This article first appeared in Issue 88
I have long found the miniature worlds contained in rockpools fascinating and over the years I have taken the odd photograph from above with varying degrees of success (ideally using a polariser to cancel surface reflections). More recently, admiring aquatic photographs and noticing adverts for underwater housings for digital compacts got me thinking. It struck me that these underwater housings might offer a novel viewpoint on the world of rockpools, given I had no intentions of leaving the safety of dry(ish) land and donning a wetsuit for full-on underwater photography. The tipping point came several years ago when I noticed an underwater housing for my original 2MP
Nikon COOLPIX E2200 at a knockdown price, since it was for a discontinued camera. Also I wasn't too worried if I were to lose that particular camera to flooding. And so started my experiments in underwater photography without getting wet.
I was pleasantly surprised by my initial attempts. Although, given the fully auto limitations of the camera and the bulky housing, a lot of trial and error — and deleting of images — was certainly involved. While good use was made of the macro capabilities of the camera. The key skill was in trying to compose an image, with the camera being dunked underwater giving no chance of viewing the screen on the back. You have to rely on what you can see from your aerial viewpoint above the rockpool, to aim the camera in roughly the right direction towards an interesting subject you have identified: an anemone or sea urchin for example. The technique I developed was to take a shot, adjust the camera angle slightly, take another and repeat. Like Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) photography many shots are required to get anything worthwhile and sometimes you didn't achieve anything worthwhile at all. However, reviewing images later, every now and again I found I'd taken one or two images which worked which encouraged me to persevere.
I learnt a number of lessons: underwater housings since they enclose a volume of air around the camera are buoyant, so keeping the camera steady was a challenge. I found that wedging the housing against the side of a rockpool as support was the best solution, although this to an extent limited compositional possibilities, but camera shake (if that's the correct term given the environment) was often too great from a floating camera. You need a reasonably bright day for light to illuminate the depths, although overcast weather is best if attempting split half-in/half-out of the water shots. You also need to try to avoid stirring up sediment when you dunk your hand and camera into a pool. Finally, trying to review images on the back of the camera through an underwater housing is not particularly revealing (and hampered by clunky external controls) which meant it was like being back in film days. You weren't sure what you had captured until you'd returned to base and the housing had been rinsed and dried, to allow the camera and then memory card to be removed. When I did eventually get to view my images properly, one interesting effect I discovered was reflections off the underside of the surface of the water, if the submerged camera is tilted slightly upwards towards the surface.
The next stage in the development of my underwater photography was a new housing for a new camera. My
Nikon COOLPIX P5000 gave me 10MP, a lens with vibration reduction and better higher ISO performance, giving greatly improved image quality overall (and again the housing was cheap since it was for a discontinued camera). However, technique stayed the same. The quantum leap came which the new generation of tough compacts which are waterproof in themselves without the requirement of a bulky (and potentially expensive) external housing. So recently I upgraded to a
Lumix FT5 (offering 16MP). Without a housing the camera is less buoyant and far more manoeuvrable underwater, making it easier to compose images and to position the camera in smaller spaces.
An added bonus of the new camera is wifi control via an iOS app. The question was would this work underwater to remove the trial and error of framing, by giving me a remote viewfinder on my iPod Touch above water? Now, the frequencies used by wifi are broadly similar to those used in microwave ovens, which are chosen as their energy is readily absorbed by water molecules and so my expectations were low. However, field trials proved that while range through water is extremely limited (as expected) wifi control was usable if the camera was only just below the surface. An issue with the remote app was a noticeable lag (possibly due to the poor signal through water) which gave somewhat disjointed feedback when adjusting the orientation of the camera underwater while watching the screen above. A nice feature of the app is you can tap a point of the screen which simultaneously selects a focus point and then takes a picture, where before I was relying on the camera to choose the focus point, with haphazard results. Admittedly an extra pair of hands would be useful in this scenario: one hand submerged in rockpool positioning camera, one hand tapping at the focal point of the image and ideally one to actually hold the iPod/iPhone/iPad! In practice you need to find somewhere dry and not too precarious to place said iDevice (I have a micro Peli case to protect my iPod Touch) in order to free up a hand to play with the app and to be ready to steady yourself as necessary when balancing over rockpools.
In terms of photography some may argue that all this is not really landscape photography, perhaps even verging on wildlife photography. However, this is photography I undertake at the same locations and in parallel to making more traditional images, so I personally make no distinction. While I strongly believe that the play and experimentation that led to these particular images are important aspects of the creative process and the development of my photography in general.