Shannon Switzer is an award-winning photographer, published
writer, and National Geographic Young Explorer whose work focuses on
The first time I took a non-disposable camera with me underwater, I was studying abroad in Australia on the Great Barrier Reef. I had a point-and-shoot Olympus that was confined to land. After my first dive on the reef, I got an itch to share what I had seen with my friends and family back home. A few days later, I bought a dive housing for my little camera. I loved my set-up. I took pictures of surly sea snakes, turtles, impossibly bright nudibranchs, anemone with their defensive clownfish residents, and candid portraits of my friends looking suave in their dive gear.
Six months later, when I returned from Australia to finish my senior year in Santa Barbara, I started bringing my camera and housing with me into the surf, shooting friends and strangers alike catching waves. I would shoot for hours, until my body was numb to the core and my claw-hands could no longer fire the shutter. A year after that, I bought my first SLR camera and a new (expensive!) housing to go along with it. Since then my equipment has continued to evolve (and get more expensive), but the same sense of excitement that brought me to the water then with camera in-hand is what continues to bring me there now.
Shannon carries her first SLR camera underwater housing while diving above. Photo by Morgan Hoesterey.
For this reason, I find all of the camera gear on the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE expedition fascinating and mind-boggling. On the sub itself, there are two “booms,” which are basically long metal poles. One positions a powerful spotlight and two 2-D cameras that combine to capture 3-D footage, and the other, known as the “manipulator arm,” positions two cameras, which are used independently from one another. One is a wide-angle lens that corrects magnification of objects in the water, and the other films macro footage of small sea creatures. They both serve as an extension of James Cameron’s body, which he moves using hydraulics while he’s confined in the sub. According to Dr. Joe MacInnis, who is on site with the team, these cameras not only record 3-D footage and take high-quality stills, but they also act as Cameron’s eyes to the sea floor. Without them, he is essentially blind.
In addition to what’s on the sub, the team has two independent
“landers,” which again both have 3-D cameras, as well as 5-D Canons with
24mm wide-angle lenses inside a pressure-resistant glass sphere (I was
tickled to learn this, since the Canon 5D is my professional camera of
choice). These landers are ten feet (three meters) tall, weigh 1,000
pounds (455 kilograms) each, and can film the sub as it moves along the
ocean floor, as well as take stills and core-samples. According to
MacInnis, they give the team a lot of trouble, along with much of the
other complex equipment that’s part of the expedition.
night, the lander team is still working on the still and video cameras.
Bruno Brunelle and Adam Gobi have cables laid out in the ship’s main
hallway and are testing them for signal integrity,” he explains in the
Planning and Paddling post on DEEPSEA CHALLENGE. This is my experience
with photo and video gear–it always needs to be fixed and fine-tuned.
I’m secretly glad to learn that malfunctions plague the big guns, too!
And the big guns are on this trip. In their combined experience, John
Turner, Will Hewetson, Aron Walker, Sam Winzar, and Chris McHattie have
worked on numerous blockbuster and IMAX 3-D films, including their most
recent release, Sanctum.
Even for these guys, capturing 3-D
footage seven miles under the ocean is challenging and requires not only
the film equipment to be industrial strength, but also the lighting. A
wimpy flash doesn’t stand a chance at such depth, because traditional
strobes and flashes are gas-based and are crushed long before reaching
the ocean floor.
Cameron and crew have solved this problem by installing a 7-foot
(2-meter) wall of LED lights, which are solid-state devices, in
conjunction with oil-filled chambers. This combo shines beams of light
that slice through darkness like butter, and in clear water the LED wall
can illuminate to 100 feet (30 meters).
I get gear-envy when I
read about all of these gadgets and gizmos, and also can’t help but try
to add up all the dollar signs, which makes me dizzy. But even though
most teachers and parents won’t have access to a 3-D Epic Red Cam or a
snazzy SLR, there’s still lots of fun to be had with photography in the
classroom and at home. One of my favorite projects to do with a group of
kids is to create a photo scavenger hunt. It’s as easy as picking a
theme and creating a list of items for your eager participants to
photograph. It can be anything from “The Color Green” to something more
abstract like “Friendship.” If you’re a science teacher, you can make it
more specific with themes like “Water” or “Species Interactions.” The
beauty of the project is that you can base the theme and your list
around whatever topic you are covering in class. It’s incredible to see
the kids’ creativity blossom as they think of ways to satisfy the items
on the list.
From school or home, this project can provide a fun
field trip–or even a great way to learn more about one’s own back lawn
or schoolyard, discovering details previously unnoticed. Waterproof
cameras, which are relatively inexpensive now, can add a whole new
element to the activity. Play with them in a stream and see if you can
get pictures of tadpoles or crawfish–heck, even algae can be an
enigmatic subject with the right lighting! If you live by the coast,
take a trip to the local tide pools and see what creatures you can find.
Once the field part is over, the best part is just beginning. Now it’s
time to share with each other what you discovered and the images you