Into The Deep With Lens And Strobe

Whether it is the thrill of spying on an alien universe, the delight in spotting an elusive manta ray, or simply the joy of being underwater, diving is never dull. But if the thought of drifting past another reef wall is starting to make you feel restless, you don't have to taunt great whites from a cage to add a new challenge to your sport.

Instead, taking up underwater photography may do the trick. Camera experience isn't even required. In fact, it helps not to have to break old habits to fit underwater conditions. Nor must you first log hundreds of dives--my husband, Scott, and I had been diving for only three years when we treated ourselves to an underwater camera for our Red Sea trip in May. All you need is good buoyancy control--the ability to hover in one place--and to feel comfortable enough with your gear to free up a hand for the camera.

Before handing over your credit card, however, talk to experts at a good dive or photo shop and read the photo columns in dive magazines to find what's right for you. One option is to purchase a waterproof housing for an SLR land camera--running $600 to $2830, depending on the model of your camera. It allows you to look directly through the lens rather than a viewfinder. But it struck us as complicated, and bulky, and we don't own a decent camera anyway.

CUMBERSOME. At the other extreme is the Motormarine 35, made by Sea & Sea U/W Photography, a fixed-flash unit with a single 32mm lens that's good for basic snapshots. Sea & Sea also makes a MotorMarine 2EX, with a detachable strobe and lenses that can be changed underwater, for about $1120, strobe included. But we couldn't imagine having time to switch from a macro to a wide-angle lens if a hammerhead swims by.

We opted instead for the Nikonos V, by Nikon. It's pricier, at $1,036 for just the body and a 35mm lens. But it's easy enough to handle for amateurs while taking professional-quality photos, and it can easily be serviced worldwide. You'll need a strobe as well. The $820 Nikonos superscriptSB-105 strobe has some nifty features once reserved for more professional models, such as more flash power, a faster recycle time, and a repeating-signal flash for emergencies. An alternative is the Ikalite family of strobes, ranging from $300 to $950. They're good quality and compatible with Nikonos.

If you settle on the Nikonos, call your nearest PADI International dive center and order their manual, Underwater Photography: Camera Basics and Equipment Care ($13.50). It explains far more clearly how to use and care for the Nikonos V than the owner's manual.

Then, be sure to invest in a few lessons. Many resorts and live-aboard cruises offer weeklong lessons. We dove with Oonasdivers, a top-notch outfit in Sharm el Sheikh at the southern tip of Egypt's Sinai peninsula. One of their divemasters is Peter Dalton, an award-winning British photographer. He offers a handy two-day course to cover the basics for $100 a day, including tanks and boat dives, but he can arrange a longer, more detailed program as well.

Peter started us off slowly, with shallow dives in a protected bay so we could get accustomed to handling the equipment. Classic mistakes riddled our first couple of rolls: a nice collection of fish tails, dots from the flash reflecting on stirred-up sand, too much rocky background from shooting down instead of out into the blue. In the evening over beers, we'd go over each frame as he critiqued our judgment of distance, composition, and subject matter. Most important, he showed us how to maintain the camera. Properly greasing the O-rings that seal each opening is crucial. If the camera floods, as we thought ours had for a few panic-stricken hours after the third roll of film, you may as well just toss the whole thing out unless you can get it to a professional dealer fast.


REEF FEVER. It can be so much fun floating upside down to peer into holes that you forget the most basic lesson: Diving comes first, and you must remain alert no matter what distraction. But by the time we concluded our second week as photographers, we could navigate caves, stalk their beautiful denizens, and sneak up on poisonous lionfish with ease.

Taking up underwater photography has made both of us better divers. Hovering six inches above a reef without destroying 200 years' worth of coral growth does wonders for your skills. Plus, each dive is more vivid, because your eye is trained to notice much more than before. Best of all, the results help give your family and friends an inkling of why you're so hooked on the sport.

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