First underwater photo

Last updated: March 23, 2020 at 19:14 pm

1856 — William Thompson (UK) took the world’s first underwater photo in the Bay of Weymouth. The camera inside a housing made of wood and iron was mounted on a tripod that was lowered to a depth of 5.5 m (18 ft) by means of a rope. Thompson got the idea while watching a wave-battered bridge from a public house. He used the collodion process to take the single photo. Total exposure time was 10 minutes during which the camera flooded. The plate was removed and rinsed in freshwater but it still produced a weak underwater photo of the bay. Although the image was by no means a masterpiece, it was nonetheless a technical success. The world’s first underwater photo was also the first half & half image (split shot, over-under). No other attempts were made until Frenchman Louis Boutan‘s experiments in 1893.

“Should a pier of a bridge require to be examined, you have but to suit your camera, and you will obtain a sketch of the pier, with any dilapidations; and the engineer will thus obtain far better information than he could from any report made by a diver.” — William Thompson (1856)


The plan I adopted was very simple. Mr. Kenyon and myself, were weatherbound for a few hours at the Portland Ferry Bridge House, and in a room looking on the Fleet water, that was running like a mill-stream through the bridge, within thirty yards of our window.

I was musing, as persons in our then unfortunate condition (namely, weatherbound, and two miles from home and dinner) will muse; and my thoughts wandered to the effect the great force of the Fleet water would have on the piles of the bridge. I passed in review the piles carried away; and the diver’s aid called in to examine the amount of submarine damage, and the difficulties and expense which necessarily follow; and the idea occurred to me that the camera might considerably assist us.

I mentioned the idea at once to my friend Mr. Kenyon, and we agreed to test its value at the earliest opportunity. We partially succeeded at our first and only attempt, but non-amateur occupation has, for the present, prevented my further experimenting.

I will now give you an outline of the plan on which I proceeded. I knew that, could we sink a glass plate, prepared with collodion, to the bottom of the sea, in theory there was no reason why we should not obtain as good an image as we do on land, provided the sea water could be kept from the camera, and that the light was sufficient. I was not sufficiently versed in optics and chemistry to know whether or not the water obstructed any and what light rays.

Following my idea, we made a box as nearly water tight as we could, and large enough to enclose the camera. This box is fitted, in front with a piece of plate glass, and on the outside is a wooden shutter, heavily leaded, and which is raised by a string attached to it and communicating with the boat.

On each side of the box is an iron band, terminating in a screw, and projecting beyond the back, which is loose, and fitted with an iron bar, having a hole at each end, through which the screws of the band pass, and thus the back is screwed down tight against the body of the camera by means of a nut; the inner surface of the back is padded, so as to make the camera box, as far as possible, watertight, when the back is screwed into its place.

The box is fixed to an iron tripod, and a band, with an eye on its upper margin, is passed round both camera, box, and stand; to this eye is attached the rope that lowers the camera to the sea bottom, and by which it is raised. This is the whole of the apparatus employed.

The first thing to be accomplished is to focus the camera, which is done as follows: The camera is placed in the box on the shore, and a view is focussed, taking as the foreground an object at ten yards distance. This I did with the view now sent, but I fear it is too much. I then fix the stand by means of a triangular wooden frame forced up between the legs of the tripod stand, and which is prevented from slipping down by being attached to the top of the tripod by a line; this keeps the camera frame the exact distance from the ground that it was when focussed on land, and the camera being focussed for the same distance, it stands to reason that, provided the optical and chemical properties are the same, we shall obtain a similarly good picture.

The next thing to be done is to prepare the plate and enclose it. The plate is prepared with collodion, in the usual way, under a tent. It is then placed in the camera (my camera used for this purpose takes a plate 5 in. by 4 in.). I then take the camera to the box and stand, and throw a black cloth over all. I examine the shutter in front of the camera box to see that it is tight; then, uncapping the camera under the cloth, I place it in the box, and finally draw up the slide. I then push the camera completely into the box, until the front of the lens presses against the plate glass front of the box, and screw on the back tight. The camera is thus, light tight, and properly focussed; and nothing remains to be done but to lower it to the bottom of the sea.

Up to the present point everything has been done on land. We now lash the whole of the apparatus, properly set, to the stern of the boat, and, when we arrive at the proper spot, sink the camera. By means of the lowering rope we can find when the camera is upright at the bottom. When satisfied on this point, we raise the shutter in front of the camera box, by means of the string attached to it, and the other end of which communicates with the boat. The camera is now in action.

The time I allowed for my negative was ten minutes, and you will perceive it is a weak one. It took some time to develop with 3 grains of pyro-gallic acid to the ounce.

There are one or two points worthy of notice as having occurred in the experiment. The first is, that the image is formed on the plate in its natural position, and not inverted. From this it would appear that the piece of glass in front of the camera box, and the water conjointly, act in the same way as a parallel mirror.

Another fact is, that the salt water does not materially injure the plate. With all my care, the great pressure at the depth to which I sunk my camera forced the water into the camera itself, and covered the collodion plate. When I opened the camera and found it full of water, I despaired of having obtained a view; but it would appear that salt water is not so injurious as I had feared. I took the precaution of washing the plate gently with fresh water, and then of dipping it for an instant in the silver bath. The plate was exposed for ten minutes on an ordinary day in the month of February; it took nearly the same time to develop with pyro-gallic acid, using Horne and Thornthwaite’s collodion; you will see the negative is a weak one.

I would draw your attention to the line of demarcation between the water and air, which is very visible. The plate was the second one I tried; the first I exposed for five minutes, and obtained no image; and by the time I exposed the one I now send, the light had become very bad. I have not since made a trial, although I have had a better apparatus constructed. The view was taken in a nook of the bay of Weymouth, which is bounded by a ridge of rocks not rising in ordinary tides to nearly the surface of the water. The area within is of sand and boulders, and thickly clothed with sea weeds, such as Laminaria saccharina, Chondrus crispus, Ryliphlaa, and many other species. This will assist you in deciphering the photograph.

This application of photography may prove of incalculable benefit to science. We may take (to a reasonable depth) sketches of submarine rocks, piers of bridges, outlines of sandbanks, in fact, everything that is required under water. Should a pier of a bridge require to be examined, you have but to suit your camera, and you will obtain a sketch of the pier, with any dilapidations; and the engineer will thus obtain far better information than he could from any report made by a diver.

My object in studying photography is in order to illustrate objects of Natural History, as I unfortunately cannot use my pencil. I enclose you a sketch of the lumpfish, Cyclopterus lumpus, caught on the Chesil beach, an which is not a common fish.

— William Thompson, Weymouth, May 6, 1856

THOMPSON, William. May 9, 1856. On Taking Photographic Images Under Water. Journal of the Society of Arts. pp. 425-426.

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