A Brief History of Underwater Imaging

by Dr. Asım Dumlu

Underwater Imaging: An Overview

The history of underwater imaging is a fascinating journey that spans several centuries, evolving from rudimentary sketches and paintings to advanced digital technologies. Here's an overview of key milestones in the history of underwater imaging;

Early Drawings and Paintings (15th-19th centuries): As long as humans have explored the seas, there have been attempts to depict underwater scenes. Early explorers and artists like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) created drawings and sketches of marine life and underwater landscapes based on their observations and imagination.

Leonardo da Vinci devised an early design for a diving suit whilst working as a military engineer. His bold plan involved divers attacking enemy ships from the depths of the ocean.

Jules Vernes used underwater illustrations in 1870 at his famous book of ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’.

First photograph of of the world by Joseph Nicephore Niepce shot in 1826 from his window. Was shot through 8 hours of exposure.

A photo shot by Daguerreyotipiyi technique

Niepce  three years after his invention – started to work with Louis Daguerrre and died in 1833.

In 1839 Daguerrre introduced his invention to French Science Academy with the name “Daguerreyotipiyi” and received the first patent.

Daguerreyotipiyi Camera

Temple Boluvard-1838: Shutter time was almost 10 minutes which is why cars in the street are blurred but the shoe painter is visible because he stood at the same location for more than 10 minutes.

Louis Daguerrre 1787-1851

1856 —First Underwater photograph shot by William Thomson. A pole-mounted camera was used at 6 meters, to photograph a collapsed bridge on the Coast of Dorset UK.

Early Underwater Photography (19th century): The first attempts at underwater photography date back to the mid-19th century. In 1856, William Thompson and Scottish physicist Sir John Herschel created the first known underwater photograph using a simple wooden box camera with a glass plate negative. However, these early attempts were challenging due to the limitations of technology and the need for bulky equipment.

Wilhelm Bauer – Germany photographed at the Russian coast with a submersible device in 1859.

Ernest Bazin – France photographed at the Spanish coast with his submarine in 1866.

Paul Regnard – Belgium made his own submersible device to photograph the underwater in 1888.

Louis Marie-Auguste Boutan (6 March 1859 – 6 April 1934) was a French biologist and photographer. He was a pioneer in the field of underwater photography. He understood the importance of light and the effects of pressure were the two major factors affecting underwater photography.

Louis Boutan

Louis Boutan and Joseph David with their two arch lamps

1893 Louis Boutan, photograph of Joseph David under the water

Louis Boutan used a lightly painted panel and used artificial light to expose fish properly.

Louis Boutan’s portraits were shot at three meters.

Louis Boutan’s portraits were shot at three meters.

Joseph DAVID-1898

William Saville-Kent photographing sea cucumbers in tubs of seawater on the Great Barrier Reef, 1893

William Saville-Kent photographing sea cucumbers in tubs of seawater on the Great Barrier Reef, 1893

Photographer Jacob Reighard photographing the underwater with a sealed camera 1907

Etienne Peau-1907 cylindrical underwater housing

Etienne Peau-1907 cylindrical underwater housing

1912-Jack Williamson used a 15 m deep steel pipe ending with a cabin where the photographer can work. He was very successful with his photographs and videos.

Drawing of the photosphere by J.E. Williamson, 1915, Chapman University Film Collection

1926 - Dr. William Longley and National Geographic Photographer Charles Martin’s first color images of the underwater. They used an Auto-Graflex 4x5.

There are five very important names in the development of the underwater photography

  • Niels Christensen (inventor of the o-ring) 1865-1952
  • Jacques-Yves Cousteau (inventor, oceanographer, filmmaker, and author) 1910 - 1997
  • Emile Gagnan (co-inventor with French Navy diver Jacques-Yves Cousteauof the Aqua-Lung, the diving regulator)1900 – 1984
  • Hans Hass (underwater documentary maker who emphasized the importance of observation of marine life ) 1919-2013
  • Jean De Wouters (inventor of Calypso Nikonos underwater cameras) 1905-1973