There is more to underwater photography than owning a fancy camera system. Knowledge and level of experience has more to do with taking a great picture.


Photo Equipment – Past to Present

My entry into underwater photography began in the late 1970’s with a Nikonos II and UW 28mm Nikkor lens. I soon graduated to the Nikonos IV model when it first appeared along with a UW 15 Nikkor lens. By the mid 1980’s, I became increasingly interested in housed camera systems for macro work to which I invested in a TUSSY housing for one of my manual Nikon FM SLR film bodies with 60mm lens. Since then, I have transitioned through a wide range of systems between Nikon and Canon and have explored medium format systems such as the Mamiya and Hasselblad. I also developed lasting relationships with a number of underwater housing manufacturers including Oceanic, Aquatica, Nexus.

When asked what brand of photographic equipment I prefer, my view is that camera bodies and lenses are merely tools for a trade, not a religion!

As film gave way to the digital realm, both Nikon and Canon were my primary go to choices. There was even a time I was given access to Hasselblad’s 50-megapixel 645 D3D II DSLR medium format cameras with a non-production prototype underwater housing. The digital era also issued in a new range of housings from Seacam, Subal, and Nauticam.

Nauticam Housing for a Nikon D850 DSLR Camera.

Nauticam Housing for a Nikon D850 DSLR system with two Retra Prime underwater strobes setup for blackwater macro photography.

My current system consists of Nikon’s 45.7MP FX-Format D850 DSLR camera bodies with a range of optics from Nikon’s 60 and 105mm f/2.8 ED G series micro lenses for macro subjects on up through a range of wide angle and telephoto glass to 200mm.

For underwater applications I use Nauticam’s NA-D850 underwater housing specifically designed for Nikon’s D850 DSLR. My preference for Nauticam is of a practical nature because they have wide range of ports and extension rings to accommodate a broad spectrum of lenses, with focal ranges from super-wides like full-frame fisheyes down to 105mm macro lenses. In addition, their offering of Water Contact Optics for extreme macro to wide angle is broad enough to capture something as large as a whale making it a hard brand to beat.

Augmenting this system is Nikon’s famous Nikonos R-UW 13mm prime fisheye lens, which has been heralded as one the sharpest underwater wide-angle prime lenses ever made. This lens has been modified to work with my Nauticam housed Nikon D850.

Retra Strobe review

Click on the image above to visit my review of these strobes in my blog.

While optics play a highly important role in underwater photography, lighting is equally critical. If you don’t have the light to illuminate your subject properly underwater you will likely end up with nothing at all.

To fill that gap, I am currently using Retra’s Prime model flash guns, which feature the world’s first fully circular flash tube available in underwater strobes. So far, I have found the lighting from them highly pleasing on subjects in terms of color temperature and smooth converge including those prone for showing hot spots like schools of fish with silvery reflective sides.


Desktop Postproduction

High-end digital camera system is just the first half of the equation. You also need to have the right hardware and software along with the skills to use for post processing all that imagery. For this purpose, my current photo editing system is 5k 27-inch iMac with the 3.6 GHz Intel i9 processor equipped with a Radeon Pro Vega 48 8GB graphics card and 128GB of 2667 MHz DDR4 memory.  

Software includes the Adobe Creative Cloud suite with Photoshop, InDesign and Acrobat Pro for photo editing and graphic design purposes.


Diving Background

My interest in the underwater realm began at a very young age, with the most significant leap taking place at age 11 when I began collecting my own tropical fish for a saltwater aquarium. By the mid 1970’s I received my open water scuba certification, which lead to a PADI Divemaster rating in 1979. My interests led down multiple paths that included underwater photography, which then expanded into photojournalism.

List of certifications

  • 1976 – NASDS Open Water Scuba
  • 1979 – PADI Advanced Open Water Scuba
  • 1980 – PADI Divemaster
  • 1998 – TDI Basic Nitrox
  • 1999 – SSI’s Platinum Pro 5000
  • 2000 – TDI Drager Semi-Closed Rebreather Diver
  • 2001 – NACD Full Cave Diver
  • 2003 – IANTD Inspiration CCR Diver
  • 2006 – TDI KISS Air-Diluent CCR Diver
  • 2006 – TDI KISS Mixed Gas Diver
  • 2009 – SDI Open Water Scuba Instructor
  • 2009 – TDI Nitrox Instructor
  • 2011 – TDI KISS Rebreather Air-Diluent CCR Instructor


Diving Equipment

My move into the technical field of diving did not begin till 2000 after completing a NACD Cave Diving course taught by one of my early mentors, Harry Averill. 

While I had learned to dive semi-closed rebreathers on a Drager Dolphin the same year, my interest in diving fully-closed perked in 2001 when I encountered a large lemon shark aggregation off Jupiter, Florida. At the time, such a behavior by this species was completely unknown. Documenting this unique behavior was difficult, as these particular lemon sharks were easily scared away by the sound of bubbles escaping from a regulator, much like the schooling hammerheads in the Eastern Pacific. To vastly improve my odds, I transitioned from the Drager semi-closed to a fully closed Inspiration rebreather in 2003.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t see myself as “technical diver”, but I will say that I use tech to dive the way I like.
KISS Classic Rebreather

Walt Stearns diving his KISS Classic Rebreather. Photo by Mike Bartick

In the following years, I found that like a number of the underwater cinematographers I know, diving a closed-circuit system was a valuable asset for photographing wildlife as it makes the diver less obtrusive and more tolerable to marine life. Not only did I find that I could work closer to my subjects without scaring them off, but I also had the added ability to stay where they were for a longer period of time. As my taste for diving rebreathers grew, I looked into the KISS Sport MCCR made by KISS Rebreathers. Compared to the Inspiration Rebreather I was first trained on, the KISS Sport’s rather simplistic design introduced me to the merits of a mechanical CCR system. 2010 I had upgraded to the KISS Classic. In addition to providing a better breathing system than its predecessor, the Classic is both highly robust and remarkably easy to service, even in the field. As a result of its highly reliable nature, the Classic still remains my sole closed-circuit system of choice for CCR diving.