Located along the equator in the remote Indian Ocean, 1,192 distinct islands make up the Maldives, a world renowned destination for diving. The incredible reefs and crystal clear water are home to thousands of species of fish, including massive manta rays and whale sharks. Recently, a handful of friends had decided to meet up in the Maldives for a couple weeks to dive, and as I hadn’t seen some of them in quite some time I decided to jump on board at the last minute. With 20 rolls of film and my Nikonos V, no less.
Photographing underwater tends to be a shot in the dark for me most days, even after a decade of experience. I first got into shooting in the water through surfing, so naturally during the emergence of action cameras I started out with a GoPro 2, sometime around 2012. From there the hobby followed me to university in Southern California where I lucked into a DSLR with a water housing to shoot at the Wedge, a huge and famously volatile wave. Now, after selling my digital rig, I’ve spent the past three years using the legendary Nikonos V while freediving.
The Nikonos V can be frustrating, forcing shaky metering and range focusing—the fact that I never bothered to attach the separate viewfinder hasn’t helped—but I think this lack of control is actually what is so alluring. It leaves me with little idea of what will actually happen, especially when I use the 15mm lens. I’m more or less guessing with it. But using the wide 15mm lens gives me a lot of room for error even when I’m holding the camera out in front of me and not looking through the viewfinder. It hasn’t really let me down. Well, not that I’ve realized at least.
One thing that has helped me keep some semblance of control while shooting film underwater is pushing Kodak Portra 160 to 800, which I learned from following photographer Megan Barrett. The process of pushing film refers to setting your light meter to a higher ISO than your film is rated for, allowing you to use your camera at higher shutter speeds or in more dimly lit places. In the case of shooting underwater, both are essential. Plus, as an added bonus, pushing film increases vibrancy and grain, which is especially helpful if you want to try converting images to black and white in post.
This process of pushing Portra 160 to 800 has become the only way I’ll photograph underwater, because I like the way it looks and I need one consistent thing for my peace of mind.
My first adventure into pushing film underwater in Mexico a while back didn’t go nearly as well as I had hoped, so I felt the need for redemption as I packed for the Maldives. I brought 20-something rolls of Portra 160 with 800 Sharpied to the side of them. If I forgot this step, which is a terrifying thought, the lab would develop the film for box speed, leaving me with nothing but black rectangles.
Thankfully, my images from the Maldives came out just as I had hoped.