Our speaker this week was Richard Price talking on the very small and the infinite (at least the bit of it we can see) – Macro to Astro. As ever a hugely informative and accessible evening given to a packed hall.
When talking Macro (on a ratio of reproduction to actual size of the subject of 1:1 or greater) we will be including what is close up photography too as there is a technical difference but not, as far as next meetings practical is concerned, no difference worth the time.
These are both areas of photography that appear complicated but, whilst demanding, they can be easily accessed. And they are both absorbing aspects of photography and being both accessible and demanding they teach us a lot about our equipment and how light works with it. It also tells us a lot about our kit and can involve finding work arounds. For instance my manufacturers own 50mm lens will not work on anything but manual and with the depth of field preview button held down with my extension rings. My third party lenses work just fine. Took a while to work out how to get the nifty to work, but it was worth the effort. With a mirrorless camera like mine the DOF preview button is usually redundant -what you see in the view finder is exactly what you get as an image. Only it isn’t redundant at all and I am rather glad it’s there.
Of course, how near/far you want to go is a matter of budget but only really at the extremes. You can get some perfectly acceptable macro shots with a kit lens and a reversing ring (about £7 for a 52mm filter – size it’s written on the front of your lens, in the case of our 52mm example as Ø52). You can also use a coupling ring to reverse one and add another lens to it to make a longer focal length and a greater degree of magnification. In both case it might be advisable to take any UV filters you have off the end of the lens.
The next option Rich gave us was using screw in filters (lenses) of varying dioptres. These are available for around £15 (and upwards depending on filter size), but as with everything else you get what you pay for. Essentially these are like reading glasses for your lens, they are lenses that fit on the end of lenses. If you buy them for the largest filter size you have in your range of lenses you can buy a set of step down rings to fit them to your smaller filter sizes (usually for around £5).
Extension tubes, moving the lens away from the focal plane foreshortening its focusing capacity, use no intermediary glass at all, so there is no risk of flare or softening enhanced by putting more barriers between subject and sensor. By shortening that distance a degree of magnification results by getting closer to the subject. This is generally a more expensive route than the two previously discussed. this is because a certain amount of electronic communication has to be allowed for in the design of the tubes and this complicates the manufacturing process making it more expensive. It isn’t always effective either (see example given above) and work rounds result. However, the more you pay, generally, the more you get in terms of functionality and performance, though this is not an absolute guide.
Finally there is the most expensive option, the dedicated macro lens. Without a doubt this is the higher performer when it comes to producing quality of images in terms of sharpness and contrast, and without a doubt. But all that comes at a cost and even the cheapest all manual lenses cost several hundred pounds. Whichever route we go, macro/close up photography can be done anywhere and relatively easily and cheaply. One extra technique that might help is Focus Stacking. It can be done in Photoshop, as per the link, but failing that you might want to try CombineZP which is free and simple to use.
Now focus stacking as a technique makes a good link to the second half of our evening, Astro-photography. The reason being that photo stacking is an often used technique when taking photographs of the stars. It’s not an absolute requirement, though, and the basics are relatively straightforward. Rich recommended using StarStax, which is freeware, as you were wondering and developed with astro-photography in mind. But we get a little ahead of ourselves.
Dark areas in the UK are few and far between. Light pollution is a serious problem, not just for photographers but for wild life too, in our rather crowded island. Even in designated Dark Areas there are problems at the extremities where towns and villages emit a glow low on the horizon. So it takes some work.
The pollution part is best thought of as the light you would eliminate if you could. The night sky isn’t black, the horizon is always discernible. The sky itself is also quite bright. If we are trying to record as much detail as possible (known as Deep Sky astrophotography) we are going to be fighting the noise generated by the sensor of the camera, especially at higher ISO’s but even at the lowest setting because where there is a signal there will be noise. If we treat the sky as black either by exposing or reducing it to black in post production then the fainter details are going to get lost. The point is the sky isn’t really black, it’s closer to a dirty orange colour. Because of the light pollution and the reflective nature of Earth’s atmosphere.
We can get round this in post by adjusting levels, picking the darkest part of our image as a start point with the eye dropper and adjusting the levels. It’s a matter of trial and error really. As is white balance. Regardless, this will all be a matter of trial and mostly error at the beginning and that is actually part of the fun. Learning new techniques like this means we learn more about the competencies and capabilities of our equipment and allows us to do more things with it.
Our thanks again to Richard and good luck as he takes this and his other presentations on the road.
N E X T M E E T I NG
Macro and close up practical evening. Bring cameras tripods and that reversing ring you just ordered off Amazon.
Last meeting we were entertained by Kingswood Club Members Sue and Richard Winkworth and their tales of Myanmar (you may know it as Burma) in a presentation entitled “The Road to Mandalay” and yes after the song. Their trip was undertaken at a time when tourists were rare (it only opened up to Tourism in 2012 after 50 years of a military dictatorship) which presented both opportunities and challenges. 2016 the number of tourist arrivals was around 5 million, in a country of 54 million people. That’s roughly the size of Spain and Portugal combined. Last year Spain had 75 million visitors and Portugal 60 million, to give it some context.
The most striking thing to me was the quality of the light, which was very soft, making things look like the entire enterprise was shot on Kodachrome. The relative lack of industrialisation and the control of population around some of the shrines (limiting wood smoke from cooking and heating) made for lower levels of air pollution beyond the dust that is inevitably kicked up (even though those glorious sunsets are made from reflections of particles in the atmosphere).
The other thing that struck me from the map they showed us was the number of straight lines denoting boarders. Those boarders are entirely artificial, nature, after all abhors a straight line (William Kent circa 1685 – 1748). Well apart from crystals. Many of the pictures Sue and Richard took were in Shan Land, for instance, which boarders Laos and Thailand and the tribal boundaries are certainly different to the political ones. Now these might not be things that trouble the average tourist taking pictures, but a little local knowledge goes a long way.
Travel photography is big business, but it is a big business that is very, very, crowded these days. There was a distinction at one time between the professional and the amateur that could easily be defined by the fact that the professional took for and sold to the print media and when established made a regular income from commissions. Then the World Wide Web and traditional print industries got a pounding from which they are still diminishing. This coincided with the world opening up, air travel in particular became a lot cheaper and more opportunities arose. These days travel photographers make money from a wide variety of sources, indeed have to as revenue streams tend to be small and varied.
Most of us though are not in the business of travel photography. Yes we travel (and that can mean going to the next town or village) and yes we take photographs. Yes we combine the two. When we are photographing in our own region then the general way people behave when there is a camera is about is generally accepted and generally adhered to. Travel just the other side of the channel to France and the privacy laws, even in public places, are a lot more complicated.
So what amateurs and professionals alike do have in common is the attitude towards the subject. You can buy photographic workshops in exotic places by run by professional photographers (just because they are doesn’t mean they can) and the better ones do a lot to make sure that you come back with those iconic shots. That takes a lot of time, knowledge and investment and that is what you are paying, usually quite large amounts for. I have experience of one of these with French Photographic Holidays a couple of years back and it was enormous fun, the food was excellent and I learned a lot. A good experience. In France, it is relatively easy to take pictures of people and places, despite what I wrote above unless and until someone decides you have breached their privacy, which it is almost impossible not to.
Basically you are required to get someone’s permission before you take their picture. Then, if you want to publish it in any way you have to ask their permission for each specific usage. Any object that is created by or is the copyright of an artist, or designer, similarly requires permissions to be published in each specific context. Anyone who owns a property can assert rights of ownership of property and the photographer needs permission to publish. There is no “Freedom of panorama” as such, though that is coming under EU law, so it does not matter if you took that photograph from public or private property.
Then there is the situation in general. If someone objects you delete the image. It is not practical to get the permission of every architect of every building in shot permission. Generally people don’t and the architects don’t sue. But they could and you have to be mindful.
In Saudi Arabia you do not take pictures of women in the street. Full stop. Other pictures depend on where you are. Jeddah, for instance, is more easy going about these things than say Riyadh. In Dubai, which is much, much more western tourist oriented, along the picturesque creek there is a Naval base on the wall of which, in letter about six feet high, it says No Photography. Upsetting men with guns is never a good idea. You do not take photographs of the Naval base. The rest of the creek, fine.
These are examples of the conditions imposed. Then there are the conditions we as photographers impose. The attitude you give dictates the attitude you get back. A simple nod with the camera usually will tell you if your intended subject accepts having their photo taken. A smile and a thank you afterwards also helps. You will see trains of photographers in the more common tourist destinations on photographic tours and it is interesting, even when the scene has been deliberately set up with models, how many bother to say thank you, as if the fact that they have paid to be here yields entitlement.
You can draw up your own list of Do’s and Don’ts from yours and others experiences, both behavioural and technical. Personally I always learn how to say three things in the local language. The first is “Please”. The second is “Thank you”. The third is “I am not mad, I am British”. They all work.
We have had Round 4 of the ROC (see website for results) and a presentation by the Dream Team which both show what you can do with a bit of application – and a lot of planning. So, is there a magic formula to improving as a photographer?
The simple answer is “No”. Anybody trying to sell you an alternative is peddling snake oil and the likelihood of success is about the same, though that wouldn’t stop them claiming any advances as proof positive.
The “Through hard work” answer is a partial truth, there is no denying that application is part of it, but a Protestant Work Ethic alone isn’t going to affect the desired outcome. After all if you just do what you have always done, you are going to get what you have always got, as someone, maybe Henry Ford, or was it Mark Twain? Could have been Albert Einstein, or somebody else, once said. And there is truth in it. But not the whole truth.
Direction comes into it. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else”. That was Yogi Berra, and yes we’ve used it before. Direction and hard work, we are starting to get somewhere. The right direction and hard work. The work might be hard but it doesn’t have to be unenjoyable. Rewarding, directed, hard work. The reward and how hard we work for it are linked are for sure. Nothing quite gives us a lift as an image that comes out as we saw it.
None of this, otherwise sound, advice gives us a point to start from. Again there is an obvious but not very helpful answer to this. We can only start from where we are. “I wouldn’t be starting from here” said the eponymous Irishman when asked for directions, and I know what he meant. The first job, then, is to decide where we are.
And this involves looking, but looking with a purpose, looking critically at what we are doing and finding some photographers whose work we admire and practising (here’s a start if you need one, but it is just a start) what we like in their photo’s. Join sites like Flickr (the club has its own page, put some contributions up) or 500px where you can build galleries of your own favourites and try doing your own versions of them. Keep experimenting around a theme and you will start to see some improvements as long as you apply a critical eye to the results.
If we want a starting point then we could do worse than take Robert Capa’s dictum that “If your photograph isn’t good enough then you aren’t close enough”. A photograph tells one story well and cropping in on the essential detail leaves less room for confusion. It doesn’t matter whether you zoom with your lens or zoom with your feet (there are differences but they are subtle, real but not really for today’s argument, and all to do with perspective) but it can have an effect, will have an effect.
We are aiming to tell a story with a single detail. When we are looking at our scene through our viewfinder our mission is to find the detail that makes a difference. That can be a look, the curve of a line, the repetition of pattern, a contrast in colours, or something else. There will have been a something though, and that something is the thing that caught our attention. This is when working the scene comes into its own. This works whether we set out to take a particular picture or are just wandering through the landscape looking for inspiration. Once we find the something, the key, we can use it to unlock the potential in something that has taken our attention.
Or as Aristotle sort of put it, we start seeing when we stop looking. Technically it is known as Inattentional Blindness, and happens when we exceed the processing speed and capacity of our brains. We can use this to our own advantage by letting go of putting everything into context and just following the things that catch our attention (paying due consideration to our own and others Health and Safety of course). Basically our brain is trying to tell us something, so shut up and listen.
And the best camera settings for that? Three options. The camera decides, you decide or something in the middle. Most photographers go for something in the middle. Essentially we are playing with the exposure triangle and the notion that the best that our camera will produce is a combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO according to the prevailing light conditions. You deciding is full manual. This is a preference, rarely a necessity, but it is worth learning because it teaches you about how your camera captures light and the worth of capturing light and shadow.
The other two options are let the camera decide, “P” or “Auto”, or something in between, shutter priority, aperture priority, exposure compensation. Full on auto will get you an acceptable picture most of the time, after all camera companies spend an awful lot of money on researching these things and writing algorithms to match. But it can be fooled. The in between range from scene selection where you alter the elements of the exposure triangle by selecting the symbol closest to the conditions you are shooting in, to setting the importance of the aperture or shutter relative to the ISO you are using. Control is what you are opting for or out of in various degrees. Most “Serious” photographers seem to shoot in aperture priority if that is any guide because that gives the most direct control over depth of field without having to fiddle with the other two sides of the triangle.
There is no right side, there are preferred sides there are sides that make certain situations easier. The fact is that, as a hobby, we have the luxury of having the time to play, experiment and fail a lot on our way to getting better. Joining a Photography club or an active photography interest group is part of that.
N E X T M E E T I N G
1st June 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Sue Winkworth: “On The Road To Mandalay.”
(Deadline for John Hankin and Stan Scantlebury shield entries)
This week we had a speaker, Matt Bigwood, photojournalist for sixteen years on the Gloucester regional press and a freelance for very nearly as long who took us on the transition from mainly monochromatic film through to full colour digital and along with it the death of the profession of employed photojournalist. It is, as they say, what it is. Very little point in being overly nostalgic about it, film is now a hobby, an artistic statement, a curiosity or a course of academic study and digital is all.
Some of the effect of that we discussed in the last post. There is no denying that digital has made photography more accessible. A double edge sword that has proved to be as unsettling in its own world as any other technological “disruption” for in that accessibility has come a loss of a sense of it being special, of the combination of art and alchemy and with that some of the mystery some of the magic. And a lot of the expense, as least as far as news organisations are concerned.
For a time there were those who sought to hold back the tide of course, on grounds of technical inferiority, dynamic range, colour rendition, ability to enlarge, but when the pixel count got to the point of where it was good enough for the front page it was game over. But this pitches film v digital, one or the other, take no prisoners. A good way to lose what motivates us. If film floats your boat AND gets you out there taking pictures then go with film. Ditto digital. Unless we are making a living out of it, in which case this is an interesting question (maybe). Our customers want digital? Guess what we are going with.
So, we end up with having to scan your negatives anyway as a way of displaying and storing them and that on top of a process that was never cheap. That said there is a niche market and rumours of come backs of old film stocks abound (fantasy almost entirely, Kodachrome ain’t ever coming back in my far from humble), but the truth is the machines to make film are very old, there are no spare parts manufacturers for them and some of them are huge: We’ve used this link for the production of film before (part 2 here), but it is well worth revisiting just to take in the sheer scale of the manufacturing problem.
We might miss it, may even still use it, but film is and will remain a niche market. Digital has yet to match the look and feel of film (amazing on how many photographers seem to have forgotten just how grainy a Kodachrome 64 slide could be when projected) and when it does we will run into the same problem different clothing. It was a look with limited variation, because there were never that many manufacturers on the market in the first place. Digital has looks of its own but we weren’t viewing slides on 4K televisions, lap top screens, mobile phones, tablets, just projectors. The only question is do you like the look?
And let’s not forget that single lens camera sales are down by 84% 2016 over 2011.
And as already stated here and in Matt’s talk and the videos he brought with him that ship has sailed. He admitted to being nostalgic for film but not to the point that he is considering running his business on the model, for though there is most likely a market it is considerably less likely sustainable.
A little more perspective on the 35mm film angle. The last time there was a comeback for 35mm film was in 2011. Sales disappointed in 2012, this might be a cyclical thing but if it is it is not clear what is driving it. Dixons/Currys stopped selling 35mm film cameras of any type in 2005. Yet by the summer of 2016 film was making a “Stunning comeback” mainly driven by those new to the medium. Film was even projected to go away totally by 2020, according to some, though that seems unlikely now. The actual figures, the units, are not going to match the height of film – around 2001 when 19.7 million SLR’s were sold.
That is really something of an empty argument though and really the domain of the hobbyist and occasional professional artist. With the need for time consuming processes disappearing the need for the number of press photographers to cover events fell – memory cards could be plugged into computers. With the growing ubiquity of cameraphones the photographs of dramatic and not so dramatic events are taken and uploaded to social media often before the press are even aware. The final nail in the employed photojournalists career prospects. Now it is not unusual for media groups to have none whatsoever. Now it is all self-employment and whereas the need for the expertise in photography and, increasingly, videography still remains the nature of how that relates to the occupation of commercial photographer, as most are today, has changed.
Lot going on in the club at the moment, since the last post we have had: a presentation of images from the table top night a fortnight ago; this week the club outing to the Lake District is taking place and the weather has held for them in one of the wetter parts of the UK; we have had on-going discussions about the projector replacement and, oh yeah, we had the AGM along the way.
As if that wasn’t enough the dry spell continues, the bluebells are at full chat and the sun is shining more days than it isn’t. There are a lot of events going on and I don’t think as amateur photographers, as most of us are, we have a great deal to complain about photographically.
Apart from the price of gear. Which is going up. And up. And looks like it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Lots going on from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic but all at the top end. The cheapest out of that little lot, and I am talking camera bodies here, is around £1700. No wonder fixed lens camera sales are down by 84% from five years ago. Year on year they are better 2017 over 2016, but the size of the market has dropped and I cannot be the only one who sees a possible correlation with price. Not that would be a sole cause, the enormous improvements in cameras on phones has had a tremendous impact no doubt.
Or has it?
I can see that the practical annihilation of the compact camera might be attributed to the ubiquity of the phone-camera, but the single lens reflex/mirrorless? The number of pictures taken (badly) is certainly far, far higher than it used to be and the most popular medium for doing so is the cameraphone.
The most frequently used camera in 2014, 2015 and 2016 on Flikr were Apple iPhones. The current top 5 cameras in the Flikr Community are, in descending order: Apple iPhone 6; Apple iPhone 6s; Samsung Galaxy S6; Apple iPhone 5s and Apple iPhone 7. 5 out of the top 10 brands used are phone brands, with 1, Sony, crossing over into both single function camera and cameraphone and 7 of the top 15. AppleInsider crunched the numbers further and reckoned that in 2016, iPhones accounted for 47% of the photographers on Flickr with Canon and Nikon limping along at 24% and 18% respectively. To which I would attach the caveat that plenty of Nikon and Canon camera owners also have an iPhone or its Android equivalent. Overall cameraphones accounted for 48% of uploads last year.
Now here’s the rub. Whereas I am not disputing the fact that cameraphones account for nearly half of all uploads to Flickr these days, that there are photographers who don’t shoot with anything else out there who make a living from photography, sooner or later the hobbyist is going to conform to the Single lens norm. And when you have a choice of your DSLR/Mirrorless camera that you have paid a lot of money for, then the days of “I’ll leave that at home and take the cameraphone instead” are very few and far between. Or maybe that is just me.
There has to be some other factor in play too. Well I for one will cite the price of what is being released is a factor among hobbyists. I am not arguing with the capability of cameras being released to sing and dance in mind boggling ways. Nor am I going to argue that marketing doesn’t play a big role in this, but there is a reason that the majority of necks that you see these cameras hung around are middle aged (and male). That reason would be disposable income.
It was never a cheap hobby, though spread out over a number of years on easy payments it could be an affordable hobby when, as the club motto points out, it’s the picture not the camera that counts. However, the wonders of hire purchase aside, we are fortunate to have a hobby that can be encapsulated in a phone. The key, as ever, is to know your equipment limitations and use those and the tools of composition to get the image that you want.
The chief limitation, sensor capabilities aside, is the fact that most cameraphones come with a fixed wide angle lens. The reasons for this are, I think fairly obvious. Used mainly for social photography of friends and family and increasingly as a note book, the ability to get a lot in a confined space is going to be a design factor. The fact that the physics deliver a depth of field that is deep and so accurate focusing is less of problem or demand on the system certainly helps. It sits in the area of the old compact camera and basically destroyed that market.
So the obvious thing to do to get better results out of a cameraphone is to treat it as we would a camera with a wide angle lens mounted. That is exactly what it is photographically. Mounting a wide angle lens changes a cameras perspective compared to longer focal lengths. You need to be aware that paying attention to the edges of the frame, “Boarder Patrol” as one judge put it, is even more important, especially if you don’t intend to post process. Shadows have a habit of creeping in and taking attention away from your main subject, but when outdoors the chief consideration is the sky, in or out of shot?
The sky will push the dynamic range of the sensor, especially when there is shadow detail that you want in your picture. The dynamic range in your average cameraphone is relatively limited – you are after all buying a phone not a camera, though the relative capabilities of the camera on the phone probably matter more to a photographer than they do to the average cameraphone punter. There is also the question of whether including it adds or detracts from the overall picture so as ever, work the scene. Take multiple angles. Use portrait and landscape.
Wide angle lenses also distort perspective when not bang on square to the lines in the rest of the photograph. This is something to exploit. Using leading lines and a different perspective to gives the image a different feel and when done boldly, more punch. The flip side to this, of course, is that far away objects look very small, sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed by the other elements in the picture. Zoom with your feet as far as is possible. Get closer (or further away) through the medium of Shanks’s Pony. The combination of these two things, say when taking tall buildings, mean you have to be more careful with getting things squared up or they lean at alarming angles. Most phones (and SLR’s) these days have gauges built in to help with this.
So, the cameraphone is another photographic tool, learning to use it and exploit its features just like any other camera can be very rewarding. Be it open vistas or a lot of detail close up using the same composition skills as we use with our other gear can get good results.
Club evenings with cameras are always popular and always a good opportunity to gain knowledge and practice the basics, or try something a little different. Last meeting was no exception as we undertook an evening of tabletop photography, for which the club is grateful for all those who put a lot of effort into making the evening a success.
Theses themed evenings aren’t just about the theme and or subject. They are a chance to get the most out of a controlled situation, specifically, at least for our purposes this week, the chance to work a subject. Now working the scene, or a variation of it, is a phrase that often bandied about.
Sooner rather than later you will come across Henri Cartier-Bresson and the idea of the decisive moment, and certainly in any scene that involves movement there is, or will be a combination of the elements in the frame for which their interplay makes the full story. Is it the same with table top/still life? Essentially yes, but the control in the frame is pretty much absolute and the truth in the frame may be entirely documentary or an arrangement of light on shape in some artistically pleasing manner. The chaos of everyday life is excluded in pursuit of control either way.
So what do we mean by working the scene? Cartier-Bresson didn’t just take one photograph of a scene, even if the first one was the one he ended up using. Nor anyone else. Closer, further away, left, right, up, down all realign the elements, the task is then to isolate the best image to work with.
With table top, though, there isn’t necessarily a lot of room to work with, nonetheless it is still worth the effort. Whether you change the camera angle or the arrangement of the items you are photographing you can still affect the same sort of ends. The end result, the one you show, is then more likely to be better at communicating with your audience because it is the end result of a process.
There is also a question, further prompted by the idea of the end result, of whether you can do this moving around in time. If your intent is to capture something that has to be constructed before you take a picture of the end result, why not photograph that construction? It could well be that the image that you end up keeping is one that shows all the elements but not the whole. That whole is then constructed in the mind of the viewer.
The whole point is that of collecting data deliberately. From this data we then make a story. Changing the angle/distance/perspective creates a pause and in that pause we can process the data we have collected. We can turn these to our own advantage with a little pre planning. Whilst framing the image we can be critical of what we are looking at, now that we have put a physical frame around it.
Put simply we start seeing when we stop looking. Look is the hook, the thing that caught our eye, the draw in. Seeing takes a lot more effort and experimentation, but seeing is the essence of photography. It also means that we can practice this, using table top, at home, through experimentation and starting with the tools of composition. Two to start with, I suggest are light and dark and lines.
Light and dark in its purest form, black-white (the Japanese Notan art form for instance) or at the least two complimentary colours. Contrast is what the eye, rather like the autofocus on our cameras, looks for, so as to make things clear. Use this as a key to where the light falls and with a little practice we can make powerful yet subtle ways that take the eyes of the viewer to where the photographer wants them.
Lines are, possibly, less subtle but no less powerful for that. We are largely familiar with the concept of leading lines whether we are conscious of their effect or not. Anyone who has seen white lines on tarmac will have been affected by it. Anyone who has ever followed a path will have been effected by it. By getting close, looking for the key detail, we better frame the thing that attracted us in the first place.
There are of course a myriad of other compositional tools we can use, we can practice. Composition is just a way of seeing in one sense. In a more useful sense it is a deliberate way of seeing. We need to practice with deliberation. Stuck for something to do? Then pick one of these compositional tools and use it to go shoot. The table top environment allows us to experiment in these cases by arranging the elements in our frame to our own ends. In other environments we have to look for the chances to capture these things on a more random basis, but in doing so we have to abandon looking for seeing.
N E X T M E E T I NG
Annual General Meeting.
It has long been held as true that we know more about space than we do about our oceans. Quite possibly true, though I don’t know how you measure it, what I do know is that club member Julie Kaye’s presentation on underwater photography went down, if you will forgive the unintentional pun, very well. Julie brought her equipment as well as prints of her results and took us through the mechanics, the necessities of adapting the human body and her camera equipment to the realms where no human is naturally equipped but for the very briefest of visits.
The equipment needs are not merely image critical, they are life supporting and diving is a dangerous sport if the basics are not attended to. The conditions under which you are shooting are a challenge too and this is one of the more difficult areas of photography to master. For those of us brought up on the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau the mysteries of the oceans were a childhood staple.
Possibly most associated by most as branch of travel photography, the underwater milieu goes back to the end of the Nineteenth Century, the first underwater camera and lighting rig was invented by another Frenchman, Louis Marie Auguste Boutan in 1893, when certainly photographs would have been taken but the oldest extant photo of a diver, a selfie by Boutan is dated to 1899 (and apparently damned near killed him through Nitrogen narcosis in the process). The gap is accounted for by Boutan’s work on a lighting solution, a highly explosive mix of oxygen in a barrel and magnesium powder to provide a flash held in a glass container triggered by an electrical current. Remember that film (read glass plate) speed was very low at these times with normal photographs being taken with what we would consider long exposures.
Prior to Boutan, the first person to take photographs whilst submerged, there had been underwater photographs but these had been obtained by using a camera in an almost-waterproof housing lowered on a tripod, was William Thompson, who took them in Dorset in 1856. Unfortunately the glass plates don’t seem to have survived.
Colour came along in 1926, National Geographic staff photographer Charles Martin and naturalist Dr William Longley taking a picture of a Hog Fish in the Gulf of New Mexico for that august journal. Following on in Boutan’s tradition they still executed the image with pounds of explosive magnesium flash powder. The difference was that they sensibly left it floating on the surface in a raft rather than build a submersible flash unit as Boutan had.
Cousteau remains the most famous pioneer though, operating from his famous boat the RV Calypso, which came to near sticky end in Singapore in 1997 but on which restoration work began last year (after a 20 year story worthy of a soap opera), he developed not only Scuba gear but the underwater camera as well. The Calypso, before coming in to Cousteau’s hands, was built as a Minesweeper for the Royal Navy and served as such from 1943 to 1949, then as a ferry in Malta for 4 months before being bought by Thomas Loel Guinness MP and leased by him to Cousteau for one French Franc a year on grounds of anonymity for Loel Guiness. There were, at the time, around a thousand Francs to the pound, so bit of a bargain. For those of us brought up on the TV show (1968-1976 and endless repeats) the Calypso was as much of the show as Cousteau.
Cousteau wasn’t just an explorer (naturalist, conservationist, etc etc), he was an inventor too. He conceived the idea, which was designed by Jean de Wouters, of an underwater camera which was called, wait for it, the Calypso. It came with an f3.5 35mm lens, with 45mm and 28mm optional lenses and a shutter speed of 1/30th to 1/1000th of a second shutter, which was redesigned to a 1/15th to 1/500th of a second range which was the one carried on to the Nikonos, licensed and built by Nikon, through three variants and which lasted in production until from 1963 to 2001. Basically it was killed off by digital but it is still to be found second hand.
Underwater photography is also a sport, not big here, admittedly, under the auspices of CMAS. The World Championships run thus: Basically at least four 90 minute dives (including decompression time) are undertaken and the first 100 images from the relevant memory card are downloaded and then the competitor selects which images go forward to (anonymous) judging. Then it gets complicated: ” During the last day of the competition, the jury will review all submitted images to rank these within the photographic categories described in the Specific Rules. An individual classification will also be compiled by allotting scores to the top ten images in each photographic category using a fibonacci sequence. The names of top ten competitors in the photographic categories and in the individual classification will be publicly announced.” Not so catchy, maybe.
There is a wider range of photographic equipment and accessories available to the modern diver, of course, specialist housing, lighting (non explosive), but all at a price and a half. It has to be precision engineered of course, able to withstand pressure greater than found at sea level and whereas it is popular with people on holiday (who can buy pouches and boxes for their cameras for shallow depths if their camera isn’t already waterproof) who go snorkelling, if you are serious and a scuba diver and a regular photographer, then the outlay garners the returns.
So a big club thank you to Julie for an interesting and unusual evening.
N E X T M E E T I N G
NB: The AGM has been postponed for a couple of weeks, our next session is table top photography so bring cameras, tripods and something small to photograph.