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Book Review:

How to Photograph Underwater

1994, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA

Norbert Wu

118 pages, suggested retail $16.95

ISBN 0-8117-2452-2

Bob Fenner  

Who is it we judge (apparently) to be the smartest, most industrious and outgoing? Why, the persons who are most like ourselves! In How To Photograph Underwater, noted nature photographer Norbert Wu gives us his best shot at how he goes about making aquatic images, running his photo business and how you might do the same. As you might surmise from the opening sentence, Mr. Wu and I are in confluence if not outright agreement on most of his stated techniques, ideas and attitudes re nature photography.

And what an endeavor it is! Concerning perceptual subjectivity, I often say that if we were dogs, magazines wouldn't have text or pictures, but smells applied to their pages. The point is, humans are visually oriented organisms; imagine what this periodical would be like without photos, graphics, tables... BORING! And not nearly as informational. What better way for you to preserve your experiences and share them with others than with pictures? And udnerwater photography, like terrestrial, can be a simple, straightforward affair; with a lifetime of increasing complexity and involvement for the more interested.

This is my one, most favorite work on the topic for the novice to earnest intermediate underwater photographer; it covers all major topics (plus breaks new ground on others) in a sometimes whimsical, always encouraging manner.

Let's go over the books contents by their listed Parts, and offer some gist of what's to be found in each.

Part One delves into the nature of underwater photography, some of the limitations imposed on our efforts by physics and physical reality. The first rule of underwater photography? Get close to your subject; due to light absorbtion, diffraction, scattering, and the bane of suspended matter being near your intended photographic objects is paramount.

Part Two offers a nice rundown on the principles of photography as they relate to underwater work. Which size/format of film do most professional (this means we get paid?) use? 35 millimeter. Prints or slides? The latter. What sort of exposure speeds? Low; 25, 50, 64, 100 ASAs for close ups and macro; some 200 and 400 for fast moving or large organisms/landscapes. Different types/brands of film are compared for their usefulness. Norbert gives sound advice (and his picks) on how to go about selecting film.

You want to take decent underwater pix but not go broke investing in a camera, strobe, tray, arms, cords...? Try a rudimentary, but functional "disposable" shallow water (@10' max.) point and shoot unit. For high end images we're talking a single lens reflex (SLR) camera and lens(es) housed in a sturdy waterproof structure and specialized strobe (flash) lighting.

In Part Three we're given a personal look into Norberts camera bags; what's there? Some highlights: A Nikonos (non-SLR underwater cameras by Nikon) body or two with an assortment of lenses (15, 20, 28mm) for large animals, an assortment of strobes and connecting electrical cords, strobe arms, light meter, lots of batteries, film (in ziploc plastic bags) and miscellaneous parts and documentation. Norbert utilizes plastic coolers for long hauling and local transport (good idea).

The best of all parts (Four) is decidedly the Examples section; as well as the many excellently labeled images throughout the book. Great advice offered: Think, plan your gear for the type of photography, organisms you

intend to shoot. Keep it simple: when you're new, stick with one camera, lens, exposure settings and film until you've mastered that type. Start with the easiest; close ups. Norbert gives good coverage of all steps beyond.

Part V covers composition, a area where aquarists definitely have the upper hand on non-aquarists. We know the best poses and anticipated behavior of aquatic life, as well as where the particular livestock is most likely to be found.

For those wanting to offer (and sell) their images to print publishers, there is information on formatting for sale. Landscape, portrait, close/far... give the editors an assortment to choose from.

Part Six is Norberts tell-all regarding his set-up; organization and approach to the business of photography. Should you adapt/adopt the suggestions here? I would! Mr. Wu uses standard, readily available archival sheets to store and ship his images, and puts his computer and other office equipment to appropriate use. He also has some very useful innovations to share; as well as key questions for the professional photographer. As an example, should you rely heavily on a stock agency to make your business? I and Norbert do not; we actively market and sell our work ourselves.

Part VII, Camera Maintenance, shys a bit on the skimpy side. I would have included a few paragraphs on O-ring, silicone lubricant, threads, cam-out screwing issues... I discourage you to use the vinegar and water clean-up methodology offered; and encourage more frequent service than Wus own every five year checkups (read and follow the manufacturers recommendations when in doubt).

Advanced Topics make up Part Eight; pushing/pulling film (up to two stops for under/overexposed film), flash techniques, and involved reviews on the elusive perfect under/overwater shot, and making green water look blue.

The book finishes with a List of tables of Resources (mainly for gear) and Recommended Reading.

My Evaluation: Mostly Good, Some Disagreements

I too must admit to having flooded numerous pieces of gear (also never free from manufacturers), and many misadventures in travel. Norbert and I share selecting gear as much for battery type as other features. In fact, most of what Mr. Wu has to say I'm in total agreement with (no wonder I consider him so sharp!).

A few departures not heretofore mentioned: Unlike Norbert I do not check my camera gear (housings, cameras, lenses, strobes, arms, trays, cords, film); I take it all as carry-on. Yes I gladly pay more for this luggage, even paying for an assistant (usually my wife) to increase my allowable baggage. I eschew the use of rechargeable batteries (except for underwater video...).


With humor and hard-earned insight, Norbert Wus How To Photograph Underwater gives good coverage of the topic up to the time of this first editions printing (1994). Since that time there have been a few substantial changes in the technology/gear available (The Nikon RS dedicated u/w SLR is out of production; newer/better housings and Nikons F5 have come out); you'll want to update yourself on what's available through the internet, dive and photo hobby magazines, dealers...

If you're more or further interested in Norberts views on aspects on the business of nature photography, he has a follow up title, Selling Nature Photographs, that comes equally highly recommended. It can be ordered as How to... below

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