The Incredible Story of the First Underwater Photograph Ever Taken


This article is about the first appreciable underwater photograph. The very first attempt at underwater photography was by William Thompson in Dorset, UK, who in 1856 used wet colloidion glass plate camera to create this photo:

first underwater photograph
First underwater photograph taken on a wet colloidion plate in 1856 by William Thompson.

Thompson had a carpenter make him a waterproof, wooden box inside of which he could fix his camera. Along with a friend he then rowed out into Weymouth Bay and then lowered his camera until its tripod settled securely on a rock ledge, about eighteen feet below the surface. The exposure was about ten minutes long. Hopefully, the resulting image was clearer than what we can see today. You just get the feeling you don’t really know what you are looking at…

What you will more often see listed as the world’s first underwater photograph is the image by French zoologist Louis Boutan taken in 1893. It was a first both in terms of being the first underwater photograph, where both the camera and the photographer were underwater, and because it was taken with a magnesium powder flash. Also, it was the first published underwater photograph.

first underwater portrait
Louis Boutan’s underwater image taken with magnesium flash in 1893.

What we know about the image for sure is that it is the portrait of Romanian oceanographer and biologist Emil Racovitza taken by the aforementioned Louis Boutan in Banyuls-sur-Mer in the South of France in 1899.

If you dig around a bit on the Internet, you’ll find a lot of other info as well. Some sources claim that the portrait that was taken in 1893, that the exposure was 30 minutes long and Boutan suffered Nitrogen narcosis as a result, and that it was captured at a depth of 164 feet (wow).

However, this portrait was more likely taken in 1899 after he developed his crazy underwater flash photography rig… I mean, look at this:

The incredible equipment Boutan used to take the first underwater portrait.

Ironically enough, Boutan used ‘dry’ plates for the exposures, which had to run as long as 30 minutes to capture the proper amount of light. For this reason, Boutan developed a flash photography rig that could easily double as a bomb.

The hellish creation involved an alcohol lamp fixed on an oxygen-filled barrel. A rubber bulb would then blow a puff of magnesium powder over the flame, creating a flash. From there, Boutan kept iterating his cameras and flash rigs, improving on his initial creation.

This portrait was likely taken in this way given how sharp the text on the placard (which reads “Photographie Sous Marine” or “Underwater Photography”) and the grass at the diver’s feet is.

Here’s a look at one of these rudimentary flashes in action during a demonstration at the The Barcelona Underwater Festival:

Today, when we can take underwater photos with our smartphones with such ease, it is crazy to think what a long way photography had to go to make this all possible.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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