Patrick Baker: The Evolution of Underwater Photography

Video | Updated 7 years ago

Today, underwater photography is an important aspect of any shipwreck recovery. It allows us to discover the sites without physically going there, records the intimate details of the site for future generations when the wreck may have been moved or suffered further deterioration, and allows scientific study away from the wreck site using high-resolution images.

The history of underwater photography stretches back 120 years. It took the ingenuity of a pioneering Frenchman for humans to see their first fuzzy images of the world under the water. He plunged into the depths with a huge camera swathed in cumbersome waterproof casing. Thankfully, technology has advanced a little since then. 
In the last 60 years, underwater photography has taken off. This has allowed greater interaction between maritime archaeology and a fascinated public.

Throughout that period, underwater photography technology has advanced rapidly. In the beginning, underwater cameras were housed in waterproof boxes that often leaked. Hans Haas is credited with the design of an underwater camera that marine photographers considered the best for many years. It was relatively easy to use and took good quality photographs. As with other underwater cameras at the time, though, it was rather bulky and difficult to maneuver.

This all changed when a smaller style of camera was designed to be both waterproof (to a depth of 50m) and easy to carry. This was to be the camera that ‘freed up underwater photography,’ and was the first of many impressive technological advances within the field.

In the last decade, digital technology has revolutionized underwater photography. Image quality is better than ever before, which means that even amateur photographers can capture amazing images that, as Patrick Baker mentions, can be of a better quality than professionals who have been in the field for over forty years.

In a professional sense, though, many marine archaeologists still use cameras in waterproof housing. One such device is the digital single lens reflex camera, which allows the photographer to use a range of lenses for a variety of shots, from wide angles to extreme close ups. These are considered the Rolls Royce of modern underwater cameras.

Despite these advances, some small digital cameras are starting to bulky again. This is due to their increasing functionality, which allows the user to capture extremely detailed shots using 3D technology. This involves the bulk of two small digital cameras joined together to give a ‘stereo’ capturing range. The Western Australian Museum Department of Maritime Archaeology has been recording 3D underwater images for 35 years, and the images they capture today are better than ever before.

Patrick Baker says that very wide-angle lenses allow images to be taken through great depths of water in extreme detail, and observes that the quality of the images ‘is like having a physical model in front of you.’  The model he uses for underwater photography for the Western Australian Museum is functional as well as techy, as the two cameras can be detached and used individually.

We will continue to see advances in digital recording technology, which will allow us to see more of the world hidden below the waves than ever before. When we compare the first grainy images of marine life to what is known about the world’s oceans today, we can certainly say we’ve come a long way in understanding this amazing environment – but we also have so much more to discover.