The ABCs of Underwater Photography
Preparation is Key
Photography in underwater excavation serves two purposes. While scientific documentation of the archeological excavation is understandable, it also serves another more pragmatic purpose of pitching for funds to carry out the excavation itself. It calls for extensive planning and preparation beforehand. From knowing the surface markers and the grid number to dive in close to the wreck, getting the water-proof housing ready for the camera, running the sequence of actions for the 20 minute under water shoot, to sketching the frames and the angles and briefing the models, there is quite a bit of homework to do before diving in.
Authenticity over Artistry
There were also days when she carried small plexiglass slate full of notes on shutter speed, aperture size and strobe power to remember what she should be doing underwater as at deep depths thinking becomes fuzzy and basic math is difficult. During the shoot, it is important to position the strobes behind the camera housing to ensure the conical lights overlap bang on the object and constantly check on the digital camera’s monitor to avoid the back scatter and the resultant distracting snow flake effect. In post processing, it is sometimes possible to remove backscatter using the rubber stamp tool found in editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. However, it is always best to shoot with the strobes [flashes] in the correct position in order to limit backscatter. In murky water projects, as was the case in the 25 x 20 mt Godavaya excavation, where visibility is poor, this could really consume precious shoot time. “Particularly in archeology photography, you want to keep it as scientific as possible,” says Susannah.
Under water, it is all about juggling between carrying the gear, finding one’s way around the wires of the strobe lights, monitoring time and oxygen levels, maneuvering around the object to shoot, and using hand signals to communicate with models. “You have to be very vigilant, focused and also think on your feet,” cautions Susannah. She recollects her experience of crafting a make-shift snoot from a half soda bottle to focus her strobe lights in order to photograph a spear she found on the wreck. And the thrill she felt on seeing the spear stayed with her enough to narrate it even as she was emerging out of a post operative stupor years later.
Blowing Away the Blues
On surfacing, more extensive work follows such as preserving the artefacts by bubble wrapping, crating, labelling and documenting. Post processing of the photographs is as tough a task as packaging. Be it white balancing to remove the ubiquitous blue hue in underwater photography, or color correcting the red, orange, and yellow colors that have been recorded in the artificial lights of the strobes, underwater photography demands quite a bit of post processing.
The Gruelling and the Gratification
If we think of underwater photography as a fancy hobby complete with glamorous scuba diving suits, we are in for a rude shock. The living could be anywhere from tents to boats or houses with open doors and windows and the abrasiveness of dusty environs that threaten the camera lenses. Not to mention the uncertain weather and hours of waiting for the skies to clear and trying to cohabitate with as many as 25 people or more for days together, eating what one gets, showering from water brought in by trucks, and the only wash being the dives for shoot.
Susannah remembers her struggles to keep her cameras dust-free in Godavaya and trying to connect with family on a video call with a monitor lizard for company. But the most dangerous bit is the nitrogen narcosis that can occur reducing the ability to think clearly the deeper underwater you are. At 110 feet under water in Godavaya, Susannah recollects being thankful for the nitrox cylinders with extra oxygen they got for diving from a Srilankan marine company.
But then one’s most gratifying moments in life come when one gets to do what they love the most. Susannah’s wow moment in Godavaya was when the visual of two fused rings she had framed in her mind’s eye turned out to be exactly the same as her imagination.
Seeing personal artefacts that belonged to people ages ago and trying to recreate their lives send a chill down Susannah’s spine. She fondly recalls the artefacts she had excavated or photographed: the spear tip at Godavaya, a hand carved ivory knife handle (that resembled golf ball) found in the keel of the ship from Egypt and pine nuts from Spain wrecks.
“They are like self-contained time capsules”, says an awestruck Susannah about the ship wrecks she had helped excavate and the way they throw light on the daily lives of people thousands of years ago.
True, trade did connect countries unifying them across borders to form this one world.