Creating a photographic vision for underwater photography through constrains
By Steffen Kamprath
Hello fellow photo enthusiast,
I’m Steffen Kamprath, a passionate travel photographer from Berlin, Germany. Some years ago, I started scuba diving and since then tried to go on one bigger dive trip per year with my buddy (scuba diving is a buddy sport). I usually try to combine diving with traveling. Which means, I travel around an area and whenever there’s an interesting dive spot, I jump in. Therefore, I keep my luggage small (usually one small backpack or travel bag), have a small photo gear kit and just have my diving mask with me. The less I carry with me, the faster I can change plans and the easier I can travel like locals.
Photo from my second to last trip to the Red Sea in 2014: Colorful sun rays hitting through the surface at El Quadim Bay, El Quseir (Egypt)
Convenient entry with a GoPro
For underwater photography I use a GoPro like many other divers too. It’s waterproof up to 200 ft right out of the box, affordable, small, light and gets the job done. Actually, there aren’t many options under $1k. All other action cameras I know are just waterproof for snorkeling, and the step-up always contains dedicated underwater housings, a completely different game and much more expensive. GoPro is the go-to for all divers and it’s fun.
But actually, the GoPro sucks for underwater photography because it’s optimized for helmet-mounted action videos in bright daylight, not stills in dim, unstable environments. Although there has been some slight improvements on handling, dynamic range and stabilization with the latest versions, the camera still lags behind even comparable smartphone cameras. I wonder why none of these action camera manufactures discovers scuba divers as a new niche market.
Red Sea 2014: Underwater arrangement at Ras El Quseir dive spot, El Quseir (Egypt)
Stepping up means going much bigger
Instead, for an underwater photographer who wants to step up the game, the next step contains either a compact camera or DSLR/MILC and a housing. Quality housings (Ikelite, Nauticam, Aquatica, etc.) can cost quite some, and they’re huge and heavy. I saw a guy with a tiny Sony RX100-series compact and the housing was like 6″ x 5″ x 4″ and weighed almost 2 lbs, plus two lights and several wet lenses (lenses you can swap under water; didn’t knew that) … that thing was huge! And every time he was under water, he just navigated his equipment, rushed from one place to another and his whole experience was just about some nudibranch he got — or not.
Furthermore, these housings are made for one specific camera model because they extend the buttons on the camera to the housing. When the dimensions or the button layout changes, you need a new housing. Also, they only work with certain camera-lens combinations. If you buy a larger lens, it won’t fit. If you buy a smaller lens, you’ll get reflections or see the housing inside the frame.
The challenges of underwater photography
In the end, this all still doesn’t tackle the challenges of underwater photography. Light is the biggest one. With each inch you go down, more and more of the light’s spectrum will be reflected and you soon end up in completely blue water. So, while a camera with a bigger sensor, a faster lens and manual shutter speed can help you with less light and unsteady stabilization, they can’t pull up colors from nowhere.
I was using a red filter with my GoPro. A red filter does not pull up red where no red light frequencies get. Instead it lowers all other colors so that the image is more balanced — on the cost on light transmission. But “balanced” in this case just means grey instead of blue. That’s why underwater photographers bring down their own light. And because water is not air and full of
floating particles that are even more visible in stills, you can’t illuminate a whole underwater landscape. That’s why, most underwater photography consists of close-up shots of animal sea life.
My favorite image from my 2014 Red Sea trip: My buddy’s free-falling into the deep blue, El Quseir (Egypt)]
Getting my vision clear
But this is not what I’m interested in. And while I was thinking about my situation, I saw many similarities to what is happening above surface. We all talk about small camera kits. We talk about natural lighting. We talk about available technology … We actually talk about compromises that eventually even enhance our photographic vision. So what is my photographic vision for underwater photography when it’s not close-up shots of nudibranchs for class room books? It’s about diving! It’s about me and my buddy deflating our inflators, sinking into a new world, a new universe without physical laws, with no gravity, no colors, no sound, silently sinking into a black hole and discovering landscapes and creatures out off this world. There is this realness and excitement when you’re in close contact with underwater life that is unimaginable for people who never dived. So what I’m looking for is some kind of rawness of emotions of people and different places underwater. And that is actually what I also try to do with travel photography: documenting how I (and therefore the viewer) moved into this new society, with its people, customs, daily lives, cities, landscapes, rural areas …
My vision for underwater photography
And therefore technology doesn’t matter anymore to me. I can now embrace the lo-fi look the GoPro gives me. In return, I have a small device that does not let much between me and my new environment, between me and my emotions that I want to record.
Earlier this year, I’ve been to the Philippines — more precisely to the islands of Cebu and Leyte. We traveled around and visited some breathtaking diving spots in Moalboal and Padre Burgos. And for underwater photography, I got in closer, incorporated humans more into the landscape and tried to intensify the feelings of rawness and realness even more in post-production by high contrasts, intensive cuts and a selection that embraces the moment. That reminds me very much of street photography, right? Here we go:
Diver facing the giant, black mass of a sardines school in Moalboal, Cebu (The Philippines)
A living cathedral of sardines, Moalboal, Cebu (The Philippines)
I don’t know if I succeeded. Only you can tell — please. It was my first attempt. But now that my vision is clear, I can improve on it next time.
Unfortunately, my GoPro housing broke during my last week, salt water soaked in and damaged the GoPro itself but fortunately not the SD card (kudos to GoPro for their sealing). But it showed me that one should never just use one camera for these occasions. If I just had one camera and a housing, my trip would have been miserable from here on. Instead I just continued documenting life on the boat and the remaining trip with my Sony A6000. But a leaky housing can always happen, even with the best housings. Have you carefully cleaned it after your last use? Have you really closed all locks carefully? Sure there aren’t any hairs in-between? The more expensive your camera is, the more a loss hurts.
Now that my GoPro is broken, I won’t buy a new one. I discovered the Olympus TG-4 which is shock-, freeze- and waterproof up to 260 ft with the Olympus housing, has a larger sensor (still small but larger), can shoot raw, has a dedicated underwater profile, can shoot very close up, has AF, better image quality … and is just a couple of bucks more expensive than the GoPro. It’s probably also a nice action compact for family vacations, snorkeling, skiing and shots in heavy rain. I’m definitely checking this camera out on my next dive trip – Mexico or Panama are very high on my personal list.
You can watch many more images from the Philippines on my Flickr album , foremost from the trip itself and above surface. If you liked my photographs and want to stay in touch, you’re welcome to follow me on Flickr or Eyeem.
Finally, I want to thank Steve and his family for their effort to build and maintain this community open minded photographers for such a long time.