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The Art of Underwater Photography
By Wade Hughes, August 30, 2020 @ 06:00 AM (EST)


Photography is nothing—it’s life that interests me.

—Henri Cartier-Bresson

Some decades ago, last century, I quit life as a self-employed professional photojournalist. After working long and hard for years to build my skills and establish a healthy client base, I came home from an international assignment, sent the images to the client, put my camera bag in the cupboard, and explained to my wife, Robyn, that I’d fired myself and was out of a job.

One client, a company secretary, convinced me to shoot one last annual report, which I did. Then the same client convinced me that I had been right to quit; he called to tell me that it wasn’t possible to use one of the images I’d submitted, “because your flash did not go off.” He was correct. It had not. It was still in the car when I took the shot in question. I’d deliberately set out to cover that particular aspect of his company’s operations as a silhouette.  

Despite being fascinated by photography since I was a kid, and yearning to become a professional, I was done. Disenchanted. Years of labor, dedicated to trying to satisfy someone else’s artistic and creative aspirations, had taken their toll. Dispiritingly, this wave of apathy also washed over my interest in underwater photography.


Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey, it’s me!

—Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

In my earliest days of diving and photography, I was deeply attracted to the grainy, sometimes slightly blurred images of Hans Hass’, made during his first Caribbean diving expedition to Bonaire, in the Dutch Antilles. I was intrigued by the play of light in the world around me. And I was totally hooked on underwater photographic equipment. When I bought my first secondhand Rolleimarin, with  its twin-lens Rolleiflex snugged down inside it, I set it on a cabinet at the foot of my bed so that it would be the last thing I saw before I went to sleep, and the first I set eyes on when I awoke.

I’d read all the books and articles I could find on the subject of underwater lighting, had my single Metz strobe set at the recommended 45 degrees up and 45 degrees to the side. And with only a few exceptions, I failed to create any images that stirred any emotions in me at all. Properly exposed. Sharply focused. Essentially, just bland records of whatever happened to be in front of the camera. So, what was the point? Bob Seger’s “Feel Like a Number” almost became an anthem for my sense of frustration. But that particular track also offered up a clue as to what the solution might be. 



And then I read Henri Cartier-Bresson’s counterintuitive statement that heads this article.  

If we accept that art, in all its forms, is capable of evoking emotional responses because it causes us to recall past experiences and emotions, then we can gain clues as to why some art has the power to move us as an individual and some doesn’t.  

Popular music has been staggeringly successful as an art form because it touches on the experiences and emotions that affect nearly every human, and many other beings, at some points in their lives—those emotions associated with attraction, love, and loss. Each of us experiences them individually though. This is a point that Bruce Springsteen understood well. Early in his career, he did not wish to make music videos because, “I didn’t want to infringe on my audience’s imagination by presenting some concrete image that was a replica of an image in the song.”

It became clear to me that, if I was using similar equipment to photographers who were consistently creating images that I found to be compelling, and if I’d figured out the simple relationships between shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and strobe output, then the shortcomings with my photographs did not lie in the equipment, nor the technical operation of it. They lay within me.



Tod Papageorge, a U.S. contemporary of Cartier-Bresson’s, made the observation that “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not reading enough.” Fair enough. There are plenty of photographers out there that have written, and been written about, so I started reading them. But a lot of the literature is about style and technique.

Even Cartier-Bresson’s description of a “decisive moment”—still, in my view, the touchstone for all meaningful photography—can be interpreted at one level to be about technique. On the other hand, his comment about life being the driving force, rather than photography itself, doesn’t try to explain how to do anything. It does, though, point very clearly to why we might want to do it.  



Reflecting on why some photographic images I’d seen inspired, or depressed, me more than others started to help me connect them with sometimes vague and long-forgotten experiences and emotions in my past, and with long-held aspirations for my future. I started wondering what those memories, emotions, and aspirations would look like—to me.

How to capture the recollection of those first simultaneous shivers—one caused by the plunge into cold water, the other by the first glimpse through the bubbles of an alien landscape and the life forms in it? What about those peeps into the deep gloom of an overhanging ledge, advancing with the skittish curiosity of a kitten approaching its first mouse, apprehensively hoping to catch sight of something—anything, really? What about the dreams of the hostile open sea with limitless visibility? And the astonishment and sheer disbelief of the first squinting encounter with an impossibly fragile shrimp with transparent body and muscles!

These are amongst the dreams and experiences that drew me to the sea, and first transfixed me. They still do. Recreating them successfully is still work-in-progress. But that’s the endless challenge and joy that photography offers us.






About the Author: Wade Hughes is a Member of the Explorers Club and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He and his wife Robyn make their photographs freely available to individuals and organizations involved in education, research, and not-for-profit promotion of sustainable conservation. Requests can be sent to wadeandrobynhughes@gmail.com.


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