What Shooting Black & White Film Underwater Taught Me

A lesson-learned experience while shooting Kodak Tri-X 400 film underwater with my trusty Nikon L35AW camera.

Kodak professional tri x 400 12 05 2023 000253900033

The Context

In October and November of 2023, my friend Eric and I co-DP’d (Director of Photography) our first narrative feature film, written and directed by our friend Jay Worsley. We’re going to chat about this experience at length on Rally Caps, if you’re curious to hear more about it, but one of the scenes we filmed for the movie was underwater — so I thought it would be fun to bring my trusty Nikon L35AW to shoot with, as we also filmed. I love creating imagery in and around water, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to shoot more underwater film.

The Setup

At the pool, we draped a large 20’ x 10’ sheet of black fabric in the pool to create a dark backdrop, and we rigged an Aputure 1200D Pro with a spotlight attachment to provide a powerful, focused light.

Because we were the DPs for this film, my primary focus was to operate our main camera and get the shots we needed, but I kept my Nikon L35AW loaded with some TRI-X 400 close by for when Eric and I traded on and off takes.

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As you can see below… this was a lot more challenging than I initially expected!

Getting scans back from your lab and seeing mostly out-of-focus images is… definitely not the best feeling. Admittedly, I didn’t have very high expectations to begin with, but it was still deflating to come out with only one or two in-focus images from everything underwater.

I love how these shots turned out, even if they aren’t exactly what I had in mind going into this shoot. On the plus side, I love how the images above water turned out because they’re tack sharp, very dynamic, and have loads of texture from the water reflecting light everywhere.

Moment Kodak 8667073 Professional Tri X 400 Film TX135 36 thumbnail


Professional Tri-X 400 Black and White Negative 35mm Film

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The Lessons

So, we’ve already concluded that I’m a little disappointed with the results, but I didn’t want to stop there. After analyzing the scans more and reflecting on my shooting approach, I’ve decided on three key areas that I could work on to improve the next time I do this.

  1. Shoot a higher-speed film.
    1. I was only shooting 400-speed film for this shoot (Kodak TRI-X 400), and because the L35AW is fully automatic, I had no control over my settings. My shutter speed was slower than I would have liked it to be, and the aperture was wide open for each shot, which didn’t give me much wiggle room when I missed my zone of focus. Using a 1600 or even 3200-speed film would have given my camera the headroom to use a faster shutter speed and tighter aperture, which definitely would have helped me achieve more in-focus images.

  2. Zone focus above water.

  1. The autofocus in my Nikon L35AW doesn’t work underwater, which I believe is the case for most underwater film cameras. Because of this, you need to zone focus, and I was flipping around between different zones as I was underwater to try to guess where I was in relation to our actor. But depth is tricky to gauge underwater, and there were a dozen other things that I was trying to do while taking these photos, so adding the variable of constantly changing my zone probably wasn’t wise. In the future, measuring for one zone above water and sticking to that should hopefully help.

3. Practice holding my breath underwater.

This one might be obvious, but better breathwork is a must for working underwater! It’s easy for that panicky, running-out-of-breath feeling to dictate your actions while underwater. I didn’t feel like I could be very creative while I was shooting because all I could think about was how much air I had left. I plan to increase the amount of time I can hold my breath underwater, and, maybe more importantly, practice releasing air to reduce my natural buoyancy, sink down, and stay more still. Definitely easier said than done!



The Takeaway

Even though I’m not thrilled with the final results, I’m happy I tried this. I wanted to share these imperfect results because I want to document my own growth as a photographer and go against the grain (wink) of only sharing the best images we create. Thanks for being here, for reading this, and if you have a second, maybe consider subscribing to my YouTube channel, linked above. See you in the next one!

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