Underwater Photography Firsts

underwater photography

We’ve seen underwater photography and video advance rapidly since opening Lahaina Divers. Equipment has gotten smaller, lighter and more efficient. With different price entry points, just about anyone can take an underwater image. However, there were some important trailblazers that paved the way in developing the industry we know today.

First underwater photo

Englishman William Thompson is credited with taking the first underwater picture in 1856.  Incredibly, this image would be taken less than 20 years after the first topside photograph was recorded. Even though Thompson was a natural historian and considered an expert in marine life, the photo was taken for engineering purposes. While waiting out a storm in the Portland Ferry Bridge House in Dorset, England, pictured below, Thompson pondered the possible damage to the bridge’s underpinnings.

Portland Ferry Bridge, Dorset, England

Thompson had a carpenter build a box to encase his camera, with a glass plate on the front, with a shutter attached. This was mounted on a steel pole. The apparatus was lowered from a boat in Weymouth Bay. Thompson operated the shutter by a string from the boat. On the second attempt, he doubled the exposure time and created the first known underwater photo- of boulders and seaweed.

First underwater photograph taken on a wet colloidion plate in 1856 by William Thompson.

Although Thompson often used his camera to take above water still life photographs of marine life that he had dredged from the bay with his boat, he thought of underwater photography only as a useful aid in underwater engineering. He soon lost interest in taking underwater photographs. It would be about 40 more years before the first image is captured while diving.

First underwater photographer

The portrait is of Romanian oceanographer and biologist Emil Racovitza, and it was taken by Boutan in Banyuls-sur-Mer in the South of France.

Louis Marie Auguste Boutan successfully developed an underwater camera, with a welded metal frame, in 1893. Technically, he was taking underwater photographs at the that time, but some historians attribute the “first underwater portrait” by Boutan that you see depicted above was likely taken in 1899. That is the year he finalized a flash photography rig.

Obtaining enough lighting underwater was a big challenge. Above ground methods of flash photography were not possible. An engineer helped Bouton create a magnesium flash bulb, but it had the unfortunate habit of overheating and blowing up in his face. A new flashbulb was developed that was more reliable, but no less dangerous. This new flash used a rubber bulb that blew magnesium powder in a burning alcohol lamp. The flash apparatus had to be secured to a wooden barrel on the seafloor- very impractical for underwater photography.  

Boutan avidly developed and improved underwater photography equipment. He made cameras more compact and flashes more portable. Ultimately we switched to a system of dual, carbon-arc (electricity) lamps to light the scene for underwater photos.

The first successful diving helmets, such as the one in Bouton’s photo portrait of Racovitza, were produced by the brothers Charles and John Deane in the 1820s. However, they were invented to protect firefighters allow them to breath when entering smoke filled buildings. It is only later that the secondary use, as diving helmets, was added.

Another interesting tidbit. There are several accounts that Bouton’s photo exposure was 30 minutes long, at an estimate depth of 164 feet, causing Boutan and Racovitza to suffer from nitrogen narcosis. That may be why Bouton went on to invent a self-contained breathing apparatus that connected up to a diving suit so he did not have to remain on the sea floor.

A list of underwater photography firsts to explore further

  • 1856 — William Thompson takes the first underwater pictures using a camera mounted on a pole.
  • 1893-1899— Louis Boutan takes underwater pictures in Banyuls-sur-Mer, France while diving using surface supplied standard diving dress. He also develops an underwater flash and a remote control for deep waters using an electromagnet.
  • 1914 — John Ernest Williamson shoots the first underwater motion picture in the Bahamas.
  • 1926 — A photo of a yellow and black porkfish appeared in the 1927 National Geographic article that debuted the first underwater color photos. Photographers William Longley and Charles Martin took them using autochrome, the first viable method of color photography.
  • 1940- — Bruce Mozert begins to photograph underwater at Silver Springs, Florida in a style that would make the area famous for the next 30 years. The banner image for this story captures Mozert (right) in a imagined underwater photography school. CC license, photographer unknown.
  • 1957 — The compact underwater Calypso camera is developed by engineer Jean de Wouters to the specifications designed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau. It is first released in Australia in 1963. It features a maximum 1/1000 second shutter speed. A similar version is later produced by Nikon, with a maximum 1/500 second shutter speed and becomes the best-selling underwater camera series.
  • 1961 — The San Diego Underwater Photographic Society is established, one of the earliest organizations dedicated to the advancement of underwater photography.