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The Evolution Of Underwater Photography

Cave diver, author and photographer Martyn Farr discusses how his photo and video gear has evolved over the last forty-plus years.



As you can imagine, underwater photography in caves is extremely challenging. I got my very first underwater camera, a 35mm Nikonos, back in 1975 when I went on an expedition to America. It was second-hand, and it tided me over for a good few years. The original Nikonos, and the two or three updates which followed it, were mechanical which made them very dependable in both dry and flooded caves.


Obviously I needed to light the subject underwater, so a flash/strobe was essential. Nikon had thought of this and manufactured a bulb unit – waterproof – which was attached to the base of the camera via a 60-centimetre-long cord. The bulbs were single use and floaty. This made replacing the one just fired with a new one a real juggling operation. I have to admit that spent bulbs were more often than not simply discarded. I occasionally come across them even today.


As I was the first person in the UK to get into cave diving photography in a serious way I quickly discovered the problems. The main issue was that the cable to the camera was way too short. My first images were flat and looked like they had been taken in fog! Annoying. I approached Nikon and asked if lengthening the cable would work and the reply was negative. Well we did it just the same and it worked perfectly. The equipment took some respectable images and one of these made the front cover of Triton magazine in 1977 (Triton was the forerunner to Diver magazine).



Fired by the early successes, a second long cable was added and with dual flash units the images got better still. But now there was a very real concern with divers becoming entangled in all the cables. Hmm … so a friend in Cardiff developed the very first remote underwater flash, again firing bulbs. The imagery forthcoming was superb and we moved into the realm of back flashing … the images way better than contemporary shots taken by the open-water photographers.


Eventually I got enough money together to be able to afford to buy a new Nikonos V with a decent second-hand 15mm wide-angle lens. The V had a number of improvements over the original Nikonos, and it was much less demanding of battery power than modern digital cameras are.


In fact, this camera took the cover picture of the new edition of The Darkness Beckons, in Weebubbie Cave, Australia, in 2005. Needless to say this was on film back then – ISO 400 I think. I remember shooting a full roll of thirty-six frames to make sure I got a ‘keeper’, and then the nervous wait until the film was developed to see if the shots had come out. They had!



Of course, gear has evolved a lot in the last ten to twenty years, and there’s nothing better when you’re underwater than being able to take a shot and review it there and then on a screen. So today I use a Sony NEX-5 mirrorless camera in a Nauticam housing. I have to say it’s rather more bulky than the Nikonos arrangement, but it performs equally brilliantly.


For video work, small units such as the GoPro Hero can be easily transported deep underground and quickly set up, as can compact lighting units. Back in December 2013, on the latest of a series of long solo-dive explorations in Spittal Springs in New Zealand, I discovered a fabulously decorated chamber that I named Avalon. At the time I was the only cave diver on South Island and could find no one prepared to come along and help me photograph the place. So I took along nine electronic strobes and sensor units, a Canon G11 camera and a couple of GoPros for video work (together with video lighting units) – all of this transported in an enormous waterproof case, which required a huge amount of weight to be attached to counter the buoyancy underwater. The time underground ran to nine hours with five spent alone in Avalon taking still photos and shooting video – all this in a section of a cave where no one had previously set foot.


The major shift over the last forty or so years is the move from camera gear which was fully mechanical, as the first Nikonos was, to gear which is utterly dependent on battery power. This brings with it its own unique challenges, but advancements in battery technology, such as the introduction of lithium-powered batteries, means cameras and lighting are more reliable, can keep working for longer, and the activity is altogether more accessible to newcomers.


Things move on and you have to be able to adapt to the technology that becomes available, and certainly the evolution of photographic equipment is still taking place – rapidly!


You can find out more about Martyn and cave diving in his book, The Darkness Beckons, read about it here.



An interview with cave diving legend Martyn Farr from Vertebrate Publishing on Vimeo.


You can find more articles on this topic by Martyn Farr on the following websites; Darkness Below, Click Dive, Activity Fan & Deeper Blue.