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Heed some advice before plunging into dive photography

Think snapping photos on land is tough? Try adding oceanic currents, low light and fast-moving, camera-shy subjects to the mix.

Judy Bennett, a medical technologist who lives in a New Orleans suburb, started shooting underwater in 1990, after fellow scuba divers let her borrow a camera. She shot on film until this summer, when she switched to a digital camera.

"A lot of the time it's luck, being in the right place at the right time to catch a really fabulous shot," she says.

Bennett's current camera setup _ a Nikon D100 with two large strobes _ is worth about $5,000, including $2,300 for the Aquatica underwater housing, which has a bubble port and flat port to accommodate fish-eye and macro lenses. The latter are used to photograph very small subjects.

It takes a lot of body control to make good underwater photographs. Flailing scares off fish and stirs up sand.

"Before you can be a good photographer, you have to be a good diver," Bennett says. "You've got to be able to steady yourself, head into the current and hold yourself in place."

While popping a digital camera into a specially designed underwater housing is easy enough, it's tough for a nonprofessional to get a colorful photo. That's because water absorbs and filters light.

"The deeper you go, you start losing colors, reds first. That's why you have to have the strobes," Bennett says.

Divers who rely on the built-in flash of their cameras usually find that their pictures _ even those focused on bright pink, yellow, purple, blue and green fish and coral _ look mostly blue.

"The little flash in the camera is not enough underwater to bring all the color back," Bennett says.

Separate strobes can be attached to an underwater camera housing, but even a big strobe's light doesn't travel much farther than 5 feet. So you have to get close to your subject.

It also helps to know a fish's habitat. When Bennett shoots, she sometimes stakes out a promising spot and waits for a critter to come out of its hole. "It takes patience, and the more knowledge you have of fish behavior, the better you can do," she said.

With more elaborate camera setups, you also have to decide before you dive if you want to shoot wide-angle scenery shots or upclose creature pictures. "You've got to have the right lens on to do the job," Bennett says. "You can't switch while you're down there."

Bennett captured first place in the 2002 and 2003 Roatan Underwater Photo Championships with shots of a hermit crab and quill fin blenny. "I just sat there and (shot) half a roll on two different quill fins and got lucky," she said of her second winning picture.

Tips for underwater photography:

+ Perfect your diving skills before you pick up a camera.

+ Don't shoot from above. Get even with or underneath your subject and shoot upward, to take advantage of the light and improve your composition.

+ Get close. The light _ and thus the color _ will be better.

+ When shooting tiny creatures, fill the frame as much as possible with the subject.

+ When shooting fast-moving creatures, take a lot of shots to improve chances that one will come out well.

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