PhotoStop: What Underwater Photography Should Be About

Bob Halstead“That’s a wonderful picture, you must be an expert at Photoshop”. Is that the ultimate insult to a photographer? It is to me.

I like to think of myself as an underwater photographer. My perfect dive would be to descend, absorb the site’s ambiance, discover the definitive subject, visualize the image I want, take one perfect photograph, and ascend, breathing the last puff of Nitrox from my tank as I reach for the dive boat ladder.

I believe that a photo that comes straight out of the camera (preferably on film) is superior to one that has been photoshopped. Not only visually superior, morally superior!

Water MusicSo when a photo of violinist and underwater model Leigh Paine, that I had successfully shot to promote a future concert, was published on page 3 of The Cairns Post, I was elated. It looked great; half a page in full colour. But the comments that greeted me praised my prowess at Photoshop, not photography. They thought I had faked it. I was mortified.

I own a camera; I do not own Photoshop. I do not digitally remove backscatter; I strive to shoot pictures without backscatter. I do not care that “to photoshop” is now a recognised verb. I use technique and skill with my camera whenever I shoot pictures. That has to be worthier.

Unfortunately I can find no philosophical rationale to defend my conviction.

Treachery of ImagesLet me explain. If you have studied modern art, you may know of French painter René Magritte. In 1929 he completed a painting called “The Treachery of Images”. The painting was of a smoker’s pipe and on the painting he wrote, under the pipe, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”  Which translates to, “This is not a pipe.”

He was making the point that images should not be confused with reality. An image is an image and a pipe is a pipe. An image of a pipe is an image, not a pipe. Having got to this point it is logical to argue that since an image can never be reality, except as an image, it does not matter, in an artistic sense, what anyone does to manipulate the image. All that matters is how the final image looks.

This is not a fishI must admit to having fun with unsuspecting innocents at scenes of extraordinary beauty – a tropical sunset perhaps silhouetting a volcanic skyline. Inevitably someone says, “Isn’t that beautiful!” to which I say, “Amazing, it’s just like a picture isn’t it?” If my joke works I hear, “Yes, you’re right!” and I score another point by getting my gullible companion to agree that an image could be as significant as reality.

But perhaps I am the fool; perhaps some images affect us more than reality? Legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams lugged his huge camera and a handful of glass plates into Yosemite aiming to shoot one perfect negative, but then worked for hours producing, by skillful manipulation in his dark room, a print that was more expressive and beautiful than the reality, or, at least, revealed beauty seen by Ansel but that was not so easy for us to identify in the wild. I suppose all great art enables us to see reality in a different light, as it were.

Ansel said, “The photographer visualizes his conception of the subject as presented in the final print. He achieves the expression of his visualization through his technique – aesthetic, intellectual, and mechanical.”  No doubt he would add “digital” to that list today.

But photography is not just about artistic images. News photography is intended to represent reality, as are family snapshots – though just by using a wide angle or telephoto lens you are distorting what the natural eye sees. I remember the fuss produced by National Geographic when the magazine published a “photograph” of the Pyramids on its front cover. The Pyramids had been digitally realigned to fit the cover better. Scandal!

The most deplorable use of manipulated images is for deliberate deception or propaganda. This has occurred through the history of photography – but is much more common since digital images and Photoshop came on the scene. As I write this BP has admitted that a photographer photoshopped images of the Gulf oil spill to sanitize the view from a helicopter. Anti-smoking lobbyists used a photo of Winston Churchill – but with his cigar magically missing. Cover shots of aging beauties are routinely digitally airbrushed to remove their wrinkles and expanding waistlines.

Scientific photographs, such as those from satellites, are expected to be “truthful”. They are evidence. They need not be “as the human eye sees them” – that would be impossible from the space orbits that satellites move in – but once standardised they need to be consistent so as to show any changes in reality that occur. The determination of whether an image is News or Art is critical to the morality of manipulated images.

Perhaps I am a believer in the art of photography rather than the art of images? There are so many fascinating facets involved in the act of creating the perfect underwater photograph. Buoyancy and breath control are vital. You must be able to dive with both hands on the camera. I once offered to teach Underwater Photography. In first lesson I asked students to dive with their hands lashed to their sides with a spare weight belt strap. I had no takers, but the skill is essential.

Other more subtle skills involve avoiding other divers, finding the subject, having empathy with marine life, and approaching from the right direction without disturbing the environment. After finding your subject, visualize, compose the picture, apply technique, and take one perfect image. Digital cameras have ruined this concept. The fashion these days is for divers, without any visualization, to shoot hundreds of poorly composed images on automatic settings in the vain hope that a few of them will be good enough to fix with Photoshop. Instead of concentrating on the subject and capturing the right moment to shoot, the digital photographer is inspecting and deleting worthless images while diving.

Having said that, I must confess. A magazine asked me recently for a vertical shot of a diver cuddling a Moray Eel. I had one well composed shot that I had taken 30 years ago – but had never published as the shot was full of backscatter. I had kept the slide as a reminder to use correct technique every time. I scanned and emailed the image to the magazine, pretty much to say sorry I can’t help. But they contacted me, asking for it in high resolution. “Backscatter is no problem”, they said, “we can fix that”. They did, and the shot made the cover. I’ve now had several magazines “improve” my images, but I still aim for perfection in camera.

Even if I do not get my perfect image every dive, I will at least have the satisfaction of having attempted the perfect photo dive. Ansel Adams thought only 12 photographs “that mattered” a year was good going for any photographer. But photographic genius Alfred Stieglitz was more passionate – he said, “When I make a photograph, I make love!” I reckon I can do that, and without help from Photoshop.

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8 thoughts on “PhotoStop: What Underwater Photography Should Be About”

  1. Sorry, that is.

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  2. Bob,
    There is one issue that you left out complitely: economics.
    For those of us who are just “recreational divers” with relatively modest means underwater photography before digital was simply out of reach and made no sence at all. Here is why: just like diving, photography requires a lot of practice, the more you do it, the better you become. The cost of UW photography “practice” is exorbitant the way it is, and if you throw in very low success rate, cost of 35 mm equipment, film and processing and occasional flood of equipment, why bother.
    With arrival of digital here is what i can do with $500 worth of equipment, no strobs either. And if the housing ever floods, the new camera will be better and cheaper. Will I be published in NG mag? Probably not. Can I take pictures underwater now. Yes. That is what arrival of digital did for me. BTW, I do not own Photoshop.

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  3. In the film days I spent alot of hours in my dark room. Sometimes I don’t know what I enjoyed more taking the photo or developing it. It was very relaxing, no phone, no interuptions. Photoshop is very simular but now I can take calls and questions. (no sign that says darkroom in use stay out)

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  4. Bob Halstead raises exactly the same issues that most of us echo who evolved from the film era. About six years ago, Undercurrent invited me to write an article on the then-emerging technology of digital photography.

    Digital imaging was controversial and the critics were vocal and articulate. Legendary underwater photographer Chris Newbert denounced digital systems entirely and noted that he had no objections to persons using them, but he preferred that they not be allowed to call their results photography since so much of the craft was turned over to “auto” systems that tended to “enable mediocrity to a new level”. Newbert echoed the ethos of the pure film professional who labored over manual focus, f-stop and shutter speed selections, the limits of a 35-frame film load, etc. His points were well taken and reflected the opinions of many who prided themselves on the “craft” of photography and disdained the “point-and-shoot” masses that were the first to embrace the digital revolution.

    My own criticisms at the time were with the blatant and, at times, absurd manipulations that were happening in various computer software programs like PhotoShop and then passed off for the “real” thing. I noted that the believability of the image had been left behind when pieces of several shots were combined into one, South Pacific species were dropped into Caribbean reef scenes, and a litany of fraud ended up being perpetuated on the naïve viewer since these “photos” rarely had any disclosure that they had been “doctored” to achieve the end result. Some of the worst offenders were advertisers who seemed to believe that any alterations to reality were acceptable if it made their product or resorts more likely to sell.

    I saw advantages in the digital technology, and I switched in 2004 when they finally came out with professional quality SLRs, but still adhered to the ethos of the film shooter who captured the image and then presented it without alteration except for the necessary minor sharpening and color correcting that brought the shot out of the digital RAW file. I concluded by saying that digital cameras were presenting new and valued advances… if used with honesty. Newbert concluded that digital systems marked the death of photography, as it had been known historically.

    Actually, we were both right as it turned out.

    There were some unanticipated benefits to the diving industry. Digital cameras have been one of the single biggest things to keep people interested in diving. Why? Because now divers can actually take photos underwater that are damn good and without an apprenticeship lasting longer than astronaut training for a Mars voyage. Underwater photography used to be hard and unforgiving. Hand a Nikonos to the average diver and, even with excellent photo classes and hands-on coaching, the results were simply piss poor at best for most shooters. How many tedious slide shows did you have to sit through over the years at resorts or on liveaboards? I can tell you that I’d rather be “water-boarded” than endure another slide session of “Fred’s Excellent Diving Adventure”.

    Digital systems with their instant feedback underwater via the LCD screen and later review on a laptop computer have flattened out the learning curve for amateurs to the extent that newbie hackers sometimes come back with better images than the pros. Digital cameras are also more forgiving with exposures, especially in natural light situations. Now I’ll gladly sit down with a glass of wine and help a new photographer review his shots on the computer screen. They quickly learn to hit the delete button and how to hone the craft of composition. Style is still a fleeting mystery for some but the nuts and bolts of achieving a useful image are greatly enhanced.

    Underwater photography has become a dominating motivation in today’s divers. And that’s a good thing. It spurs their own interest and keeps them diving. It also attracts their friends into the sport. No matter how you slice it… it’s good business.

    The Bottom Line

    Newbert was right: photography as we knew it is dead. And it’s not coming back. Old film cameras now have so little value that it’s not even worth paying to ship them to a buyer. Kodak stopped manufacturing slide projectors years ago. Most photo labs don’t process film at all and if they do, it’s only a couple times a month when enough rolls accumulated to justify a run. Almost all magazines and art designers want photo submissions now in digital formats. And when was the last time you could find a retail outlet that sold film? Yeah, it’s right next to the VHS tapes.

    I still have no patience for artificially and fraudulently manipulated images that are derived through computer programs. That’s not art or photography any more than loading up Madden Football on your laptop is like getting tackled in the NFL for real.

    But a lot of these changes are good. Great photography is no longer for an elite cadre of dedicated craftsmen. It’s within reach of the masses through extraordinary innovations in digital cameras. And I’m okay with that. We may not produce another Chris Newbert or David Doubilet but what will come forward is pretty damn good and will enrich those divers’ lives and perhaps some others to find an appreciation for the underwater world that previously would have been missing.

    I appreciate Newbert’s perspective as well as revering his incredible talent. I come from the same old school film ethos of long suffering hard knocks to achieve success. But just like I discarded my dive tables long ago for a modern diving computer, I’m willing to embrace digital imaging as a welcome innovation that deserves its place at the table.

    Just don’t make me buy the latest new model camera when it’s released on Monday. I’m still trying to read the 300-page manual from my last one.

    Bob Halstead is a purist just like Newbert and so many of us who drove ourselves insane trying to capture underwater images on film with no auto-focus, no auto-exposure, no post-dive PhotoShop to salvage your mistakes, and only 35 frames to do it in. Yes, it chafes my butt as well to see obviously manipulated images passed off as the real thing. But that’s life… most of us in the age range of Halstead and Newbert can take smug satisfaction in knowing that we saw the underwater environment when it was truly pristine and that we actually got paid a fair value for our work. Today, with the advent of digital cameras and the fact that almost anyone can produce a passable image, the compensation rates to photographers has dwindled to practically nothing and print media has largely died out.

    I’m with you, Bob. But the train left the station about six years ago…

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  5. Bob, Thank you for expressing my feelings so well. I started shooting film UW in 1994 and did so for 13 years. I was delighted when I got what I was aiming for. I tried digital, but just couldn’t do it. I hated it. It just didn’t feel right – I couldn’t make the transition. Instead, I picked up UW videography (which requires even better buoyancy control) and enjoy the “storytelling” involved in videos. Although I miss composing shots, I am absolutely in love with capturing behavior and mood underwater. What do they say about one door closing and another one opening?

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  6. We all strive for perfection with our cameras. Not all of us have the expertise you possess. It comes with practice and experience, not by osmosis. Photoshop and other manipulative programs are welcome to those of us who are not quite to the level you are.

    Just my opinion.

    Steve Arnold

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  7. I used to be an advertising photographer. I manipulated ALL my images by being selective about what was in front of my camera! Retouching prior to Photoshop was too expensive and often not effective enough – so I cast beautiful women (oops! sorry – I should have said ‘people’), and selected perfect locations that I had to spend days at, waiting for the weather and light. It cost a fortune. So did I!
    I know where you’re coming from Bob. I’m redundant thanks to Photoshop – but I’ve got my memories!

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  8. Bob
    I think I see where you are coming from on getting the shot right in camera, and not relying on Photoshop to recover sloppy technique, but I also think you are closing down and losing the creative opportunities available by excluding post processing work.

    All photography manipulates the reality of the scene. Merely selecting a bit of it to include in the 36 x 24mm film frame has moved you one step away from the reality of the sunset you talk about.

    What about use of aperture for selective focus, shutter speed to blur motion, or even adding that strobe light to add back some colour. Add back colour? It’s not part of the scene in reality.

    I think you are confusing one craft, in camera processing, with another, post processing. Both have their place, otherwise, why move on from b/w film to colour?

    Using digital cameras with the ability to take more than 36 images on a dive, vary the ISO you shoot with, review and learn from what you can see on the LCD, and yes post process in Lightroom and Photoshop, has expanded the range of images you can take underwater.

    At last available light images at depth are now possible to show not only the qualities of the filtered light, but also colour without use of strobes.

    I think if Magritte were alive today and diving, he would be shooting digital and post processing too.

    Now that would really up the competition 🙂

    Rob Smith

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