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UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY IN KANSAS

by
GAROLD W. SNEEGAS


Kansas is not known for having gin clear waters; in fact it has been rated
as having the highest percentage of polluted streams and rivers in the
United States. This does not mean all of the streams are polluted. In a
few isolated areas of the state there are still a few clear, pristine
streams, Most of them are on private lands with very limited access and
are not noticeable from public roads.

Over the past few years I have met with land owners to gain permission to
explore some of these areas. This was not an easy chore as many land
owners have had major problems with trespassers and a real distrust for
any environmental organizations. As a condition to having continued
access to these streams, several land owners have requested that I do not
reveal their locations. The requests and conditions set by a land owner
are not only something to be followed but are also a form of protection
for the streams themselves.

The photographic equipment I use is really a hodgepodge of acquired
pieces form over 20 years of doing underwater photography. What I am
using would not be considered top of the line or state of the art. I use a
Nikonos II, with a flash port conversion that accepts Ikelite Ai and Ms
substrobes. I mainly use the Ms strobe as a slave. I use a Nikonos 35mm
lens with combinations of extension tubes, either 2:1, 1:1 or 1:2. In
addition I also use Hydro Photo T1, T2 or T3 screw mount close-up lens in
combination with the 35mm lens. This combination of combination of
lenses and tubes gives me a range of coverage area from approximately
3/4" by 1", 1,1/4" by 13/4", 21/4" by 31/4", 4" by 6" and 8" by 12" with
focal distances of three inches to fifteen inches. I also use a Nikonos
20mm lens, which enables me to photograph large subjects close-up. The
short focal lengths are extremely important in murky water. Unless the
visibility is over 10 feet I rarely photograph a subject more than 12
inches away from the lens.

I have used some of the newer automatic cameras in murky water
conditions and have found that when the camera takes an average reading
of the available light, you often end up with an average picture with a
murky background. There is a rule of thumb in underwater photography
that you should not try to photograph a subject any further than 1/4 of
your visibility. I have also found you will get a better image if the
background is not exposed more than a 1/4 of your visibility.

I use a strobe about 90% of the time, to control exposure, to bring out the
true colors and to photograph at night. Using a strobe also allows you to
use a high f/stop with a slow speed film to get the highest quality image.
I use Fujichrome Velvia slide film because I like the results and I can
develop it myself using E-6 processing.

There are some real disadvantages to underwater photography. Water
turbidity, temperature, depth and the behavior of your subjects limit what
you can do. When you are in a stream just about everything is moving,
fish, you, your camera and in riffle areas sometimes the bottom is moving.
Steadying yourself and your camera is something that is a matter of
practice and being comfortable in the aquatic environment you are in,

The greatest advantage to photographing fish underwater is that you can
capture their peak spawning colors and natural behaviors in a way that
can not be duplicated in an aquarium. You can not duplicate the varying
conditions of aquatic environments and the random interactions between
migrating fish species and other aquatic inhabitants,

Capturing an image of spawning male darters, displaying at their peak
moment of excitement in the wild, requires being in the right place at the
right time. You may be lucky and stumble onto this situation in a matter
of minutes or you may have to spend hours submerged in 50 degree water
monitoring an area. This brings up the need for a cold water exposure
suit. Neoprene wet suits are the most common suits used for diving in
cold water however I have found a high quality dry suit to be far superior.
If you are doing several dives a day in 50 degree water they are just about
a necessity.

After spending hours snorkeling in shallow streams, I have found it is
better not to use a weight belt, This adds a safety factor in that there is
no way you are going to sink into deep water and it enables you to float
into very shallow areas of a stream, without kicking up a lot of silt or
debris. One other advantage of wearing a dry suit, even in warm summer
months, is that it limits your exposure to parasitic critters such as
leeches.

Light refraction between air and water is a phenomenon that an
underwater photographer needs to be aware of. Refraction between the
air/water interface of a divers mask has the effect of making everything
a diver views appear 25 percent larger and closer. When you are
estimating the camera-to-subject distance underwater you are
estimating the apparent distance, the actual distance is 25 percent
further away. Because the submerged camera lens also has an air/water
interface the cameras' "view" is the same as the divers'.

Waterproof camera housings will either have a flat or dome lens port. If
you place a 28mm land lens behind a submerged flat port, refraction will
cause an image distortion and change the viewing angle of the 28mm lens
to that of a 35mm lens, Dome ports are designed to correct for this image
distortion.

The effects of refraction is something a diver has to adjust to, not only in
photography, but also in viewing aquatic life. There is no need to panic
when you see a snapping turtle that appears to be the size of a small truck
heading straight for you- its' not as big as it appears.

An interesting fact that I have learned about turtles is that fish are not
particularly afraid of turtles. In fact fish such as the Longear sunfish,
Lepomis megalotis, often follow turtles around looking for insect larvae
the turtles dislodge while they move around through bottom debris. In a
similar vein, when you first enter a pool and come upon a school of fish
they will usually scatter. After a few minutes if you glance behind you,
you may discover the entire school is swarming all over your legs and fins
feeding on debris and larvae you have stirred up. You can take advantage of
this behavior to photograph fish by acting like a big turtle. To do this you
need to be in an area with flowing water, such as the upper end of a pool
where a current is entering. Position your camera near the bottom and
gently start fanning the bottom in front of your lens with your free hand.
The current will carry the debris downstream, away from your lens, while
fish will move upstream to the source of the fanning, which is right in
front of your lens. You have to remain still and allow some time to past
for the fish to become accustomed to this huge new "turtle" stirring up
the bottom.

Some species of fish are so active and skittish during the day that they
are just about impossible to photograph. if you venture into the pool at
night you may find them laying motionless on the bottom. With a careful
approach you may be able to move close enough to photograph your subject.

In my efforts to understand and photograph the fishes of Kansas I have
found it necessary to explore their habitats not only during diurnal and
nocturnal periods but also during all the seasons. In doing so one also
becomes aware of the other inhabitants that coexist with the fishes. I
have not only enjoyed photographing the common aquatic organisms the
general public is familiar with such as crayfish, turtles, and insect larvae
but also some unusual invertebrates like freshwater sponges, bryozoans
and hydras.

The more I have learned about aquatic subjects, and how to look for them,
the more I realize I have barely began to cover of the number of subjects
there are to photograph in what appears to be nothing more than a simple
little stream. So next time you peer into the waters of a prairie stream
take a moment to consider the diversity of life within its waters and
appreciate the myriad of life contained within. Truly those waters are a
source of great beauty and wonderment.

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