W. H. Longley and Charles Martin and Brian Skerry

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Underwater exploration is at the core of National Geographic’s mission. Coming up with solutions to the challenges inherent in this exploration is also part of the mission. One of the biggest challenges? Light. You need enough of it to photograph the deep, dark sea. Noted marine biologist W. H. Longley and Charles Martin, director of National Geographic’s photographic lab, experimented for months in the 1920s with ways to make images of fish when they finally succeeded. They produced the world’s first underwater color photograph in 1925. Editors boasted of the achievement on the cover of the January 1926 issue: THE FIRST AUTOCHROMES FROM THE OCEAN BOTTOM.

For Brian Skerry, underwater photographer extraordinaire, the challenge is to illuminate this underwater darkness without disturbing its inhabitants. Before digital cameras, Skerry explains, underwater photographers were limited to a single roll of film on a dive, as it was impossible to put a new roll of film in your camera while underwater. All that changed in the early 2000s with the advent of digital cameras. This advance in technology made a huge impact on underwater photography. A digital camera lets Skerry shoot thousands of frames on one media card, which he feels allows for far more creativity. He also enjoys much more flexibility working with digital equipment. With an easy click on his camera, he can change the ISO or ‘film speed’ to shoot in ever-changing underwater light conditions.   

Although camera equipment is far more advanced now, this lighting problem is the same for Skerry as it was for Geographic photographers a century earlier. Skerry and National Geographic photo engineers devised state-of-the-art camera housings and flash units to delicately illuminate tranquil scenes such as this whale shark swimming in the Pacific near Australia.