BOUTAN, Louis, Ph.D.

France (1859-1934)

Last updated: March 22, 2020 at 22:27 pm

Marine biologist; hardhat diver; inventor of one of the first underwater camera housings in 1893; took the world’s first underwater self-portrait (selfie) using a Detective camera inside a wooden housing that he designed with his brother Auguste; used the first underwater flash bulb designed by Frenchman Chauffour in 1893; Boutan and Joseph David later designed and improved a more reliable and much larger housing that weighed approximately 180 kg (400 lbs) in air; author of La Photographie Sous-Marine (1900), a book on underwater photography; defended his doctoral thesis on the anatomy and development of the mollusk Fisurella alternata in Banyuls in 1886; became a professor at the University of Lille in 1888; was the assistant of Professor Henri Lacaze-Duthiers at the Sorbonne Faculty of Sciences in Paris in 1892; worked at the research stations in Roscoff and Banyuls where he bred and studied the mollusk Haliotis; began to hardhat dive to observe the mollusks in situ when it was found that they did not survive in aquariums after reaching adulthood.

“The strangeness of these undersea landscapes made a very great impression on me, and I thought it regrettable that that I could not translate it except by a description that was more or less accurate, but necessarily incomplete. I would have liked to bring back a more tangible souvenir from these undersea explorations; but it would not have been really possible, however good a diver one was, to do a drawing, even a rough outline, underwater.” — Louis Boutan (1900)


The boat being anchored securely to the bottom and kept stationary with the help of a series of cables fixed to the rocks of the coast, I put on my diving suit and went in at the point chosen in advance as the center of operations. After having landed at the desired depth, I signaled the captain to lower the different parts of the photographic equipment. On the end on a line I received the iron platform, the copper-covered camera, and a weight to anchor everything. The view chosen, I would set up the base of the apparatus at leisure and arrange the camera in such a way as to have only to press a button to open the shutter. This done, I sent another signal to the captain who held the lifeline in his hand. This signal indicated that the exposure had begun, and I would wait patiently for the captain to indicate the end of the operation. You understand, of course, that it is impossible or, at least, very difficult without a special gadget, to take a watch down in a diving suit to time the exposure. Thanks to the method that I had adopted, this difficulty was overcome; the captain’s job was to consult his watch and warn me in time. It was thus that the photographs were obtained, after exposures that lasted up to a half-hour. — Louis Boutan (1900)

Submarine Photography by John Humphrey
Scientific American Volume 69 Number 16 (October 1893)

Several of the difficulties experienced in endeavors to ascertain the natural relations of objects existing at considerable depths under water have been overcome by M. Louis Boutan, in a remarkably ingenious manner, and the contrivances he adopted are described in a recent communication to the Paris Academy of Sciences.

He prefers to use a small camera in which several plates can be exposed consecutively, and incloses this in a rectangular, water-tight metal box, into the sides of which plates of glass are inserted to serve as windows. The camera can be so disposed that the lens may face all the windows in turn, if desired, and exposures are regulated from outside the metal case. To avoid any ill effects that might be caused by differences in the internal and external pressure when the apparatus is sunk in deep water, a kind of balloon filled with air is connected with it. As the pressure increases, in descending, the balloon is compressed, extra air is thus forced into the box, and the pressure on its walls equalized. A stout foot to support the apparatus and weights to sink it complete it for practical purposes.

In water near the shore, not greatly exceeding one meter in depth, the apparatus can be conveniently fixed, without the operator needing to enter the water, and, by direct sunlight, good negatives can be obtained in ten minutes. When the water is deeper the operator must descend in diving costume to fix the case securely on its stand before commencing the actual work of photography. In calm, bright weather photographs can then be obtained by direct sunlight in from thirty to fifty minutes. Colored glasses, preferably blue, must be interposed between the objective and the water, in order to obtain sharp images.

By the use of artificial light to illuminate the surroundings, however, matters are still more simplified. To this end, M. Boutan has contrived a special magnesium lamp. A cask of two hundred liters capacity is filled with oxygen gas, and on its upper end is fixed a spirit lamp, which is covered by a bell glass. A vessel containing magnesium, in powder, is connected with this lamp in such a manner that the metal can be projected across the flame by the action of a rubber ball which serves as bellows. The oxygen gas, of course, is intended to assist combustion, and the lamp having been lighted and covered by its protecting globe, the cask simply requires weighting to sink it.

Good instantaneous negatives have thus been obtained by M. Boutan during a violent storm, when no day light could penetrate the depths. They are lacking as regards background, but this he attributes to imperfections in the apparatus, particularly the objective. He also found it necessary to place before the lens a diaphragm of very small aperture to secure a sufficient degree of sharpness. If a formula were calculated for an objective, the front of which might be exposed to sea water, he thinks these drawbacks might be remedied.

As it is, he has proved that photographs can be taken in a brief time under water, in calm weather, by direct sunlight, at depths up to six or seven meters; while, by the use of his special lamp, they can be taken, instantaneously, at any depth that can be conveniently reached by a diver, weather is of no importance.

Contrary to popular belief, Boutan did not take the first underwater photo. The first underwater image and the first half & half image (split shot, over-under) were taken by Englishman William Thompson in 1856.

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