Deep Focus

A Q&A with Budd Riker, veteran diver, diving instructor, underwater photographer, and contributor to PADI's Digital Underwater Photographer Manuel.
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Budd Riker
LESSONS FROM THE MASTER: Budd, posing for the author as he struggles to master the basics of underwater photography during a PADI training course (Nathan Borchelt)

First off, why take photos while diving? It seems like you've got so much other stuff to worry about when you're under the water.
The underwater world is a fascinating mixture of motion, color, wildlife, and seascapes. It is like no other place on earth. Each dive location is as different from the other as the arctic is from the tropics. To witness this environment as a diver is an extraordinary experience. To photograph it is not only challenging, it is rewarding to be able to share the experience with others. Why are pictures of the High Sierras or Mount Everest so fascinating? It's because so many of us can only dream of going there. With photography, we can share in the adventure. The same is true for the underwater environment.

What's the biggest mistake beginner underwater photographers make?
Beginning underwater photographers, regardless of their skill level as topside photographers, must master the challenges of being a diver first. I see so many new divers get very frustrated with underwater photography because they can't maintain proper buoyancy, are uncomfortable with their equipment, or simply don't understand the environment they are entering. Like any form of adventure or nature photography, one must master the environment and the tools used to enter the environment. My advice is to make several dives with the most effective camera ever made, your brain and your eyes. Experience that to its fullest and then bring your camera with you.

Obviously the digital revolution drop-kicked scuba photography into the 21st century. What simple tricks can you do with a digital to make it even easier?
It's not so much what tricks can you do, it's the fact that with digital first, you can capture so many more exposures than you could with film and, second—and even more important—you can review what you've captured at the time you are making images, in the water! The cost per dive in time, effort and money is perhaps the greatest difference between most land photography and underwater photography. Digital photography allows divers to make the most use of the limited time actually in the water, capturing images.

Let's talk gear. Can a point-and-click get the job done?
Absolutely! The camera manufacturers, like Nikon, Canon, and Olympus have really stepped up to offer underwater housings for many of their point-and-shoot cameras. The functionality and image quality of these current point-and-click cameras is incredible. Perhaps the greatest advancement is the reduction of shutter lag, the time it takes between pressing the button and taking the picture. I can't tell you how many fishtail pictures I have taken with earlier models. Recently, on a trip to Bora Bora with many new underwater photographers, I saw images being produced from even lower-end point-and-shoot digitals that were magazine quality. While a digital SLR [single-lens reflex, the more professional—and expensive—digital camera genre] has its significant strengths in underwater photography, today's point-and-shoots can definitely get the job done.

How much should you expect to drop to get a kit that'll produce frame-worth prints?
Again, the gap between quality images (that result in quality prints) and the cost of the systems to achieve that quality has dropped significantly. In the right hands, a $400 point-and-shoot/housing system can give you spectacular results. If you're really going to get serious, a starting outfit complete with housing and external flash can cost upwards for $700 to $1,000. Keep in mind, however, that a $5,000-plus SLR system in the hands of an inexperienced diver can produce poorer results than a low end point-and-shoot. You want great prints? Become a good diver and learn to get the best results you can with the underwater system you can afford.

And what's up with those pre-settings? I've seen cameras with one or two "underwater" scene modes. Should divers use those?
The pre-set white balance settings, or "scene modes" can produce great results! The camera manufacturers have done a terrific job in producing settings that yield very pleasing color balance in underwater images. So I would say yes, use those settings. If you want to get even better results, learn to white balance your camera manually underwater. White balance is basically the setting in a camera that synchs up with the true white, which is the color the camera uses to base the tonality of all the other colors. Don't know how to set the white balance? Get out that manual that came with the camera or pick up a book on underwater photography, like PADI's Digital Underwater Photographer Manuel and learn how to capture the best color possible. It goes back to my point of learning to get the most from your camera.

Any final bits of advice?
I can't over emphasize how important it is to be a safe diver first. Nothing matters more than your safety and that of the others you dive with. A huge part of being a good underwater photographer is being a safe, comfortable, and certified diver. No shortcuts here! Then, make sure you're having fun! That's what diving and underwater photography are all about.

Published: 6 May 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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