The Magazine for Underwater Professionals

Mar/Apr 2017


Underwater imaging: up close and personal

Technological advances in subsea cameras are having a significant impact on the way we see the underwater world, writes Andrew Safer

A purple and yellow Paramuricea sea fan at 1000m depth, with a worm-like brittle star wound around its branches and a pink squat lobster. Photographed from the 'Alvin' submersible. Photo: Gulf of Mexico underwater clips as seen in Acid Horizon provided by Erik Cordes, Temple Univ/NSF/HOV Alvin 2014 WHOI

By pushing the boundaries of what is known about the deep blue sea, ocean science continues to reap the benefits of technological advances in underwater photography. When Brennan Phillips went to the Solomon Islands (southeast of Papua New Guinea) for National Geographic in the autumn, his focus was on coral reefs and midwater animals at a depth of 200 metres.

“Gelatinous zooplankton,” he says, “are animals that make light. There were single-celled dinoflagellates, jellyfish and fireworms (reef-dwelling organisms) that secrete a bioluminous mucous.” Also inhabiting the coral reef were flashlight fish whose light-emitting organs below the eye flashed on and off like marine fireflies.

On a previous trip, Phillips had photographed underwater volcanoes, hydrothermal vents and “amazing reefs that go down really deep”. A deep-diving ROV with frame, lifting boom and topside power that he would normally use on such an expedition was not available there, so he used a 24-foot (seven-metre) boat with battery-powered equipment and a lobster trap hauler, lowering it down the side with 400 metres of line. Durable fibre optics allowed communication with the cameras. He had a low-light camera he had developed himself, and all cameras were equipped with batteries.

“The trick is for your systems to be as small and compact as possible,” he notes, adding that the cameras have to work right out of the box, and not quit during the two- to three-week shoot. “They’ve got to survive in a high-humidity environment. There’s no lab to service them; you’re working in a jungle.”

A post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, USA, Phillips’ current biomedical research in the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory is focused on developing a deep-sea manipulator arm based on soft robotics. Having begun using underwater cameras in 2003, he now leads expeditions that are funded by National Geographic.


During Phillips’ career, the maximum-resolution underwater cameras available commercially have migrated from high-definition (1080 x 720) to 4K (4000 x 4000) – a fourfold increase. Asked what difference it makes when shooting underwater, Phillips says you can shoot the camera over a broader area and zoom in on specifics later. “When you’re doing this remotely, hung off a boat on a line,” he adds, “it’s really good because you don’t have to navigate to the exact spot, to the exact right angle.”

The higher resolution provides flexibility. “If the resolution is sufficient,” Phillips says, “you can back off a little in trying to control the vehicle in a precise manner.”

A 4K camera has a four times greater chance of collecting the desired imagery, Phillips says. “If you get a 4K camera into the right sweet spot on an animal and you get it up close,” he notes, “you have gotten a really beautiful image.”

The midwater animals that he photographs are difficult to image. “If the imagery gets good enough,” he observes, “it may be possible to use that as a species description. At the very least, high-resolution does aid in identifying species better.”

The ability to zoom in and, for example, count the number of muscle strands on a jellyfish or the number of eyes on an invertebrate points to differences between species. Since this work is done by scientists at a later date – after the expedition – the image clarity enabled by recording in high-resolution becomes key to the identification process.

  • A close up picture of a large squat lobster hanging off of a white 'Lophelia' coral. Photographed at 450m depth from the 'Alvin' research submersible. Photo: Gulf of Mexico underwater clips as seen in Acid Horizon provided by Erik Cordes, Temple Univ/NSF/HOV 'Alvin' 2014 WHOI

In October, when Bruce Strickrott was diving along the mid-ocean ridge in the Pacific Ocean, he visited hydrothermal vent communities. At Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), USA, he is the manager of the Alvin submersible engineering and operations group, and is a senior pilot of the seven-metre Alvin, which is launched from the deep-submergence support vessel RV Atlantis.


On subsequent cruises, Alvin visited extinct seamounts and then moved to the Gulf of California (between Baja California and the Mexican mainland) to explore unique sedimented hydrothermal areas.

The average dive with Alvin is 3000 metres, but the submersible goes as deep as 4500 metres, planned to increase to 6500 metres by 2020. Cameras used at various locations around the sub enable the two scientists and the pilot on board to evaluate what is occurring in real-time, and the team reviews the footage of areas of interest to help them decide what to concentrate on the following day.

“The quality of the data that’s recorded on a hard drive that we bring back, and how it’s utilised after the dive, is very significant,” Strickrott says. “It plays a key role in the scientific observers’ capability to use it to recreate the experience when in the vehicle.”

The ability to bring back footage on a hard drive makes it possible, after the fact, to notice something that you may not have been studying on the dive. “You can access it by date, identify species, count fish and perhaps see something that’s never been seen,” observes Strickrott.

“If you take the resolution, the density of some of the chips, and the optics, and combine all three,” says Strickrott, “the value to a scientist after the fact is 100 per cent about the improved technology.”


Reflecting on the camera’s evolution over his 20-year career with the Alvin programme combined with the increasing ability to manipulate images, he says: “All sorts of cool things are happening. There’s 3D imagery and the VR experience. You can take the experience of diving a submarine and bring it into the classroom in a VR sense. That wouldn’t have been possible five years ago.”


Reflecting on the needs of scientists, he says: “They’re often like kids in a candy store. You’re collecting more data, and you may not necessarily know what you’ve got until after the fact.”

If the images are going to be used for outreach broadcast, he sees 4K cameras making a significant contribution. “They’re going to want the highest quality they can get,” Strickrott says, “so they can manipulate the image after the fact.”

He points out that since approximately 1.5 terabytes of data is collected on board Alvin each day, having the ability to manage and store that quantity of data is essential.

Phillips praised high-quality, high-resolution cameras for making it possible to cover a general area and then zoom in on an area of interest. Strickrott concurs. “You can park in front of a very large area of tubeworms and look out the window and get a really great shot from your perspective in the submersible, but you’re forced to be 1.5 metres away.” You can pick out the larger species and scores of smaller animals that live among them, he adds, and then “zoom right in to a point as small as the size of a ladybug”.


In Clarenville, Newfoundland, Canada, (pop. 5200) a team of mechanical, software and electrical engineers and technologists are focused on designing, developing and producing underwater cameras that anticipate the needs of ocean scientists and the people who capture their images, like Phillips and Strickrott, as well as inspectors and documentary filmmakers. After doing underwater inspections for nine years and becoming intimately familiar with the technological shortcomings of the camera systems, Chad Collett founded SubC Imaging in 2010. He has a strong interest in science and a keen eye for addressing camera-system limitations.

Most recently, SubC developed the Mk6, a 4K high-definition video camera rated to a depth of 6500 metres which is currently being trialled in ocean science and documentary applications. SubC’s vice president of business development, Ron Collier, notes that the recent popularity of 4K TV at stores such as Best Buy has created an appetite for higher resolution video. “If you have content and no way of seeing it, there’s no point,” he says. “If you don’t have the content, what’s the point of having TV? We’re seeing a point where they’re coming together.”

Now, he adds, the 4K camera enables people to see underwater subjects with as much detailed imagery as they’re used to seeing on a 4K TV. When shown on a big screen, the lower resolution image will be significantly blurrier than the image taken with a 4K camera. “The amount of information that provides sufficient detail on a small screen is suddenly woefully lacking when blown up for a big screen,” Collier says.   

WHOI will be trialling SubC’s new Mk6 4K camera on the next cruise of Alvin’s sister vehicle, the tethered remotely operated vehicle Jason. Strickrott used SubC’s high-definition 1Cam video camera photographing in the Gulf of Mexico in 2015. “We were doing macro video images of coral polyps on the end of white hard coral,” he recalls. They were so close, the polyps were on the end of a branch of coral the size of a dime. “The images were spectacular,” he says. “You couldn’t see it with the naked eye. You would have to be standing in front of it with a magnifying glass. The camera was critical.”


One of the cameras Phillips used during his recent expedition in the Solomon Islands was SubC’s Mk6. “Power becomes the enemy when you go deep,” he says, noting that the camera systems he had on board had SubC batteries. “Battery power is a huge advantage when you can’t provide surface power to the system,” he says. “SubC’s camera fit right into that requirement. Everything worked flawlessly.”

Phillips highlights their one-stop solution. “What is so unique about SubC is that they produce systems from soup to nuts,” he observes, “from powering and controlling the camera, to processing the data, to storing it topside.”

  • Brennan Phillips and members of National Geographic's Remote Imaging team prepare to launch a low-light camera in the Solomon Islands. This custom 2K system used to image deep-sea bioluminescence was powered by SubC Imaging's Battery 259. Photo: Alex DeCiccio

Andrew Safer is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Website:





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