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NFC: underwater photography...............

                          IN KANSAS
                      GAROLD W SNEEGAS
     Kansas is not known for having gin clear waters, in
fact it has been rated as having the highest percentage of
polluted streams and rivers in the United States. Having the
highest percentage of polluted streams does not mean all of
the streams are polluted. In a few isolated areas of the
state there are still a few  clear, pristine streams. Most
of them are on private lands with very limited access and
are not noticeable from public roads.
     Over the past few years I have met with land owners to
gain permission to explore some of these areas. This was not
an easy chore as many land owners have had major problems
with trespassers and a real distrust for any environmental
organizations. As a condition to having continued access to
these streams, several land owners have requested that I do
not reveal their locations.  The requests and conditions set
by a land owner are not only  something to be followed but
are also a form of protection for the streams themselves.
     The photographic equipment I use is really a hodgepodge
of acquired pieces form over 20 years of doing underwater
photography. What I am using would not be considered top of
the line or state of the art. I use a Nikonos II with a
flash port conversion that accepts Ikelite Ai and Ms
substrobes. I mainly use the Ms strobe as a slave. I use a
Nikonos 35mm lens with combinations of extension tubes,
either 2:1, 1:1 or 1:2. In addition I also use Hydro Photo
TI, T2 or T3 screw mount close-up lens in combination with
the 35mm lens. This combination of lens and tubes gives me a
range of area coverage from approximately 3/4" by 1",
1,1/4" by 1,3/4",  2,1/4" by 3,1/4",  3" by 5",  5" by 7",
and 8" by 12", with focal distances of from 3" to  15". I
also use a Nikonos 20mm lens, which gives me the ability to
photograph larger subjects, such as an 18" Largemouth bass,
less than 2 feet away from the lens. The short focal lengths
are extremely important when photographing in murky water.
Unless the visibility is over 10 feet, I will rarely
photograph a subject more than 12" from the lens.
     I have used some of the newer automatic cameras in
murky water conditions and have found that when the camera
takes an average reading of the available light, you often
end up with an average picture with a murky background.
There is a rule of thumb in underwater photography that you
should not try to photograph a subject any further than 1/4
of your visibility. I have also found you get a better image
if the background is not exposed more than a 1/4 of your
     I use a strobe about 90% of the time, to control
exposure, to bring out the true colors and to photograph at
night. Using a strobe also allows you to use a high f/stop
with a slow speed film to get the highest quality image. I
use Fujichrome Velvia slide film because I like the results
and I can develop it myself using E-6 processing.
     There are some real disadvantages to underwater
photography. Water turbidity, temperature, depth and the
behavior of your subjects limit what you can do.  When you
are in a stream just about everything is moving, fish, you,
your camera and in riffle areas sometimes the bottom is
moving. Steadying yourself and your camera is something that
is a matter of practice and being comfortable in the aquatic
environment you are in.
   The greatest advantage to photographing fish underwater
is that you can capture their peak spawning colors and
natural behaviors in a way that can not be duplicated in an
aquarium. You can not duplicate the varying conditions of
aquatic environments and the random interactions between
migrating fish species and other aquatic inhabitants.
     Capturing an image of spawning male darters, displaying
at their peak moment of excitement in the wild, requires
being in the right place at the right time. You may be lucky
and stumble onto this situation in a matter of minutes or
you may have to spend hours submerged in 50 degree water
monitoring an area. This brings up the need for a cold water
exposure suit. Neoprene wet suits are the most common suits
used for diving in cold water however I have found a high
quality dry suit to be far superior. If you are doing
several dives a day in 50 degree water they are just about a
     After spending hours snorkeling in shallow streams, I
have found it is better not to use a weight belt. This adds
a safety factor in that there is no way you are going to
sink into deep water and it enables you to float into very
shallow areas of a stream, without kicking up a lot of silt
or debris. One other advantage of wearing a dry suit, even
in warm summer months, is that it limits your exposure to
parasitic critters such as leeches.
   Light refraction between air and water is a phenomenon
that an underwater photographer needs to be aware of.
Refraction between the air/water interface of a divers mask
has the effect of making everything a diver views appear 25
percent larger and closer. When you are estimating the
camera-to-subject distance underwater you are estimating the
apparent distance, the actual distance is 25 percent further
away. Because the submerged camera lens also has an
air/water interface the cameras' "view" is the same as the
     Waterproof camera housings will either have a flat or
dome lens port. If you place a 28mm land lens behind a
submerged flat port, refraction will cause an image
distortion and change the viewing angle of the 28mm lens to
that of a 35mm lens. Dome ports are designed to correct for
this image distortion.
     The effects of refraction is something a diver has to
adjust to, not only in photography, but also in viewing
aquatic life. There is no need to panic when you see a
snapping turtle that appears to be the size of a small truck
heading straight for you- its' not as big as it appears.
     An interesting fact that I have learned about turtles is
that some fish are not particularly afraid of turtles. In
fact  fish such as Lepomis megalotis often follow turtles
around looking for insect larvae that turtles dislodge while
they are moving around. In a similar vein when you first
enter a pool and come upon a school of fish they will usually
scatter. After a few minutes if you glance behind you, you
may discover the entire school is swarming all over your legs
and fins feeding on debris and larvae you have stirred up.
You can take advantage of this behavior to photograph fish by
acting like a big turtle. To do this you need to be in an
area with flowing water, such as the upper end of a pool
where a current is entering. Position your camera near the
bottom and gently start fanning the bottom in front of your
lens with your free hand. The current will carry the debris
downstream, away from your lens, while fish will move
upstream to the source of the fanning, which is right in
front of your lens. You have to remain still and allow some
time to past for the fish to become accustomed to this huge
new "turtle" stirring up the bottom.
     Some species of fish are so active and skittish during
the day that they are just about impossible to photograph. If
you venture into the pool at night you may find them laying
motionless on the bottom. With a careful approach you may be
able to move close enough to photograph your subject.
  In my efforts to understand and photograph the fishes of
Kansas I have found it necessary to explore their habitats
not only during diurnal and nocturnal periods but also
during all the seasons. In doing so one also becomes aware
of the other inhabitants that coexist with the fishes. I
have not only enjoyed photographing the common aquatic
organisms the general public is familiar with such as
crayfish, turtles, and insect larvae but also some unusual
invertebrates like freshwater sponges, bryozoans and hydras.
     The more I have learned about  aquatic subjects , and
how to look for them, the more I realize I have barely began
to cover of the number of subjects there are to photograph
in what  appears to be nothing more than a simple little
stream.  So next time you peer into the waters of a prairie
stream take a moment to consider the diversity of life
within its waters and appreciate the myriad of life
contained within. Truly those waters are a source of great
beauty and wonderment.

Robert Rice
Join the NFC and help save our fishes.   http://www.nativefish.org/  

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