Wildlife and underwater with LF

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I'm interested in using a large-format camera to photograph wildlife and also things underwater. Yes, I know that many people may consider these difficult/impossible to photograph with LF, but I would really like to see a huge, sharp print of, say, a coral reef.

I know that a big problem in either type of photography would be focusing, but some animals don't move a lot and it would be possible to use a tripod underwater.

Underwater, the camera probably would need a separate tank to regulate the air in the bellows. Also, waterproofing everything would help.

Has anybody ever used a large-format camera for either of these purposes? Have you heard of anybody who has?


-- Matthew Runde (actorm@hotmail.com), January 29, 2002


Never heard of it being done - or even attempted. A tripod wouldn't be much good - and movement of the water at all would put undue strain on it, even if it was well weighted down.
Bellows is an even bigger problem. Why not a hard sliding case of some kind? Would be more rigid, and easier to waterproof.
Me 'tinks this would be much more trouble than it's worth.
Especially when you can accomplish nearly the same quality with a good medium format designed specifically for the task.

-- Matt O. (mojo@moscow.com), January 29, 2002.

On the pin-hole forum someone talked about using a paint can full of water, under water -- the theory being that it's OK for the film to get wet. A big sheet of film in a paint can. Maybe not what you want to do, but maybe a starting point. I was toying with the idea of putting a junk lens on a paint can to hyper focal -- fill the botom with cement and sit it on the floor. I'm afraid of water myself and have to hand it to you to be willing to dive. Dean

-- Dean Lastoria (dvlastor@sfu.ca), January 29, 2002.

What about something like the fixed focus Hobo style camera, no bellows movement needed.

-- James Christian (jcc928@aol.com), January 30, 2002.

The masters of underwater photography seem to be National Geographic. Their collector's edition 100 Best Photos has an underwater section where some of the photographers discuss the challenges of photographing underwater. They don't say anything about LF, but talk about the normal challenges of particles in the water, color shift, lack of light, and water pressure. I bet if anyone has done it, they have. If you're serious it might be worth trying to contact them.

-- Jennifer Waak (jen.waak@visi.com), January 30, 2002.

A fix wide-angle camera such as the Silvestry or Horseman or Sinar Handy, with an helicoidal mounted lens placed on the hyperfocal and a frame viewer in a custom waterproof case should work. The biggest problem is were to pull the dark slide, and also that you can take only *one* shot at a time!

-- Paul Schilliger (pschilliger@smile.ch), January 30, 2002.

This looks remarkably like a troll to me, ("would need a separate tank to regulate the air in the bellows" & "waterproofing everything would help"), but if the poster is serious which I doubt, it is at best a rather naive question.

As a professional wildlife photographer for many years, I can say that using a 4x5 for this is virtually out of the question, unless you drug the animals or get them to move very, very slowly. An RZ 67 or Pentax 67 is possible, but not easy.

As a professional divemaster and underwater photographer I can say that I have NEVER heard of anyone doing UW photography with a LF camera. This would be almost impossible and sounds idiotic to me. Even using MF with a good compact housing is difficult unless conditions are favourable.

As Paul says above, you could only take one image at a time if it were possible, so what do you do, dive down, shoot once and then surface, wait the appropriate surface time, then dive again and take another shot? I'd stick to using the LF on the surface if I were you.

-- Never test the depth of water with both feet.


-- Peter L Brown (photo_illustration@bigpond.com), January 30, 2002.

Matthew, Humm, it's a happy idea... I made some calculations; a 4x5 light camera emboxed, with lens etc. will fit in a custom made 10liters volume box, with a weight in surface about 3kg. the camera, plus 4kg. a box, total weigth 7kgs. You will need to add a minimum of 3kg. of extra weight to give negative floating to the system. If you want estability in depht, add another 5kg. (minimum) to the kit including the built in tripod, etc. At this time we have min. 15kgs. at surface. Without flash (just add another 2kg.) Lenses available: up to 75mm. with a real problem with DOF. Focusing is not a problem, just a bigger box (more weight). This if you work at a maximun depht of 10meters, more depht more weigth in a reinforced box or more in a system to give pressure to the box (problems with film) (You can use your tank for this). At last you would have a 20kg. system to make one shot each time!! I think this is not impossible, just too expensive!! I think the biggest format available with the highest quality/easy of use are the Hasselblad system... Have you tried underwater 35mm photography with tripod? (without flash)(I have obtained beautiful results... ) Good luck!

-- jose angel (acquatek@teleline.es), January 30, 2002.

it should work just fine if you have a submarine...

-- jnorman (jnorman34@attbi.com), January 30, 2002.

Anyone know what Brett Weston used for his underwater nudes? It sure wasn't 35mm.

-- Wayne DeWitt (wdewitt@snip.net), January 30, 2002.

Try a Cambo Wide 4x5, perhaps with graflock backs so you could do 6x7 or 6x12. If you want larger than 4x5, look at the Hobo or the Granview.

-- Roger Urban (roger.urban@exeloncorp.com), January 30, 2002.


You might also think about adapting an aerial camera with an electric roll film back

-- Wayne DeWitt (wdewitt@snip.net), January 30, 2002.

What Wayne says is a good point. You see sometimes Aero-Technikas for sale at a good price. But I am not sure how wide a lens the camera can take. It probably would take a lot of work and $ to have it fitted in a proper box.

-- Paul Schilliger (pschilliger@smile.ch), January 30, 2002.

Matthew, Check out the used book stores for books by Eliot Porter and any of the "how to" national Geographic books from the 50's or earlier. Porter used large format to photograph all sorts of animal and plant life above water. The issues are still the same, creating a proper blind, knowing the critter's habits, and good timing. The other respondents make the case well that underwater with a LF will be tough. However, if I recall correctly, Kodak made an underwater (shallow depth)8x10 Kodachrome for their giant Times Square station display. The setup was described in one of the 60's vintage How To series of pamphlets. It took an army of people and equipment to pull it off!

-- Andy Eads (aceads@3-cities.com), January 30, 2002.

Cathy Church at Cathychurch.com has been trying to come up with a system for several years. She is currently experimenting with a housed Rollei Sl66 but wanted to use sheet film for her B&W so that she could retouch the negative. The big problem is getting something compairable to the 13mm Nikonos lens for the 35mm RS. It has water contact optics and seems to preform better than a housed lens with a dome port. One quote she got was that a compairable lens for 4x5 would be bigger than a sports car, and cost more.

The reason you want extreme wide angle underwater is to minimize the amount of water between you and your subject. This is also important because you need to get your flashes close, as thats where the beautiful colors come from.

You might Email her but I think she has given up, and she did a lot of research.


-- Neal Shields (shields@ftw.com), January 30, 2002.

Brett Weston had swimming pool with a window.that he shot thru.-J

-- josh (oper_33@yahoo.com), January 31, 2002.

There are lots of articles (and book chapters) from the 40's and 50's on using Speed graphics and Graflexes for wildlife photography. I did a little with my Supergraphic on one trip to the Yukon when my Nikon FE battery died and left the shutter jammed (the ONE time I didn't have a spare).

If you really want to do underwater 4x5, a Graphics with a grafmatics holder would probably be the least impractical. But even 50 years ago, people used medium format. On the other hand, I have seen underwater cases for 35mm movie cameras, which are MUCH bigger than a 4x5. Aerial cameras are usually fixed focused with telephoto lenses, and so not so practical - plus 5" roll film is available only in Plus- X

-- John Lehman (al7jj@yahoo.com), February 01, 2002.

If you want to consider MF underwater, the 903SWC Hasselblad with an underwater housing (approx $5,000 new) would be a nice setup. Also, there are underwater housings for Pentax 67. I know, I know, it's not LF, but still it might be a viable alternative until you get your hands on a good LF underwater setup....

-- Roger Urban (roger_urban@yahoo.com), February 01, 2002.

Did some google searching, found the following:

Clyde Butcher has a link for large-format underwater photography, and I think he either built or is trying to build one himself. http://www.clydebutcher.com/links.htm

This is a link to an Underwater Large Format movie camera, that you might be able to modify: http://www.dolphinsfilm.com/Behind/UWCinematography.htm

-- Peter Chipman (chippete@yahoo.com), March 21, 2002.

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