DON'T be put off by the jargon photographers use," said my instructor. "The key to taking a picture is simplicity." He was trying to reassure me, but I was not convinced. My photographic skills were limited to a few holiday snaps using an idiot-proof automatic - and that was on land. I would surely be lost at the first mention of ASA or TTL, and the only F-stop I knew about was a bus shelter.
I was about to embark on a one-day underwater photography course with Fisheye of Cayman, and by the end of it I would know how to assemble and use the Nikonos V system with a standard 35mm lens - so I was told.
All it would take was a two-hour lesson with the help of an instructional video, and a bit of practice in the warm tropical waters off Grand Cayman. I could certainly think of worse ways to spend a day.
We started with a simple guide to the controls - the film rewind, advance lever and battery compartment.
Once the functions of the film speed dial and the shutter-speed mode selector started to make a bit of sense, and I knew where to find them, we got on to what was probably the most crucial lesson - how to prevent the camera from flooding. Hold it upside down when dismantling, remove the various O-ring seals, lubricate them with silicone grease, remove any dirt from the O-ring channel, then replace. Easy - when you watch someone else do it.
"Always get the owner of the camera to prepare the O-ring seals for you. That way you can't be blamed when the camera floods," said instructor Chris, keeping the camera firmly out of my grasp as he fiddled with the seals. He had certainly mastered the art of inspiring confidence.
Then came my turn to play. Holding the camera like a precious object, Chris showed me how to set the aperture, or F-stop. The wider the aperture, the less depth of field (and margin of error) I would have to play with, so ideally I wanted to aim for a small F-stop. But how small could it be?
Sensing a slight confusion on my part, Chris pre-empted a barrage of questions by telling me I would be using F8 below 15m, and, using the silver knob, I would switch to F11 in the shallows. That was all I needed to know, and it sounded just fine. After all, why not cut a few corners if it made my life easier?
Next, to ensure that the flash was working, I needed to do a TTL, or through-the-lens, check. I opened the aperture (the silver knob again) as far as it would go, and fired the camera into the flash. The red light at the side flashed on in an instant, which meant that it was working.
Lastly, I had to slot in the film, and learned the difference between "chrome" (for transparencies) and "colour" (prints).
The first practice session would be a dive to 20m. I was told to set the shutter-speed dial to A, for aperture priority, and the flash to TTL. This meant the flash would choose the 1/90th shutter speed automatically.
All I would have to do was check that I was on the right F-stop, set the film speed to 100, frame the shot taking into account the parallax correction (easier in theory than practice), set myself back about a metre from the subject, and click. Chris would be there to tell me where to aim and correct me when I went astray.
"The key is to find subjects that are suitable for the camera. What looks good to the eye will not necessarily look good on film," he warned. With that advice in mind, we dropped below the boat on a mission to find a picturesque sponge. Not a difficult task on a Caribbean coral reef, surely?
I was busy scanning the seabed for a patch of reef that I imagined would not look out of place in poster format, when Chris tapped me on the shoulder, plonked the camera in my hands and pointed to a brown-looking piece of coral.
Dutifully following instructions, I positioned myself under the subject, being careful not to damage the reef, and pointed the camera towards the light. I held the subject steady in the viewfinder - not easy when you are obstructed by a mask and regulator, and are bobbing up and down with the water movement - and clicked. Now, to make sure I had the correct amount of light going into the camera, I would have to bracket the shot, which meant taking another two frames using a slower, then a faster, film speed setting.
I was having a whale of a time as we roamed the seabed - Chris pointing, me shooting at bits of reef - but was becoming increasingly doubtful about the results. Wouldn't I be better off taking pictures of fish? This, I was told, would be a little too ambitious for my first outing. I thought this fair enough - until I found a moray posing in a crevice!.
One unsupervised dive and many experimental shots later, it was time to head back to shore for the moment of truth.
Expecting the worst, I held my breath as the slides were laid out in front of me, but I was in for a pleasant surprise. Some frames were actually in focus, and what had looked brownish underwater had transformed into a multitude of colours on film. Of course, I had made many of the classic beginner's mistakes. Some of the shots could have been better framed, and others were dotted with backscatter floating in the water - this was something to do with the angle of the lighting being wrong. And, some were out of focus, some too blue, some overexposed, and so on.
Curiously, the frames I had shot with Chris looming over my shoulder were far better than those I took on my own, but I could have sworn I had followed his instructions to the letter.
By the end of the day I felt that I could just about take a picture under water, and I knew what mistakes I should try to avoid. I was certainly keen to try again, but I would not trust myself alone with the Nikonos V.
It would take many reels of fuzzy shots - during which time, I would hope, no fatal flooding would occur - before I would consider investing in my own camera. Never mind. For the time being I would be perfectly happy to practise with someone else's system!