Going Digital: Underwater Science Photography at EPA

By Sean Sheldrake, Rob Pedersen, and Alan Humphrey

EPA scientific diver Sean Sheldrake takes pictures with a Nikonos V film camera. Photo by Joe Goulet.

If you’ve followed EPA’s photo series “Documerica,” you may have noticed a drastic improvement in the quality of the images.  That evolution has been equally as dramatic for underwater photography as it has been above ground—and it’s been personal for us and our fellow scientific divers.

Mama Don’t Take my Kodachrome Away.

For years, we used specialty, underwater, film-based cameras.   Although they were state-of-the-art for underwater work, our cameras were rather simplistic compared to their above ground counterparts, especially with the earlier cameras which lacked even built-in light meters. It was a love/hate relationship.

At times, one of us would forget to rewind the film, ruining the pictures from the dive.  Of course there missed shots, too: “That shark came by right after I finished my roll!”  More times that any of us can count we’d reach the end of the roll before finding an item in our survey area that needed to be photographed.

In the end though, dialing in the focal range, previewing the depth of field, and setting the aperture settings was so classic, so pure, that we grew very attached to our equipment.

Then, the digital photography revolution hit, and we couldn’t even get our film of choice developed locally anymore.

It turned out to be just the kick we needed.  Digital has been a whole new world. It’s a lot easier when you can shoot 1,000 pictures on a memory card instead of 36 on a roll of film.  For subjects that don’t move, you can literally shoot and check your photo quality underwater—as long as your air supply (and dive buddy) will allow.

Underwater video housing.

Rob Pedersen shooting video with an older video camera in a large silver housing.

Video was a similar evolution.  Taking early video cameras underwater involved using heavy, bulky housing to keep the ravages of salt and fresh water damage out. Whatever we shot required “dubbing” the original tape to another format for sharing with research partners, often taking days of work. Today, sharing is as easy as downloading to a DVD or a thumb drive. And what’s more, it’s common place these days for still cameras to shoot video, and visa-versa—no more need for two cameras.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

See our photos on Flickr.

About the authors: Sean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  Sean Sheldrake and Alan Humphrey both serve on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.  In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others.  Rob Pedersen is an EPA diver with decades of experience in underwater photography, and has also served on the EPA safety board.

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