The Tallahassee, Florida region lays claim to a unique topographical feature – the Woodville Karst Plain. The karst plain is made of irregular limestone and underground water channels which are tied into the Floridan Aquifer. The Woodville Karst Plain is home to first magnitude springs, sinkholes, and the longest underwater cave system in the United States. As such, the region has great appeal to a courageous and adventurous type of person – the cave diver.
Tallahassee magazine was featuring in a story a local couple who cave dives – Aletheia and Andre Lange – whom I was to photograph. While I would have loved to photograph them in action in an underwater cave, I am in no way trained to do so, nor do I own an underwater camera housing. Still, I wanted to take an environmental portrait of them in the water. But how?
With the poor man’s underwater housing! By enlisting the help of a small, 10 gallon aquarium, I could achieve a partially submerged look for under $15. I placed the camera inside the aquarium with a wide-angle lens, sans lens hood. Next, I gaffer-taped the lens to the glass to hold the camera in place and prevent reflections. By tethering the camera to a laptop, I could see what the camera was seeing and control the camera settings as I carefully dunked the aquarium a few inches into the water. Bisecting the lens with the waterline gave me a frame partially above water and partially underwater.
Please keep in mind if you use this technique that you are entrusting thousands of dollars of water-shy electronics to a cheap, glass box. While it can create a unique look, I don’t necessarily recommend you try it, so please use caution! Place water absorbing material such as paper towels inside the aquarium to soak up any drops of water from splashes, keep a dry towel handy, oh, and carry plenty of insurance.
I took the portrait of the Langes at Church Sink in Tallahassee, Florida. I was perched on a rock ledge in shallow water, my legs, camera/computer aquarium setup, and the photo subjects were all hanging over a deep drop-off.
I lit the divers with one speedlight shooting through an umbrella, placed above and in front of the divers with a long pole held by assistant creative director Saige Roberts. Interestingly, the divers maintained their correct floating height in the water throughout the shoot by using a breathing technique paired with adjustable air bladders in their wetsuits.
An underwater cave resides in this sinkhole and the Langes actually dived it that night after the photo shoot. When I inquired while packing up my things at dusk, they told me with a chuckle that it doesn’t matter what time of day or night one cave dives; it’s always dark underground.
An earlier use of the aquarium technique produced the cover image for Forgotten Coast Magazine’s 2009 edition, featuring an environmental portrait of Jack Rudloe of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab with a green sea turtle in Panacea, Florida.
To view some amazing cave diving photos, check out Wes Skiles’ photography website. A very talented photographer, Wes tragically succumbed to the dangers of diving in 2010 while on assignment for National Geographic in Florida.