"Technical gobbledygook" is how Mark Webster describes much of the theory behind underwater photography in the introduction to The Art and Technique of Underwater Photography. He's right: when I started I was baffled by f-stops, slaves and extension tubes.
My beginner's "bible" was Guide to Successful Underwater Photography. Howard Hall explained the photographer's language in an easy-to-understand format and, more importantly, how to photograph images and achieve the same sort of results as he did.
Now well over a decade old, that book is technically out of date. I've been waiting for someone to write one that takes over where Howard left off. Several photographers have tried, but always come unstuck by making their books too complicated and boring.
Mark, however, seems to have done the trick. His book emphasises that underwater photography is a hobby any diver can take up without putting a massive hole in the pocket. And his pragmatic approach is demonstrated in the chapter on equipment, with advice on making your own slave flash unit out of a cheap land slave fitted to the inside of an underwater torch - genius!
Most of the book is on technique, with chapters on macro, wide-angle, wreck and marine-life photography. Mixed in are chapters on composition secrets and creative technique, full of practical advice as opposed to techno-babble.
For example, on using the Nikonos V for macro shots, Mark explains how the framer size is larger than the picture area. Bizarrely, Nikon didn't think of mentioning this in the instructions for its extension tube kit. As so often in underwater photography, you are expected to find out for yourself.
How can you use TTL (through-the-lens) in wide-angle photography? Just about every book I've read to date says you can't. Mark disagrees, and advises on how you can use automatic metering systems effectively.
In a book about underwater photography, it is only right that half of it is filled with photographs - more than 250. What's different is that Mark explains with each example how, without even knowing how the camera works, the reader can obtain similar shots. You might even end up challenging Mark in underwater photography competitions. He provides excellent advice on what judges look for and how to prepare. He even advises on marketing your photographs in what is an extremely competitive commercial world.
Underwater photography books are like policemen. When you need one there are never any around, then two turn up at once! I had never heard of Annemarie and Danja Koehler, whose The Underwater Photography Handbook was published recently, but theirs is another book that goes for that "spare-us-the-technicalities" approach that I find so appealing.
This book differs from Mark's in havng a 38-page section dedicated to video. It offers plenty of tips in the text, though the photographs are not accompanied by as much individual advice. The images are of a high quality and illustrate the text simply, and though in my opinion they are less creative in style, this might aid the learning process.
I like the aim of this book: "to get you in the water and taking photographs, fast!" and am sure this is achievable. Buy either or both books. I guarantee they will improve your results.
The Art & Technique of Underwater Photography by Mark Webster, Fountain Press (0181 541 4050). Hardback 160pp, £19.95
The Underwater Photography Handbook by Annemarie & Danja Koehler, New Holland (0171 724 7773). Hardback 160pp, £17.99
Spot that fish
Three recent fish ID books covering different areas of the tropical diving world share many fish species that are common between them. The fact that some of these species have a different common (English) name in each book shows the value of having the most relevant guide for your locations to hand. Latin names are useful, but it's nice to have an alternative!
All these guides are based on underwater photographs of live fish rather than drawings or paintings. While drawings can have some benefits in high-lighting distinctive features, scanning photo-graphs for a match to what you have just seen on your dive is much easier and, importantly, more enjoyable.
While none of the books would classify as a coffee-table publication, any of them would be a pleasure to dip into (or peruse in detail) on the beach or dive boat.
All share similar layouts, each photograph being accompanied by a section of explanatory text, including basic description, guide to habitats and any distinctive habits or features. All the authors seem to have found the secret of making a few words go a long way.
Reef Fishes of the Red Sea is the largest of the three, the only hardback, and has interesting introductory sections on subjects such as reef ecology, fish mimicry and photography.
Despite the extras, however, it lacks the sort of simple identification key employed by the other books to guide the fish-watcher around the main body of the book.
A few poor photographs are counteracted by good coverage of the different colour forms within single species, as they vary with age and sex.
Reef Fishes & Corals (East Coast of Southern Africa) contains less background material but has a consistently excellent standard of photography and a useful additional section on corals. It covers an area not greatly visited by British divers, but also applies to more frequented Indian Ocean spots such as Mauritius, the Seychelles and East Africa.
The pick of the bunch is A Photographic Guide to Sea Fishes of Australia, which contains within its pocket format superb photography and wonderfully informative text.
A simple introductory key is supplemented by tiny outline drawings in the corner of each page which can be picked up as you thumb through the book - a clever touch. My only quibble is that the book's shape makes it rather difficult to open without fear of breaking its spine.
Any of these books would increase my enjoyment of a holiday out of all proportion to their weight and cost.
Reef Fishes of the Red Sea by Richard and Mary Field. Kegan Paul International (01243 779777). Hardback 192pp, £25
Reef Fishes & Corals (East Coast of Southern Africa) by Dennis King, New Holland. Softback 128pp, £14.99
Sea Fishes of Australia by Rudie H Kuiter, New Holland. Softback 144pp, £19.99
Never mind the recipes
This is not only a guide to the Farne Islands below water, but an historical and geographical review plus Ron Young's diving reminiscences.
Shortcomings first: a number of poor-quality illustrations spoil the presentation of an otherwise well-produced book, and some species are incorrectly identified, with the mythical "plumrose" anemone appearing yet again.
Many sites are said to be good for "creepie-crawlies", and there is even a section on catching squat lobsters, plus a recipe for cooking them! This all reads like something from the '50s, and I would have preferred a more responsible approach.
It's a pity the author didn't restrict himself to what he obviously knows best, because the descriptions and locations of the 174 dive sites are very useful indeed. Each is graded for quality and identified on a sketch of the appropriate island, although a few of the directions are a little confusing. Sites where slack water is essential are clearly identified, and the best places for seal encounters noted.
I know of no comparable guide, and this book could save much wasted time if you plan to visit.
The Diver's Comprehensive Guide to The Farnes & Holy Island by Ron Young, PO Box 69, Houghton-le-Spring, DH4 5YJ (0191 385 8719), Softback, 244pp, £16.39
Roger Steene is a well-heeled Australian who loves underwater photography and lives near the Great Barrier Reef. As such he has had both means and opportunity to pursue his hobby to the highest professional level, and this lush volume is the 10th book he has produced in 30 years of diving at exotic locations around the world, including PNG, the Solomons, Palau and Indonesia.
Those who prefer to scan a volume will be pleased to know that little of the art-quality paper is given over to text. But what a superb selection of 340 pictures! I wouldn't mind ten minutes going through his wastebin to half-inch some of the rejects.
And what a way to display your work: it's better than any slide show or photograph album - enough to make a member of the British Society of Underwater Photographers spit!
Instead of spending all our money at the camera shop only to see it later sacrificed at the altar of the defective O-ring, many of us would be well advised simply to go diving and spend our money on Roger Steene's books instead.
Like many underwater photographers, the author seems to spend most of his time pursuing macro subjects (although at times he goes micro), and most of the pictures are animal portraits.
The marine zoologists among you will be intrigued to discover images of animals never before documented; environmentalists will enjoy the sheer diversity of the fauna; and travelled divers will relate to the many familiar animals depicted. Ordinary citizens of Planet Earth will simply relish the beautiful photography.
Coral Seas by Roger Steene, New Holland. Hardback 270pp, £35
Message in pictures
This coffee-table volume sets out to woo a reader who is probably not a diver. Published in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund, its message is clear yet subtle.
Using only photographs with minimal captions, it sets out to document much of the animal life in our oceans and let us know that the seas are not just a handy dumping ground.
Each spread includes a diagrammatic view of Earth with an indication of the likely location of the species seen in the colour plates.
Edited by Peter Vine and Ibrahim Al-Abed in Dubai, this lush production is let down only by the quality of many of the pictures.
The list of contributing photographers is impressive, with international notables such as Jeff Rotman, Howard Hall, Georgette Douwma, Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch and Herwart Voigtman alongside illustrious homegrown names such as Linda Pitkin and Lawson Wood.
But I have the feeling that either some of these photographers were reluctant to release their best material, or else Peter Vine hoped to make the book look less like a temple to good photography and more a collection of snaps that readers might be able to imagine they had taken.
It's content that counts, and this book gives a clear picture of the wealth of the underwater world. It contains a few spectacular examples of the underwater photographer's craft; you have to look for them, that's all.
Four-Fifths: The Ocean Planet, edited by Peter Vine and Ibrahim Al-Abed, Trident Press (0171 491 8770). Hardback 192pp, £19.95
Those Lonely Planet people have bought the Pisces Diving & Snorkelling Guides from US publisher Gulf, and are redeveloping them. The publisher has set out to improve the quality of these books by adding extra information and new sections.
Judging by its guide to Guam & Yap, Lonely Planet has started well. This guide has a far more punchy layout than the Pisces version, with a lot more colour photographs. Original author Tim Rock has improved his photography hugely and his new images contribute to the overall improvement.
The extra information includes handy sections on marine life and underwater photography, plus details of marine conservation organisations.
The new icon system highlighting dive conditions for each site is supposed to allow an at-a-glance assessment to be made, though I did take a while to get used to it.
A section on Micronesia's less-well-known Rota Island is included. Rota is only a 20-minute flight from Guam and offers a great World War Two wreck dive and a fantastic cathedral-like cave dive, so its inclusion is well worthwhile.
If you are planning a tripto Micronesia, this is an excellent guide to take with you. While crammed full of useful information it is small enough to fit into your hand luggage and won't break the bank.
There are 36 titles in the Diving & Snorkelling range. Apart from Guam & Yap, Belize, Bermuda and Cozumel have so far received the Lonely Planet makeover treatment.
Diving & Snorkelling Guam & Yap by Tim Rock, Lonely Planet Publications (0171 428 4800). Softback 144pp, £9.99
Many of the Royal Navy's charioteers - the human torpedoes - of World War Two are no longer with us, but Pamela Mitchell, in her latest book Chariots of the Sea, has made sure that we can still read about what really happened in the chariot-riders' own words.
She has based her book on the unpublished memoirs of Petty Officer Sid Woollcott (who died in 1993) and others who rode beneath the waves.
The book covers the underwater war from the very first chariot dive (really a log of wood with air tanks attached) in the Haslar ship model testing tank at Gosport in 1942, to the last chariot operations, sinking Japanese ships at Phuket in the Far East close to the end of the war.
Chariots of the Sea by Pamela Mitchell. Richard Netherwood (01590 673171). Softback 48pp, £14.95
Two routes to Freedom
Free diving's underground movement might have emerged into the welcoming arms of the media, but it retains a degree of mysticism. For those who aspire to explore the ocean free of cumbersome diving gear, there are few books to act as guides.
Two new offerings by authors from opposite sides of the world go some way to filling this gap. Dive Free by Ian Rodger provides a very individual European perspective detailing the author's experiences, while Freedive! by Americans Terry Maas and David Sipperly aspires to be "the first comprehensive book devoted to free diving... destined to be the definitive authority...".
Ian Rodger introduces Dive Free by saying that some might see it as a self-indulgent ego trip. I see exactly what he meanhis book is simply an account of his free-diving adventures around the world.
Maas and Sipperly are accepted as masters of their art. With more than 60 years of experience and a host of qualifications and awards between them, they have also enlisted experts in physiology, equipment, technique, photography, game-hunting and deep diving as contributors.
Both books start with free-diving history - in Rodger's case his personal journey, though Freedive! starts a bit earlier, in 4500 BC, in fact! Under "technique", Rodger again offers his own tips, while Freedive! passes on the expertise of a range of respected free divers, with numerous illustrated exercises devised to improve your ability and fitness.
When it comes to photography, Dive Free uses what I would call "snapshots" - albeit good ones, considering they were taken on free dives. Maas and Sipperly are better connected. The work of photographers Phil Colla and Jeff Rotman along with that of the authors is stunning, images of free divers interacting with dolphins and manta rays capturing the essence of the sport.
Freedive! explains the physiology involved in a reader-friendly style, with excellent diagrams, and safety is a recurring theme. Dive Free doesn't touch on physiology - nor, until the end of the book, the dangers involved. Even then there is no mention of that major threat, shallow-water blackout.
There lies the difference between these books - Dive Free is an autobiography that will appeal to existing exponents, while Freedive! is the manual. If you're new to the sport, Maas and Sipperly's is the first book to read. Established free divers should find it an inspiration.
Freedive! by Terry Maas and David Sipperly, Blue Water Freedivers (0181 941 1074). Hardback 146pp, £25
Dive Free by Ian Rodger, Holly Cottage, Marshwood, Bridport, Dorset DT6 5QG. Softback 94pp, 15
Sharm: read and go
There are two types of guide book: the one you buy to take with you and the one you buy to look at before you go. The Sharm el Sheikh Diving Guide by Claudio Cangini falls into the second category.
It's lavishly produced, and burgeoning with beautiful colour photography with informative, descriptions. Dive sites are treated equally comprehensively, with diagrammatic treatments of each location in both plan and profile.
The book's five sections cover the Strait of Tiran, local dives, Ras Mohammed, the Strait of Gubal, and finally identification of marine life, illustrated with artist's impressions.
The major illustrations on the intro page for each dive site are, however, more decorative than informative. I find it hard to believe that artist Cristina Franco has visited the sites herself.
And the book continues to peddle good old chestnuts such as Ras Mohammed meaning "Mohammed's Head", even suggesting that if you look at the headland from a certain angle the cliff face resembles the prophet's features!
And it comes as no surprise to find the wreck of the Kingston on Shag Rock referred to as the Sarah H, the result of a joke involving the wife of a live-aboard skipper which since seems to have passed into fact.
Such errors aside, this book will be well received, especially by souvenir-hunters in Sharm el Sheik. If you buy it at home, save weight in your luggage by not packing it on the way out.
Sharm El-Sheikh Diving Guide by Claudio Cangini, Swan Hill 01743235651. Softback 168pp, £16.96
Appeared in DIVER - March 1999