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Website home>Newsletters>March 2006>Getting Started with Underwater Photography

Diving in Sabah Newsletter

Underwater Photography - Get Started

Matt, how did you first get into underwater photography?

I have always had an interest in photography and had been taking photos for a long time, since I was a kid of 9 or 10. Then I started diving when I was 18 when, during a gap year as a zoology student, I did a trip to Belize for research on squirrelfish and moray eels. At that time I bought a Ewa-marine bag for use with a normal canon camera. The results were terrible, of course, but I enjoyed the experience of capturing the reefs on film.

Over the next few years I carried on diving on holidays for pleasure without taking photos. Then I did a research trip to Sabah in 1994 was given a Sea & Sea MMII with which I took better photos but still only holiday snap standard. After getting cheesed off living and working in London as a picture researcher I left to be a Dive Master working in Sipadan.

Unidentified jawfish - Sabah, Malaysia - photo by Matt Oldfield of Scuba Zoo

There I met a Hong Kong based photographer where my interest in underwater photography intensified thanks to both his enthusiasm and his ability to get serious discounts on Nexus housings! I also bought a Nikon F90X and have never looked back.

Many people get into underwater photography because they have reached a level of experience with normal diving where they seek something new. This doesn't sound like it was the case with you.

Taking photos underwater was always one of the purposes of diving for me but I can appreciate the fact that that's when most people get into it. This is because you begin to seek out subjects and it becomes a lot more interesting than just looking at the big blue and the coral reefs.

With the process of learning how to dive, the greatest excitement comes when you see things for the first time. However with photography, you are constantly seeing and learning things for the first time so the fascination is not easily exhausted. You are always learning and improving.

What are your finest moments as an underwater photographer?

Well I don't have a favourite photograph. I have a lot that I am proud of. For geek value, I suppose my finest moment was getting photos of a new species of jawfish in Mabul. I sent it to various ichthyologists such as Gerald Allen and it was confirmed as a new species. That was very rewarding pic for us here.

For sheer adrenaline, shooting a salt water croc in Sabah was pretty special. It was a 14 foot monster and potentially very dangerous although this one happened to be docile at the time. However to have such a huge, powerful predator within inches of myself and my camera was something unforgettable. pic for use here

What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Start with digital. That's my advice although it does have its pros and cons. Film makes you much more rigorous because you have to get it right so your technical skills get better faster, but digital is much cheaper and gives you instant feedback for your shots. It is a way of learning which is much more visual than technical.

I have just begun to take underwater photographs with a Sony Cybershot with underwater housing - is that a good place to start?

Yes, since it is an easy to use camera and is very compact. However the ability to have a strobe is crucial in my opinion. Backscatter is a major problem when the flash is close to the lens. This can obviously result in poor quality shots. When the flash is distant but aimed at the subject none of the particles in between camera and subject are lit up so you minimise the snow effect which plagues so many beginners' images.

I would recommend the Olympus 7070 with an Ikelite or light and motion housing. With this you can take good quality pictures, it is not too expensive and although it is compact the housing allows for a whole range of accessories including a wide angle lens and 2 strobes. This makes it a good set-up for beginners but also allows for progress. With the likes of Cybershot you can only go so far without upgrading.

And what is the next step?

A too-close up of a saltwater crocodile - Borneo, Malaysia - photo by Matt Oldfield of Scuba Zoo

Buying an SLR (single lens reflex) camera. You use an SLR so you can change lenses - wide-angle and macro. Trying to do both jobs with the same lens is like falling between 2 stools without particularly satisfactory results for either.

A good starter is a Nikon D70 or a Canon 350. Both are relatively inexpensive but have great quality lenses. These are professional standard or what is referred to a 'Pro-sumer' - somewhere between professional and consumer. Beyond that we are getting into serious prices for equipment which only a real professional would need.

We are getting a bit technical here. For the moment I will persevere with the camera I have. So I am experimenting with its various settings. Tell me about the red filter. I am never sure when to use it. What is it for?

The simple answer is that red is the first colour of the spectrum to disappear underwater (hence no red in wetsuits) so the filter adds that back in. The proper answer is that the digital cameras all use white balance (designed for use on land) so they cannot cope with the screwy underwater spectrum. Therefore the filter doesn't actually add the red, but cuts out blue so that the white balance sensors can deal with it. The most common mistake people make when starting out is not using the red filter (or not having one) and the result is a horrible portfolio of blue.

Practically speaking when do you use it?

That depends if you are using strobes. If you have no flash then it may be wise to leave it on all the time. If using a flash then sometimes the images can become too red. So it is simply a question of experimenting with your own camera. So many cameras do different things and the filters vary too so there are no rules. This is why digital is a good way to start because you can play with settings and filters with the minimum of fuss and you can delete the poor results.

What about night diving - what tips have you for taking good shots at night?

Now this is where cameras with an internal flash are really found wanting. You need light. Lots of it. So strobes are essential. You also need a spotter light (an accessory) or at least a buddy with a torch to illuminate the subject to help the camera to focus. Otherwise it is literally a shot in the dark.

How important is maintenance of your camera - do we really have to rinse after every dive?

Yes. A quick dunk after each dive and after the last dive, a proper soak. It is when the salt water has a chance to completely dry out and crystallise that you start having problems. So when you are finished your trip that is the time for a thorough soak.

You must also get anal about your 'O' ring, so to speak. Use a toothbrush to make sure there is no dirt and no hairs in any grooves. Only use a little lubricant on your 'O' ring, because using a lot only attracts foreign bodies. If you have a camera that allows it, strip out and clean the controls.

Maintenance is fiddly and a pain but a few hours work might help your camera survive for years longer than if you neglect it.

OK thanks for your tips Matt. One last question - Why do you base yourself in Borneo?

There is such easy access to fantastic dive sites such as Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai and Layang Layang. There are so many opportunities for taking photos it is untrue. Sipadan is probably the best place in the world for getting up close with turtles, big schools of barracuda, bumphead parrotfish and other incredible subjects.

Next door in Mabul and Kapalai there are a lot of absolutely remarkable macro opportunities. Here I have photographed octopus galore: mimic, wonderpus, blue-ringed as well as mandarinfish, frogfish, flamboyant cuttlefish - you name it - it's a photographer's dream. Also Sabah is a great place to live generally, with very friendly people and I am very comfortable here - it is home.

Matt Oldfield is a senior cameraman with Scubazoo, underwater photography and videography specialists. His first co-published book, Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai - Sabah's Underwater Treasure is available through www.Scubazoo.comOpens in a new window.

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