How to get your feet wet with photography
Ryan Summerlin April 5, 2013
ASPEN – “Underwater Photography,” a new guide and photo book by former Aspenite Trent Burkholder, includes something of a cautionary tone. Taking photographs under the sea – adding camera and lights to the already long list of diving equipment needed for diving, making sure the gear is watertight – is not like snapping iPhone shots on dry land. Adding photography to the list of things a diver plans to do below the surface could interfere with a good scuba dive.
“It’s labor- and equipment-intensive. Enormous, insane logistics,” Burkholder said. “You have to weigh how important this is to you against how much stuff you’re willing to haul around. It’s a high level of commitment.” He then ticked off a daunting to-do list: greasing various O-rings, making sure the camera is free of sand and sediment, checking all the seals – and then redoing it all in between every dive.
For Burkholder, there was no weighing to be done. The first time he went scuba diving – in 1998, on a trip to Thailand, where he lived for four days on a boat to maximize underwater time – the first thing he thought about was the next dive, when he’d be able to bring a camera with him.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to learn how to do that,'” he said. “Seeing the beautiful stuff under coral reefs, the colors and variety and diversity of things, this massive, infinite, amount of stuff to search for and look at – I had to get a camera down there.”
Burkholder already had been hooked on photography. Growing up in Aspen, his father bought him a Polaroid instant camera, and Burkholder was fascinated with the way the pictures slid out of the contraption. He took photography classes at Aspen High School and at the University of Colorado, all the photo courses a non-fine arts major could take. Returning to Aspen after earning a degree in psychology, Burkholder took a job at the Walnut House, a photo store where a camera enthusiast could get serious training.
“There are a lot of good pro photographers in this town,” Burkholder said. “I picked their brains, worked with them on printing, looked at their work. And I had access to all this equipment.”
For the 1998 trip to Thailand, Burkholder was prepared to shoot temples and festivals. What he wasn’t prepared for was how much he’d fall for scuba diving off Thailand’s West Coast and Similan Islands. After those four days on the boat, which included a beginner’s course in underwater photography, he set out to improve his undersea skills, and within a year, he had booked a trip to Belize. There, he began learning that saltwater and cameras don’t mix, at least not easily.
“I had no guidance,” he said. “My early efforts were trial and error. But mostly error.”
In Belize, Burkholder was thrilled by whale sharks – and considerably less thrilled with the images he got of them with his basic point-and-shoot. He began upgrading his equipment, eventually getting a digital single-reflex camera. Digital has been an immense boost to Burkholder and anyone interested in shooting underwater; the constraints of 36 exposures on a roll of film are magnified by the fact that you can’t change the roll below surface.
In 2007-08, Burkholder lived in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, which afforded great opportunities to use his equipment and sharpen his technique. Thinking about his rough start in underwater photography, he began working on a guide book that would cover everything, from basic camera techniques to waterproofing equipment to how to approach marine life. He had a publisher lined up for the book, but the contract was canceled at the outset of the economic collapse. After returning to Aspen in the late ’00s, he fine-tuned the book and lined up another publisher, Schiffer. “Underwater Photography” was published in February.
“I thought, If I were starting over, what kind of book would I want?” the 43-year-old Burkholder said. “What one book would I want to buy that taught me about equipment, diving techniques, ecology, to have a good foundation?”
The book – which Burkholder will introduce Saturday, with a 5:30 p.m. event at Aspen’s Explore Booksellers – features not only guidance, but many examples of the author’s work. Burkholder says most beginning underwater photographers are attracted to the big creatures, like rays. He has grown to prefer macro stuff, the tiny sealife that requires some searching: “Finding these things that hide in the reef, zooming in on them, getting those details,” he said.
Living in Boulder, married with two young kids, and working as a certified addiction counselor for a rehab facility in Estes Park, Burkholder doesn’t get to dive as much as he used to. But when he does, his camera goes with him.
“I almost feel naked without the camera. You see this great stuff and all you want to do is shoot it,” he said. “I rarely dive without a camera. Not if I can help it.”