Articles: Photographing water – tips and tricks – 016

Photographing Water DP 16 00
Pentax Optio – Waterproof

Wayne Lorimer helps you dip into water photography

Yippee, summer’s here! For many photographers and their families that means long days at the beach, walks through the forest following a mountain stream to a spectacular waterfall, or jumping in the boat to cruise the lake and do a spot of fishing.


Now I hate to be a party pooper (honest), but all the situations I have just mentioned (the beach, the forest, the lake) all have one thing in common: water, water, everywhere ” just don’t end up in the drink. It’s no secret that we are a nation of water worshippers, whether we’re in it, on it, or around it. But it’s also no secret that water and sophisticated electronic devices (that would be your camera) don’t necessarily mix.  Not to mention the sand at the beach, which can be a real killer if it is blown into all those private little places. And believe me, it’s no good for cameras either.


One of the first things you could consider if you find yourself regularly braving the elements is the purchase of a weatherproof camera. Weatherproofing is, in fact, becoming something of a selling point in the digital industry at present, with most manufacturers offering ˜splash-proof’ cameras somewhere in their line-ups. Flick through this magazine and you’re bound to find one or two adverts extolling the virtues of weatherproofing — and maybe even waterproofing — cameras, especially in the digital compact market.


Okay, hold it right there. The more perceptive of you will have noticed a distinction made just now between the ˜weather’ and ˜water’ proofing of cameras. The distinction, though fairly clear, is a very important one and it’s vital that you don’t mix the two up.  Weatherproofing a camera enables it to be used in adverse weather conditions such as light mist, rain, sand or snow for short periods of time — depending on the extent to which it has been weatherproofed.

Ever wondered, for example, why professional-level digital cameras a) weigh a tonne, and b) are so expensive? It’s because they are built from rugged, dependable materials, sealed and ˜weatherproofed’ against the elements for professional reliability. Most, if not all, of the joins, buttons, dials and switches are sealed using ˜O’ rings — tube-shaped rubber seals inside the camera that protect it against all of the elements (dust, dirt and water). This does not, however, make them ˜waterproof’, as many a photographer has found to their dismay as they pull their beloved camera from the river. Even with professional weather sealing, most people in this scenario are left with a very expensive paperweight (ouch).


Few cameras are waterproof, or can actually be used in and under the water. The most famous underwater camera is the Nikonos from Nikon, used by divers and underwater photographers all over the world for many years. I’ll get to underwater photography a little later, but for now it’s important that we understand the distinction between weather- and waterproof cameras — and more importantly not to confuse the two.

How weatherproof is your camera? Well it’s actually hard to say without testing the water (so to speak), and I’m not suggesting you give your camera a quick dunking to find out. If you’ve purchased a camera that states it is splash-, weather-, or even waterproof, then you should be good to go in anything but the most rugged conditions.


One of my family’s favourite summer activities is the forest walk. This inevitably involves a creek or two and, if I’m lucky, a waterfall — the bigger the better. Life would be easier (and the walk a lot quicker) if I just took a snapshot from the path and kept on walking. But, fool that I am, I follow my own advice and look for interesting and unusual angles that include the stream, forest and cascading waterfall all in the one shot. This usually means getting down among it. But here we have the recipe for disaster number one: slippery rocks, a fast flowing stream and a misty environment caused by the waterfall. Oh, what to do?

First things first — and this goes for all shooting scenarios — make sure the camera strap is around your neck (and not simply held in your hand). I usually go one better and keep the camera in my bag if I’m walking over rocks and through streams. Then I have two hands free for balance, or at least one hand free if I’m carrying my tripod. Once I’m where I want to shoot, and have my tripod set up, then I take my camera out and put it on the tripod. Same goes for the return journey. Camera away, pack on, hands free.

If it is a large waterfall and I’m up close and personal, then mist is a real problem. To help, you should have a chamois or soft cotton cloth handy to wipe the front of the lens. Any drops of water on the lens will interfere with the image quality — even heavy mist can create a thick coating of water over the front of the lens that will ruin your shots. As a general rule, I don’t use filters on the front of my lenses — with one exception. If I know I’m going to be shooting waterfalls I will slap a filter on the front. I’d rather wipe that clean a dozen times than rub furiously at the front element.


As far as shooting waterfalls goes, there are a couple of options open to you, depending on the effect you are after. First there’s the ˜freeze every droplet’ scenario, where you set a fast shutter speed that stops each droplet in mid air. This can be effective if you are up close and want to convey something of the raw power of the waterfall.

The second scenario sees the opposite approach and calls for a long shutter speed of at least a second, and maybe more. This creates a blurring of the water and produces a smoky effect for a more subtle, moody image.

The only trouble with taking this type of picture can be getting a shutter speed slow enough in bright light. Even with your lens aperture closed right down to f8 (or f22 for digital SLRs), you probably won’t get anywhere near as slow as a one-second shutter speed. The solution: neutral density filters placed on front of the lens that soak up the light to varying degrees. They don’t change the quality of light, just the amount coming into the lens, so you have to use longer shutter speeds to get a correct exposure. Bingo, a one-second shutter speed.


For many of us, the beach is the place to see and be seen during the summer months. Yet with a beach environment we not only have the water to contend with but the sand as well. Both can very quickly ruin a camera.

If the beach is windy, with a lot of sand blowing around, consider placing the camera inside a clear plastic bag. Secure the opening of the bag around the front of the lens with a rubber band and hey presto, a sandproof camera! It might look dorky, but I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of street-cred for the sake of a working camera.

For avid surfers who also happen to enjoy photography, the temptation of combining these two activities can be impossible to resist. Once again, there are two trains of thought when it comes to surfing photography. First is the ˜stand on the beach and shoot from afar’ option. For this you need a camera capable of very fast bursts for shooting a sequence of images, and an enormous telephoto lens. If you are not getting up to at least a 400mm focal length with your lens (check your manual for your lense’s zoom range) then forget the stand-on-the-beach option.

A better choice for those not so well endowed (in the lens department) is to use a camera of more moderate means and get out among it. For this I would seriously suggest a waterproof camera (as opposed to the merely weatherproof) if you are paddling out among the waves. Most waterproof compacts are safe to use under two metres of water, which should be fine for a quick dunking off a surfboard.

If you do choose this option, make sure you secure the camera firmly to your wrist and not just around your neck. That way, when a giant wave dumps on you and limbs go flying, your camera won’t sink to the bottom of the briny blue.


Then, of course, there are those who practically live on a boat and have the sea in their veins. Yachties, fishermen and recreational boaties all fall into this category, and all flirt with danger whenever the digicam comes out to record the catch of the day. Again, common sense says you should always have the strap around your neck and the camera put away in a (waterproof) case when not in use.

You might consider placing a polarizing filter on the front of the lens, especially if you want to cut down on glare and reflection from the water. The polarizer works in the same way as your polarizing sunglasses and can be rotated while you look through the viewfinder to achieve the best possible result. They come in Circular or Linear polarizing styles, so make sure yours is a Circular filter, as the Linear style confuses the autofocus system on your camera.


Despite your best efforts, there may come a day when your camera takes a dumping. It may go for a quick dip in the creek, get dropped at the beach, or get rained on unavoidably. What do you do?

First things first: turn it off, remove the batteries and card, and dry off any excess moisture with a clean towel or cloth as soon as possible. Then you need to let it dry for a while. I suggest leaving it in a dry, warm place overnight — the hot water cupboard is probably ideal. Some impatient types recommend heating the oven to a low temperature (around 100°C has been mooted), and placing the camera in there with the door open for about 30 minutes. Following this course of action is, of course, entirely up to you. If pressed I’d choose the water cupboard option myself, but then I’m no adrenaline junkie.

Whichever way you choose, after the drying process has taken place, put the batteries back in and fire it up. Hopefully you’ll hear the familiar chime that says your camera is starting and the LCD will spring to life (if it’s a digicam). So far so good. What you need to do now, however, is zoom the lens out to check for any residual water. Because the zoom barrels extend out in sections, water has a nasty habit of staying there and even (heaven forbid) seeping inside the lens. You could find that everything seems okay initially, but after half an hour’s use, as the camera warms up, condensation inside the lens begins to appear. Just turn it off, leave it to dry, and try again. Eventually, everything will hopefully be all right.

If the camera has been drenched in salt water, the prognosis isn’t quite so good. Even if you get everything dry, when salt water manages to get inside the camera corrosion will occur. In this scenario, it may even pay to clean the camera with distilled water on the outside before setting it aside to dry. Then cross your fingers and toes, because salt water is a killer. Maybe not today, maybe not in the next six months, but eventually.
Of course the worst-case scenario is that you do all of the above, turn the camera on, and still nothing happens. Bummer. About the only thing left to do is contact your insurance company, or simply write it off and get yourself a new camera. May I suggest one of the new waterproof models?


Which leads me into a discussion about the waterproof cameras I mentioned earlier. These come in varying shapes and sizes; some are good only for a quick splashing, while others can handle total submersion under water.

But if you do want to take the plunge (excuse the pun) and get into underwater photography in a big way, then there are really only two serious options. First is the dedicated underwater camera I mentioned earlier. The king of these is the legendary Nikonos V. Built like a brick and designed to offer years of loyal underwater service, the Nikonos V is the weapon of choice for many divers, especially with the 15mm wide angle attached. The Nikonos V can handle depths down to 50 metres and features very chunky (although basic) controls for use with diving gloves. It offers TTL (through-the-lens) flash metering — very important when shooting 50 metres underwater — together with a whole host of other lenses, flashes and accessories. It also happens to be a film camera.

If you want to take digital underwater shots at these depths, then the second serious consideration is an underwater housing built specifically for your make and model of camera. Independent manufacturers such as Ikelite build underwater housings for all the major brands of digital SLRs, as well as quite a few digicam models. With one of these encasing your camera you are good for around 100 metres, deep enough for all but the most experienced divers.


The aim with underwater photography is to eliminate as much water as possible between you and your subject, because it’s the water that degrades the quality of the image. Water also absorbs light very quickly, making at least a two-stop difference even close to the surface. Each colour in the spectrum is absorbed at a different level under water — red is absorbed in more than five metres of water, then yellow and green, and finally blue in more than 25 metres of water. To combat this effect and bring colour back into their images, underwater photographers use strobe lights (flash) at close distances, with either wide angle or macro lenses that focus very closely to their subjects.

The other reason why underwater photographers choose wide lenses is because water also magnifies, so you end up needing a wider angle than normal. A lens in the 15mm to 20mm range is about right, as is a dedicated macro lens that will allow you to focus less than three feet in front of your camera. Lenses in the 35mm to 80mm range are limited to mostly taking fish pictures, while the 24mm to 28mm lenses are considered normal underwater. When placed in an underwater housing, zoom lenses will usually not let you focus close enough without adding a +4 close-up filter, so prime lenses tend to be the choice of most underwater photographers.


Perhaps the most difficult part of underwater photography is the actual technique of taking the photo. Being an experienced photographer is not enough to take a great underwater photo, you also need to be an accomplished diver. To become proficient at underwater photography requires hundreds of underwater hours, good scuba skills, and usually a large investment in scuba and photo gear.

The most important skill to learn before even taking a photo is buoyancy control — the ability to keep a consistent depth in the water. Consider framing a very tiny creature perfectly in your viewfinder as you are being buffeted and rocked by a 100km/h wind, and you get the general idea of buoyancy control under water. Even with steady breathing you will rise and fall a few inches.

Finally, it’s very important to perform regular maintenance checks on the housing of your camera. Any leaks and you can kiss your digital goodbye. Most regular underwater photographers will tell you that eventually you will lose a camera (or two) just because things go wrong (Murphy’s law).

Underwater photography may not be for everyone — it can be expensive (even by photography standards), requires excellent diving skills as well as a firm understanding of the principles of flash photography, not to mention the danger factor involved. But for those who persevere and master the techniques, the resulting images can be incredible. I for one am very glad that there are dedicated underwater photographers out there who can show me the mysteries of the deep and the beautiful creatures it contains.

See below for some great tips on how to make the most out of your adventure:

Some great tips on how to make the most out of your adventure.

Photographing Water DP 16 01

Posted by D-Photo on August 4th, 2007 in Articles

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