Suffering for one’s art is a cross that all of us underwater photographers learn to bear. I say “us”, because while my talents in this field have never been properly recognised, I’ve more than paid my dues in terms of anguish and misery.
It’s not that I lack any creative ability – despite claims to the contrary by several prominent underwater photographers who’ve been privileged to see my portfolio of work. It’s rather more to do with the fact that every underwater camera and housing that I’ve ever owned or used has had inherent defects that nobody, other than myself, seems to have recognised.
Lacking the necessary funding to be able to afford an underwater camera of my own, I was given a kick-start by the Navy who, in the mid-‘Sixties, made me sign a, ‘I-will-pay-for-it-if-I-lose-or-damage-it’ chit for two of the original Calypso cameras (pre-cursor to the Nikonos series) before packing me off to Malta to spend a summer photographing dye trails released on the thermocline interface.
Because of their mechanical simplicity, (and never having even seen, let alone touched, an underwater camera before) I failed to read the instruction manual properly. Particularly that bit that said: ‘Caution: Never unload the camera underwater’.
It was a temporary set back that, rather than quenching my interest in this emerging art form, made me determined to master all of its intricacies. I read books and articles on underwater photography and, swallowing my pride, even asked experienced U/W photographers for advice.
The first underwater camera that I ever actually owned was a Nikonos V, complete with strobe. It was an easy choice to make considering how many of the world’s most prominent U/W photographers – using that same model camera – had attracted fame, fortune and praise for the calibre of their work.
Regrettably, however, my own camera never seemed to produce photographs that measured up to the quality of their images. (And that was only when I actually managed to take pictures that had a recognisable subject matter. For some reason most of my photographs looked as though they were taken in a dark cave at midnight using natural ambient light.)
Resisting the urge to give up on photography, my next discovery was that a Nikonos V held precisely $698 worth of seawater. Just to be certain of this fact, I successfully managed to flood the camera a second time; a process that proved beyond all doubt that water is a precious, (and expensive) commodity!
Having now spent a small fortune on film with no discernible improvement in results, I was beginning to give up hope of ever making the grade as an underwater photographer. But then came the digital camera revolution.
The beauty of digital cameras in underwater housings is that you can immediately check the results. I had mine for three weeks before forgetting to properly clean and check the housing seal. It flooded on the surface. Quickly dousing it in distilled water and drying it gently with a hair-dryer, I found that it still worked – apart from the lens cover occasionally failing to open; a minor inconvenience that I managed to fix by vigorously banging the camera housing against a rock before turning on the power.
It was an effective technique that worked well right up until the regular Saturday morning shore dive when I positioned myself to photograph a seahorse, whacked the camera against a rock to open the lens cover, and then watched water flood into the housing.
Inspired by my earlier successful attempts at resuscitation, I dunked the camera, (that was probably already beyond salvation) into a bucket of fresh water and, quite forgetting just how many plastic components there are in digital cameras, blasted it with hot air from an industrial strength hair-dryer at full throttle. It had all the makings of a great salvage plan up until that moment when parts of the camera began to warp and melt.
“I suppose you’ll be buying another – and more advanced – camera now that you’ve put the old one out of its misery?” Krabbman asked.
“You betcha! Only this time I’m getting one with more goblins.”
“Goblins?” Krabbmann queried.
“No! That’s wrong, isn’t it?” I said. “It’s not goblins, it’s .. er .. pixies. That’s it, pixies. It’s how us photographers refer to image quality. That last camera only had 3 mega-pixies – that’s big pixies almost the size of gremlins – but the new one that I’m getting has over 7 mega-pixies. That’s more than enough pixies to sort out any gremlins lurking in the camera.”
“Goblins, gremlins and pixies!” Krabbmann sneered. “What you need is a pad of paper and a box of crayons rather than a camera.”
I didn’t like to tell him that I’d already tried that, but the paper kept dissolving and an octopus stole my blue crayon. Photography’s much easier. 🙂
(The above article appeared in Australia’s, “Dive Log’ Magazine in January 2005, hence the small pixies. They’ve grown taller since then.) 🙂