Five Best Films for Underwater Photography

Five Best Films for Underwater Photography

2000 1326 Chloe Ellison

Though my grandparents lived in New Jersey, their cellar transported me to the mountains of Afghanistan, the heart of the Congo and the depths of the Pacific. They were avid collectors of National Geographic, the many issues neatly stacked under the stairs in painstaking chronological order. 

I wasn’t allowed to touch the magazines unsupervised, lest I tear a page or misplace the December 1979 issue in the incorrect decade, but when no one was looking I would carefully slip them out to look at the covers. It was here I first saw photos taken underwater. I was mesmerized by this alien world, so big and so very blue. 

Back then, underwater photographers used all sorts of slide films that are no longer available; Ektachrome 64 was particularly prominent in National Geographic. With so few E6 emulsions available today, what film stocks are the best choice for scenes beneath the surface? 

Experimenting is part of the fun, but with film at its current price point and the learning curve of underwater photography, it’s nice to have a bit of side-by-side comparison. I can’t speak to B&W, but here are my top five color film stocks for underwater use.

Lomo 800 (Best Starter Film)

Lomo 800 has a reputation for versatility. It’s quite saturated for a high speed film, particularly accentuating greens and blues. I often use it for landscape photography, and I’ve found it can produce excellent color underwater. When shooting Portra 800 through my Nikonos V, I’ve found my shots come back a bit dull, but Lomo 800 provides a touch of vibrancy. Plus, it’s typically a bit cheaper than Portra 800. 

If you’re unsure what film to try underwater this is a great place to start. Lomo 800 has great dynamic range and subtle grain. It’s a very forgiving film while retaining decent color balance, which is important as color starts to dissipate underwater. The high ISO will help you record as much light as possible, which you’ll need to do as  under-exposed shadows can get quite muddy. 

To showcase its versatility, all of the sample photos published here were taken in Massachusetts, where the diving is notoriously green and murky.

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Portra 400 (Best Color w/o Strobe)

Portra is kind of like music on Billboard 100–whether you love it or you hate it, it’s popular for good reason. Taylor Swift and Noah Kahan may not be exposing us to unique rhythmic beats or poetic expressions, but they do pump out undeniably catchy and accessible tunes. 

Similarly, Portra 400 has a modern color palette that enhances scenes without overpowering them. Though it is expensive, it is quite user-friendly and dependable. It has a forgiving exposure latitude and hardly any grain. This makes it great for practicing manual exposures underwater, as you’re sure to walk away with something usable even if a bit under-exposed.

It’s not my favorite for murky conditions. The warm tones that are so ideal for portraits on land can cast a sickly glow over your scene at plankton-rich dive sites. But, taken out on a sunny day in clear waters it can really accentuate the blues, too. Portra is known to be a more reserved, less saturated film stock, but look at these blues!

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Ektrachrome 100 (Best Color w/ Strobe)

I couldn’t write about underwater film photography without bringing up E6 slides. All of the old-school materials, like Jim Church’s Essential Guide to Nikonos Systems, recommend shooting slide film underwater. With its vivid saturation and strong tones, it provided the most true-to-life color profiles in the days before Lightroom. However, this recommendation assumes you have a strobe. 

Ektachrome 100 is a slow and unforgiving film. Underwater, it struggles with natural light alone. To compensate for this, it is possible to push the film, shooting at ISO 200 or even 400. While I have seen other photographers produce astounding images by pushing Ektachrome, I had more failure than success in my attempts (plus I think I started to really annoy my lab –you could practically hear the eye rolls every time I came through the door asking to push my slides). But I couldn’t give up–remember those National Geographic covers! 

Shooting Ektachrome became my ultimate challenge. I wanted to produce cover-worthy photos and to do it on slide film, just like my predecessors. 

There was only one way to accomplish this: I had to add a strobe to my camera rig. Since then, I’ve gotten some really exciting results with slide film. I admittedly have quite a bit to learn with strobes, but I can see the potential–colors are vibrant and the light is dramatic. Of all the films, this one renders the underwater world most closely to how I experience it. 

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CineStill 800T (Best for Deep Water)

I’ve never had much success with CineStill 800T on land. Too often I get weird color-casts and dreadfully under-exposed images. I keep trying with concert and night photography, but I consistently miss the mark (maybe Josh Solomon’s How to Shoot Concerts on Film article would help?). 

However, I have had exciting results using it underwater. The tungsten balance is the key to its success. Because it is designed to balance orange lights, CineStill 800T often looks cooler in daylight, emphasizing blue tones. This translates to rich blues underwater, or beautiful aqua tones on days with poor visibility and plankton blooms. Additionally, the tungsten balance works really well if you are using a strobe, which is an artificial light source after all.  

The high ISO is also incredibly helpful. The samples published here were shot at one of the deeper dive sites I frequent (between 20 – 30 ft) and taken using a strobe. The results are the best I’ve yet seen at that depth.

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LomoChrome Purple (Best Experimental Film) 

This whole time I’ve been going for those deep blue tones, but what if I decided to throw that all out the window? 

If the magic of being underwater is what you’re trying to communicate in your images, I absolutely recommend LomoChrome Purple. On land it turns your skies turquoise and trees violet. Underwater, it turns your kelp magenta and the ocean an enigmatic indigo. I also love shooting this film at the surface during golden hour when peachy rays of light stream down into the water column. 

It is very high contrast, so you will want to be careful to expose for the shadows. I’ve only ever had the chance to shoot it on days with poor visibility in the long shadows of the kelp forest. I would love to try it out in gin-clear tropical waters one day. 

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Some films will work for you and others won’t. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve and what gear you have. It will also depend on where your shooting–the perfect film for Caribbean reefs may be totally wrong for Southern Californian kelp forests. No matter where, what, or how you’re shooting, I hope that one day you make your own personal “cover shot” and get to take home a bit of ocean magic in the process.

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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
1 comment
  • Your 800T section states “Additionally, the tungsten balance works really well if you are using a strobe, which is an artificial light source after all. “, but flash is actually daylight balanced light in the 5000-6000K range, tungsten is around 3500K for incandescent light bulbs. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t look nice underwater…

    My only underwater try was in the pool with a Minolta Weathermatic 35, so clear water, but lot’s of movement, and I was bad at framing. Was not so sure about the colors, used Ektar. Should try it again one day. I am not a diver, but lakes/rivers here are anyways not that clear…

    (I got lately an error message when posting here, let’s try if it works now…)

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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