Evolution of Underwater Photography

Evolution of Underwater Photography

Instructor course handout

Octavian Alexandru Beldiman

First photograph

It took a unique combination of ingenuity and curiosity to produce the first known photograph, so it’s fitting that the man who made it was an inventor and not an artist. In the 1820s, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce had become fascinated with the printing method of lithography, in which images drawn on stone could be reproduced using oil-based ink. Searching for other ways to produce images, Niépce set up a device called a camera obscura, which captured and projected scenes illuminated by sunlight, and trained it on the view outside his studio window in eastern France. The scene was cast on a treated pewter plate that, after many hours, retained a crude copy of the buildings and rooftops outside. The result was the first known permanent photograph.

In 1833, Niépce died, and Daguerre invented, in 1838, on his own the daguerreotype, the first process including a development stage. A silver plate coated with a very thin silver iodide layer was exposed in a camera obscura, then exposed to mercury vapors that induced the apparition of the invisible latent image that had been formed during the exposure to light. This development was in fact such an amplification of the effect of light that the exposure time was hardly more than 30 minutes. Fixing was done by immersing the plate in sea salted water.

First Underwater Photographs (1856)

William Thompson, from England, took the first underwater photograph back in 1856 in Weymouth Bay. He built a metal box to house the camera and mounted it on a pole. It was lowered over the side of his boat on this pole down 18 feet to the sea floor below. Thompson controlled the camera’s shutter from the deck of his boat. Here is a picture of that very camera he used…

A sketch of the first underwater camera, invented by Louis Boutan (Jonathan Meur)

First Underwater Photographer (1893)

Louis Boutan develops a crude housing for a small “detective”-type camera and captures the first diving photograph using a surface-supplied hard hat.

Boutan, a man of science, quickly realises the limitations of photographing in natural light at depth and pioneers the use of artificial light to capture underwater images. With assistance from the Arago Laboratories in Banyuls, France, he develops an underwater “strobe” consisting of an alcohol lamp in an oxygen-filled barrel over which a puff of magnesium is sent to trigger a flash.

And here is a picture of the photograph he got using this underwater camera…1856.

Thompson made the photo using a wet-plate colloidion process, where the photo is coated, sensitized, and exposed. Thompson left his camera shutter open for 10 minutes trying to maximize enough light.

First Underwater Colour Photographs

The first underwater colour photographs were produced in 1923 by botanist W. H. Longley and photographer Charles Martin. Martin used magnesium to power the flash. He captured color underwater. He only took pictures of objects that didn’t move such as coral, anemones, and sea fans. Check out the July 1927 issue of National Geographic, which features this Hogfish taken by Longley and Martin in 1923.

The Development Of Underwater Photography

The Beuchat company from France began more work on underwater cameras in 1934. Georges Beuchat was an avid diver, and he produced the first commercially available camera housing called Tarzan in 1950.

In 1957, Jean de Wouters, a Belgian engineer, designed an amphibious 35 mm underwater camera called Calypso. Wouters worked with Jacques Cousteau on his famous Calypso ship. The Nikon camera giant purchased the design and re-released the Nikonos camera in 1963. The Nikon company is famous for their cameras today.

Tarzan underwater housing, first Camera Housing (1950)

Beuchat produces Tarzan, the first commercially available camera housing, which is designed by French underwater photographer Henry Broussard for the French Foca camera. The Beuchat company was established in 1934 in the south of France by Georges Beuchat, an avid diver.

First Successful Underwater Commercial Still Camera (1957)

Jean de Wouters, a Belgian engineer and former member of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Calypso crew, designs an amphibious 35mm underwater camera, which is marketed under the names “Calypso” and “Calypso-Phot”. The design is purchased from La Spirotechnique by Nikon and re-released in 1963 as the Nikonos, which subsequently becomes a famous series of underwater cameras.

Calypso underwater camera c.1960 (Jan von Erpecom/Wikimedia Commons)

Today’s Underwater Photography Technology

The biggest obstacle is the loss of color and contrast. Water absorbs red and orange, so the naked eye translates everything into blue/green. You can help this color loss by getting as close as possible to the subject, minimizing the amount of water between the camera and what is being photographed.

Underwater Photography today has wide options.

GoPro, Olympus GH5, Different housings for Full Frame, Apsc, and mirrorless.

Ikelite, Nauticam

just to mention the most expensive ones.

The one I’ve been using the last year is Sea Frogs, salted line edition with sony a6300 inside.

At the moment is leaking so i cannot use it anymore.

I started Underwater photography in 2018 after have been doing photography for more then 11 years.

The experience that pushed me to buy a proper underwater gear, happened while i met a Sea Water turtle for the first time in the Open Ocean in the Philippines.

I had no free diving experience at the time so i just recorded it while she was surfacing to breath and maybe few meters under water.

In that moment i was thinking that i could stay there for hours observing that turtle and not getting tired or bored. Such a beautiful creature that swam those Oceans for millions of years before us. Those big eyes, i remember thinking that she looked a bit like an Alien, in fact she was from a different planet, the planet Ocean that is still a big mystery to us.

I went back to Hong Kong to pick up some of the gear i had in reparation and i got in touch with the Underwater Housing producers, Sea Frogs.

From them i bought the housing and then i bought a new smaller camera to fit in there.

For Freediving photography is better to have light gear that will not make you getting to tired while holding the housing.

From there my Freediving experience started.


I personally use a Sony alfa 6300 with Sea Frogs Housing

I will recommend a go pro attached to arm or top of camera with a long lasting battery and at least 64gb memory card to record everything in the water (in case you will be distracted by your camera settings while moment important will happen).

Usually your time in the water will be eventually in somewhere in between 1/2 hours, depends of water conditions.

Before getting in the water you want to make sure that your battery is fully charged and your memory cards are empty (i always recommend big capacity memory cards ‘at least 64gb’ as you don’t want to not be able to shot a moment because your memory is full, if you have the possibility to bring a bag, if you’re on the boat or dry bag in buoy u can bring extra batteries and extra memory cards).

I personally shoot in manual as I’ve been doing this for many years so it became a habit but shooting in priority of aperture or shutter speed might help you to save time.

If I’m taking photographs i generally put it on medium or high fps. The problem is that the camera might take a while to load the pictures when you take your finger off the shutter button and you might loose some action cause your camera is ‘offline’. That’s where the GoPro come in, at least you will have the footage and you might be able to get something from there.

Photographing Wildlife

Photographing wildlife while Freediving might help you to capture better moments as you don’t make bubbles for example when scuba diving so the animals are less afraid.

You are more connected to the Ocean and eventually the wildlife feels it too.

First personal rule, respect them and their territory as they lived here for millions of years before us. When approach wildlife first of all you must have some knowledge about the species so you can prevent some unpredicted reactions and also knowledge about the locations, undertow currents, boats traffic etc (you don’t want to put yourself in danger), and you should dive with a qualified buddy also that can keep an eye while you are doing your work.

For example if you’re photographing Sea Snakes ‘Hydrophiinae’ you must know that they will attack only if you’re too close, if you are disturbing them or if they feel threatened by your presence. Their mouth is small so they can bite your ear or in between fingers.

They are still one of the most venomous snakes in the world so be precocious.

They can dive to 90 m deep and hold their breath for few hours.

When you’re photographing a Sea Water Turtle, Sea Lions or Whale Sharks which are all peaceful and graceful creatures, you don’t want to influence their behaviour so maintain an adequate distance, avoid using flash (with wildlife in general) as you don’t want to disturb them, but you want to be part of that underwater world, avoiding as much as you can negative impacts.

Avoid to follow them or any physical contact, also don’t use any sun protection as the chemicals in those products might have a negative impact on their health.

In the Sea Lions community for example the leader is the ‘macho’ the alfa male that protects the females. In that situation you should stay few meters away from the cliffs, coast, rocks etc.

The ‘macho’ will swim here and there, also around you, opening his mouth trying to warn you. You have to respect their world and keep a distance, sea lions in general are super friendly and social so you will have them close to you even if you are 10 or 20 meters away from the main group.

I will recommend to stay natural and relax when in presence with a wildlife species, they can feel tension or fear better then we do.

Remember that they lived on this planet for millions of years before us so we want to preserve and protect them so the future generations can also live these experiences.

We all know the negative consequences of plastic pollution or illegal nets or fishing lines.

So obviously don’t leave anything in the Ocean and if you find some plastic, ghost nets or ghost fishing lines take them out of the Ocean as they don’t belong there.

We want a safe ocean where wildlife can swim happy and free.

In the Philippines i was photographing that turtle that to breathe, she had to make space into rubbish.

Sharing the negative or positive impact of humans on social media is a very efficient way to spread a message in our times.

Documenting National records

Our job in that situation is to create the story of the event using Photography and Videos.

A pre briefing with the organisers is the key to a successful result.

You can create the scratch of your story an advance.

For an interesting Video that the audience will be interested to watch it till the end, you will need different points of view, different cameras located on different locations.

In a Freediving national records attempt you will have bottom and surface footage for every athlete.

Make sure that those cameras are well maintained, the battery is full and memory cards empty. You also have to know that the cameras will record till the battery is empty or the memory card is full, so you have to understand when to change and fix those things. Make it clear with the organisers when to make a break and make sure that the bottom camera is recording.

You cannot rely 100% on one single camera so if available have a second camera to replace in case of leaking or error.

A drone footage will help a lot to give the idea of the location. Interviews of the organisers at the beginning might be a good idea too.

When you have different athletes for different records you should give them the visibility that they deserve. Try to keep the situation smooth while you interview them. Some of them are a bit tense as it might be first interview ever. Tell them to stop how many time they want and you will correct everything in post production.

Short footage of details, logos, Sponsor brands, might come very handy when you work on your video.

Sony Vegas, Final Cut or Premiere pro are few professional programs that Video Maker or Film Makers are using today.

The stills have to describe very well a situation as you only have a frame available.

Before publishing any content or Video you can send a preview to the Athletes and organisers to make sure that the information you giving with your work is accurate.


If the work is on commission or not, doesn’t have to influence your result as you want to give your best always, that’s also the key for improving yourself.

Everyone wants to look good in a picture right? so you want to make sure that you understand what kind of pictures your model would like to have.

You can show your work or send them the link of the platforms with your work, website, Facebook page, instagram etc.

If you could do a short meeting with your model before the photo session it will make things easier in the water. For example, you can give me an ok sign when you’re ready and we dive but we never go deeper then 15 m.

Stay close to each other and bring a buoy or float so the model can rest on it. Be aware of boat traffic, currents or wildlife.

An extra qualified person for surface safety would be ideal.

When you dive always face each other and never loose eye contact with your model.

You can always think of different ideas before your photo session, discuss them with the model, don’t leave everything for when you’re already in the water and anyway more ideas eventually will come while your photoshooting.

A peaceful positive and friendly attitude is what you always want.

You can show the model the results from time to time so she/he can fix the hair, snorkel, wetsuit or any detail that you might be missing cause you’re focused on other details.

Remember that is a team work. Ask the model how she feels, if tired or thirsty etc. Bring water if you can on boat, buoy etc.

You want to take good care of your models and make them to live a good experience.

After the photo session you can visualise the result with the model so he/she can choose which one she likes or you can give the model a final result of 10,15 photos (depends what agreements you took from beginning).

Gear Maintenance

The Underwater camera gear is very expensive so you want to take good care of it so it can last longer.

Rinse in fresh water after every use. Leave the housing for at least 30 min and press the buttons at least 10 times in fresh water to make sure that all the salty water is out.

You can do it with the camera out of the housing to avoid and damages in case you don’t close the housing properly etc.

The front part, dome, or glass surface is very sensitive and you want to prevent it from scratching. Keep it clean and make sure it’s clean also while you prepare with for the photo session, noticing it in the water would be quite frustrating, mostly if you’re documenting something important.

Anti fog sheets are useful too.

Make sure that the O ring is always well covered with silicon grease.

A cleaning kit might also come very handy.

Air pump for the dust, sand etc.

A brush, cotton sticks and some cotton sheets will make things a lot easier when cleaning your gear.


Nicéphore Niépce and Daguerre http://www.photo-museum.org/photography-history/


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