Underwater art, like any other kind of art, requires training and preparation in order to achieve artistic outcomes. You can capture underwater life as a snorkeler but unless you can hold your breath for extended periods of time to dive below the surface you will find it difficult to get close to your subjects and stay still in the water for long enough to anticipate and be ready for some of the most exciting action. Fish are adept at hiding in the reefs and the sea bed itself is host to a diverse variety of marine life (bottom dwellers) so you probably need to be able to scuba dive to have the greatest opportunities to develop your skills as an underwater artist.
The training involves acquiring a scuba diving qualification, such as PADI, SSI or BSAC. In addition to the essential diving skills you gain, you can also learn how to shoot video but before you do that it’s a good idea to acquire a basic understanding of photography and digital underwater cameras.
Preparing for a diving trip, regardless of how near or far the location, involves being meticulous in packing all your diving gear and your camera equipment, all of which should be regularly maintained and serviced. You should research your dive site, especially if you are making your first trip there. The picture above came out of a recent visit to the Phil Foster Park at Blue Heron Bridge, South East Florida, which is so close to the Lake Worth inlet that tidal flow – around the bridges especially – is often strong at any time other than slack tide. Low slack tide has dirty water from the inlet so visibility is often compromised. To have the best chance of working in calm conditions you need to enter the water half an hour before high slack tide as it brings the clear Atlantic Ocean water. A neap tide will also work in your favour as they are associated with less current. So, the position of the moon, the height of the tide, the day of the week and the month, the time of day and the weather conditions all need to be calculated to find the optimum time to dive.
Once you are in the water, alongside a trusted dive buddy, the search for exciting subjects begins and no two days are ever the same under the sea even when there is resident marine life. If you can make your tank of air last a decent amount of time (which relies on perfect buoyancy skills and correct weighting) you can recce the dive site, searching for passing marine life as well as creatures that live in the reefs, wrecks or on/under the sand. It can be a waiting game that takes a lot of patience but you also need to be on the alert for sudden opportunities when some of the more elusive creatures make brief appearances. You need to have your lights and strobes set and ready and your macro and wide screen lenses easily accessible. I have a SeaLife DS2000 with video light and strobe but I also try to take a GoPro with me as well, which I tuck into my BCD (firmly attached to a clip so I don’t lose it).
This picture was developed from a video shot on a humble GoPro (Hero 6). I spotted the ‘bait ball’ from a distance and moved towards it stealthily. As I got closer, I saw the barracuda. They usually skirt quite close to you but you can never get within touching distance and they shoot off if spooked. This one could have feasted on the hundreds of fish that surrounded him but he seemed content to simply lurk amongst them. I filmed him for over two minutes. I was moving throughout the shot, slowly and carefully so that the barracuda and his companions were heading straight for me before barreling off to my left. I felt sure that within those thirty frames per second of video there would be one ‘money shot’ because the visibility was good that day, the sky was a deep, bright cloudless blue and there was no particulate in the water. I also though that the movement and direction of the fish would add a dynamic and an energy to the end result that a posed, single shot might not have facilitated.
I edit my video in iMovie and make short films, which I upload to my YouTube Channel after which I isolate frames that I want to further develop into single image art. If I want to produce a photographic digital image I edit in Photoshop. I can then work these into paintings if I want to explore further with other more ‘painterly’ processes and techniques, such as dry brush work using acrylic paint.
Underwater photography offers endless possibilities to the artist to develop and work up their own original images (stills and video) into paintings and prints.