Deep wreck photography with Leigh Bishop

Interview by Dave Moran

Deep Wreck Photography

Deep Wreck Photography

Deep Wreck Photography

Recently a team of international technical divers dived the wreck of the 159m long passenger liner RMS Niagara which was sunk by a mine laid by the German Raider Orion in the early hours of 19 June 1940 off the East coast of New Zealand’s North Island. (See issues J/J #100 and interview A/S#101) The dive team was based in the coastal resort town of Tutukaka which is the gate way to the internationally renowned Poor Knight Islands. On a non-dive day I had a chance to sit and have coffee with one of the most internationally respected deep technical divers who is also recognized for his photographic recording of de

Dave Moran (DM):

Leigh you have a world wide reputation for taking quality pictures of deep wrecks. How did that journey begin?

Leigh Bishop (LB):

The journey began back in 1996 when I began researching for a system that I could take deep – at least to 100m. This was before digital systems were developed to today’s sophisticated models. I bought an Aquatica housing which at the time was the only system rated to that depth. I use wide angle lenses on my Nikon F90x and F4 film cameras for all my wreck photography. Using 35mm slide film has produced constant, good results and because I write for several magazines that are happy with my work I have stayed with film. As they say, why break something that works. But I will eventually shoot digital alongside film if only for convenience.

One day I was working in the North Atlantic off the north coast of Ireland shooting stills. I was on the seabed at 70m, didn’t need a torch, perfect visibility. I could just see off in the distance a perfect looking bow, the nearest I’d seen underwater that resembled the bow of the Titanic wreck and I thought that is the image I want. How could I get that image?

The bow was on a wreck called the Justicia, a huge ocean liner, 32,000 tonnes, three times the size of the Niagara in New Zealand (see J/J issue #100). I took a shot with the camera set f 5.6 – 60th of a second with twin strobes. The result is a haunting effect of the bow coming out of the darkness. During the winter I thought about how to get a better picture. The more I thought about it the more it stared me in the face. Time exposure photography like people do on land. I would need to adapt a tripod to my underwater camera housing. I discovered Agfa’s Scala black and white slide film which is a fast film that you can pull and push during processing. I was pushing this film to 1600 speed. This film is very scarce now with the move to digital but nothing can compare to its great latitude and resolution that can be pulled from it.

I returned to the North Atlantic and set the tripod in front of the bow of the Justicia and pushed the shutter button letting the film, time and nature’s own light do the work for me! The result was spectacular! I then used ambient light to capture huge sections of wreckage everywhere.

After obtaining this excellent result I could hardly wait to photograph more wrecks. I went diving, shooting pictures of wrecks in good water visibility. Wartime cargo ships that had tanks sitting on their decks and numerous wrecks of all descriptions, it was a great time to be photographing wrecks that were just being discovered! I went back to the Britannic in 2003 which I had first dived in 1998 and photographed the props and rudder at a depth of 120 metres (395 ft). So I developed this method of photographing wrecks in black and white using long time exposures. Some were up to two minutes long, because at some depths the light levels were very low.


How do you counter for fish and diver movements etc?


In the Northern Hemisphere we do not have the number of fish that you have in the Pacific and I try to keep divers out of the shot as well. The divers that work with me on the wrecks know the concept and generally keep out of the camera’s view. When working with divers who are to be in the shot they know to be perfectly still while I take the shot.

Normally with fish I tend to wave my arms around like a break-dancer behind the camera to try and scare them away before taking the shot. Naturally it is impossible to prevent a fish swimming into the picture and getting a blurred effect. In my presentations I explain that to people.

I’ve built up a reputation in the Northern Hemisphere for shooting wrecks in black and white and this has led to giving presentations at many conferences and dive shows around the world. Although I speak at many European conferences, without doubt the best advanced diving show I speak at is the OZTeK conference in Sydney. I, as well as many others, am particularly thankful to organizers Richard Taylor of TDI and David Strike who if it wasn’t for them, we would not have such a world leader in such conferences. My presentations are delivered in a digital format using Power Point. The original format is 35mm slide film which I scan into my Mac for processing. The great majority of a digital photographer’s life is within Photoshop! I got my first copy of this programme in 1996 and there aren’t many days that I haven’t used it. You could use Photoshop everyday for three years and only discover 30% of what it does! With my Photoshop experience I consider myself a digital photographer but I like to have the original 35mm transparency in my archive to scan for a client anytime. Stored well. the original will outlast my lifetime. I often question: will the current technology for storing digital information/images be still viable in a decade’s time due to the rate technology is advancing? I have used several different high end digital systems but technology moves so fast, your system is obsolete within six months. Like most people I use a consumer camera for general stuff that’s not going to be published. I have a ion of film cameras but I will always keep one for the very special shots I need to take, such as an image that will to be blown up to cover a wall of an airport departure lounge.

I guess I’ll be one of the last traditional film people out there.

Shooting time exposures is not always suitable such as on the wreck of the Lusitannia at 93 metres in the blackness of the Celtic Sea. Unless I ‘paste’ the light myself as Simon Mitchell did with photographer Mike Wilkinson to obtain that fantastic example of this technique when they were inside Lermontov’s engine room. Trying to paint a picture of a wreck in darkness at depth is hard work. Working in such blackness is not as user friendly as working in a cave system.


How deep have you had the Sea and Sea strobes?


I’ve had them to over twice their depth rating of 60m to 135 metres on the wreck of the torpedoed ocean liner Transylvania in the North Atlantic. This was a fantastic ocean liner that many people travelled across the Atlantic on from Scotland to America in the swinging 1920s. She is resting upright in perfect visibility. I’ve shot a lot of pictures around her, particularly the bridge area with the beautiful telegraphs which are still standing proud.


Have you been involved in any documentary productions?


Just before I travelled to the OZTeK conference I was working with my very good friends John Chatterton and Richie Kohler (Shadow Diver fame. see issues A/S #98 and O/N #99). I’ve helped produce some of their Deep Sea Detectives television programmes which were filmed in the UK. I have also written proposals to get them interested in coming to film some of the wrecks I have discovered.

I’ve worked on particular shipwrecks such as the famous Flying Enterprise that was lost in 1952. We did a series on that and another old sailing ship called the Duke of Buccleugh. that was heading for Australia laden with china

In September 2006 I was on a special project with John and Richie on the Britannic for the History Channel. I was working as a deep film cameraman with one of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s high definition cameras. It was so big we had to crane the cameras into the water. The cameras had fibre optic cables running from 120 metres to the surface! One dive I spent 50 minutes on the wreck at 120 metres which gave me an in-water time of seven and a half hours! That kind of decompression is no fun but I did manage to get 50 quality minutes of footage in the can.

In the past, I’ve also appeared in documentaries for National Geographic, one in particular with Robert Ballard who found the Titanic. This documentary was about the Nazi Liner Wilhelm Gustloff that sank with approximately 10,000 people on board.

More recently I have been involved in a History Channel two hour special which was presented by John and Richie. We examined the differences between Titanic and her sister ship, Britannic.

I’m currently working with a UK documentary team in the search for a lost submarine in the Arctic Circle.

My advice to anyone is: we are living in the age of shipwreck discovery get out there and shoot pictures of shipwrecks before they collapse. There’s never been a better time to photograph them.


Thanks for your time Leigh. It is has been a wonderful journey for myself and our readers – most appreciated. Next issue we will discuss your vision for the future of diving.

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