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Dive Photo Guide


Cold and Color Under The Ice
 January 13, 2010 @ 04:27 PM (EST)
By Rick Morris
Over the years I have ventured into many challenging environments to capture images.  When I first began I was a still photographer, but then moved into video in the late 1970s.  

Though I had worked in cold harsh environments above water for my entire career I had never experienced the type of challenges I had to face shooting in the Arctic both above and underwater. The first and most obvious challenge is the climate and what it does to your gear.  As divers this is really important because some of that gear is life support equipment and if that fails, show’s over.  There really isn’t a textbook for working this frigid world and trial and error seems to be the norm, so here are a few tips for you to consider and trial and error seems to be the norm, so here are a few tips for you to consider

  • The arctic is really cold and when you dive there everything freezes so you need to have a mechanism to defrost your gear.

  • In the arctic you dive totally exposed and once you are wet, or even before that, you need the right exposure protection.

  • This terrain is also physically challenging and conditioning is essential.  Cardio training prior to your expedition is essential as well as a regimen of stretching and endurance training.

  • Cold dramatically effects the condition of your equipment and parts can fail or simply freeze and break so you need to bring a full compliment of spare parts and redundant systems like a back up regulator and BCD.

  • The arctic is also extremely isolated and once you are there, there is no place to drive or fly to for help, so there needs to be a full medical setup and someone who can carry out medical treatment if it is needed. On our last dive day, for example, I fell and fractured 2 ribs.  Though not life threatening, this is an extremely painful injury that requires painkillers and strapping to secure the damaged area. Something as simple as an upset stomach can become very serious so heed this warning and prepare yourself and crew.

  • The cold can also affect your ability to think clearly so never make rash decisions without considering the consequences.

  • Though not essential, some form of weather information is really helpful.  We were often on the ice and caught in intense snowstorms and fog.  These can be life-threatening conditions especially when you are up to a mile away from the vessel you reside on.  On one dive day the conditions were so intense and the surface ice so slushy and covered with deep snow we actually considered abandoning our gear to get back to the ship.  You truly question yourself and character in these situations.

  • Last but not least, you need a "bear watch" since this is Polar Bear turf.  A scuba diver would be like a buffet brunch that could feed an entire family for a week.  Remember these cute and fluffy animals weigh in at 650lbs – 1700lbs and they can take down a full grown seal or walrus, so a human is really a simple challenge.

Here is a video that illustrates some important items to bring with you to the extreme cold.

The arctic also presents technical challenges since you are shooting in extreme light and dark conditions at the same time.  Lighting for both still and video is essential at all times, and multiple strobes are a given for stills while powerful LED or HID lights can make all the difference for your video.  

The big issues, however, are reflectance and color balance.  Ice is really reflective but the irregular shapes also create extreme angles and shadows.  There is also a real extreme color fluctuation in arctic water and though it tends to be extraordinarily clear there is still algae and ice particulate that can cause scatter and color changes in an instant.

I found it necessary, and nearly always do, to color balance the camera for every shot.  A white card isn’t always needed for this but a great trick is to wear white fins so you can re-balance quickly.  Remember that your dexterity is restricted with the gear and cold so make it easy on yourself when it comes to adjusting your exposure and camera settings.

Also remember that you are working in what is essentially an overhead environment but there is no bottom.  Proper buoyancy control is critical and familiarization with your drysuit and how to control it will really pay off when your fingers are numb and you can’t feel what you are touching, like the deflator valve…

All this being said, diving in the arctic is an incredible experience and a rewarding challenge.  Preparation is essential and lots of experience in cold water will only make the experience more satisfying.  I hope you enjoy this film on the Arctic.


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