re Annie Oakley correcting your aim on a windy day at the Wild West Show). For example, if you are composing a shot with your subject exactly in the middle of the frame, and your subject is (apparently) 2 feet away, you need to tilt the camera slightly above the subject.

Another technique is to take a sharpie and draw a big dot on the middle back of your camera. Line everything up in the viewfinder, and then just before you take the shot, shift the camera up so that the dot is aligned with your eye. This allows you to compose, then adjust so that the lens now sees what you see. This can give a very accurate shot but you’ll have to move quickly, before your subject swims away!

4. Metering underwater

Light underwater is beautiful, but it’s also tricky. Metering for light refracted by water and clouded by particles means that our settings are going to change based on where you are in the water column and where you’re pointing your camera. The Nikonos V and Nikonos IV-a both come with an automatic exposure setting that is really helpful when starting out. Using this setting in the beginning will allow you to focus on swimming around, composing shots, and getting used to scale focus and parallax adjustments.

Eventually, or if you’re using an older, manual exposure Nikonos model, you will need to know how to control exposure. And even with a semi-auto or automatic model, underwater light changes so dramatically that sometimes the Automatic setting miscalculates, severely under- or over-exposing your image. It’s important to have an idea of how to expose correctly underwater.

Sunny 16 is a great rule of thumb for exposures topside. Keeping this exposure framework in mind, remember that as soon as you get in the water, you will lose about one to two stops of light at the surface. For every 10 feet or so, you’ll lose another stop of light. So, if you’re staying relatively shallow, you can try out Sunny 16 underwater. Just remember that the human eye adjusts to dim light. Your camera won’t. It’s dark down there and you need to let in as much light as possible!

Troubleshooting is important here, because the proper exposure will change based on water clarity, depth, and where in the water column you’re pointing the camera. If you’re down at 20 feet and pointing the camera up at the surface, you’ll be letting in a lot more light than if you’re at the surface pointing the camera down at the seabed. Similarly, if your local dive sites are prone to cloudy water, you will lose light quicker than in clear waters. That’s why I recommend bracketing your shots when you start out. By taking multiple exposures at various settings, you increase your chances of getting a keeper in challenging light conditions, plus you learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

5. Get comfortable in the water

All of this information might be making your head swim. While your brain is trying to remember how to meter underwater, estimate distance, and adjust for parallax, your body needs to be moving through the water with ease. You will have a hard time taking photos if you are not a confident swimmer.

Say you just bought a Nikonos and are excited about trying it out on your upcoming Caribbean vacation, but you don’t live near the ocean. Why not first try it out at the public pool? With your snorkel mask on and camera in hand, practice swimming, floating, and diving beneath the surface in smooth, controlled motions. Practicing in a controlled environment will help you get familiar with your gear before you head out to sea.

If you’re ready to take things a step further, I would recommend taking a free-diving course or getting scuba certified. Not only will it lead you to amazing photos, but you’ll unlock a really fun sport and interesting community in the process. Plus, a lot of divers are photographers themselves, so you’ll probably get some extra wisdom that you can’t find here!

The more confident and at ease you are in the water, the better your photos will turn out. You’ll feel much more comfortable, and will increase your chances of getting close to skittish fish. Underwater photography demands a level of relaxation and control that can only come with practice and familiarity with your aquatic environment. So, don’t rush it. Take time to build your confidence, and you’ll see the difference in your photography.


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Chloe Ellison

Chloe Ellison is a writer and photographer passionate about preserving the underwater world. She is the type of person who packs a bathing suit no matter the destination. Chloe splits her time between Cape Town and Cape Cod.

All stories by:Chloe Ellison
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Chloe Ellison

Chloe Ellison is a writer and photographer passionate about preserving the underwater world. She is the type of person who packs a bathing suit no matter the destination. Chloe splits her time between Cape Town and Cape Cod.

All stories by:Chloe Ellison