A Conversation with Kurt Amsler

Alex: I’d like to move on a talk about your work developing underwater cameras because I think it is fascinating. In the past you have worked on, for example the Nikonos RS and the Subal F5 housing, but with you switch to digital, 8 years ago, you have taken that to another level in with your work with Seacam, where you are in charge of helping them in the development of all their equipment. I think a lot of other brands suffer because there is not enough input from real underwater photographers. 
Kurt: It is just the same approach as in many other products. For example, in my other love windsurfing, the guys who make the boards don’t have to be surfers, they have to be good shapers. The guys who sell the boards, they don’t have to surf, they need to understand the market. In these companies everything is divided. So they have test-riders, people who do nothing else but surfing. And they are the ones who will know if a new board really is good or not. If the foot-straps are in the wrong place, they realise it immediately.
It should be the same in underwater photography and that is what Seacam is doing. I know that the housing manufacturers have a hard time with the current economics. They have to work a lot and they have to do it all by themselves: they do the design, the construction, the marketing and deal with the suppliers, the dealers. There is no time to go diving and test. And anyway they are not able to test because they are not full time photographers and trained enough to dive in all conditions.
Alex: They are too busy making housings.
Kurt: They are engineers. So they must have a test driver. I call myself the test driver for Seacam.
Harald Hordosch is a great engineer and his father as well.  Harald understands a lot about cameras and also he is a brilliant photographer, but he is not the guy spending 500 hours a year underwater. He hasn’t the time. So Stephen Frink in the States and myself in Europe are his test drivers. We use the housings in all conditions. Under the ice, with gloves, without gloves, deep, shallow, cold water, warm water or under extreme conditions as recently 600m inside caves. Immediately, if there is something not right, we know.

Extreme underwater photography testing, 600m underground and underwater during the Rolex Awards Exhibition 2008. The human remains that Arturo González and his colleagues excavated in Yucatan’s cenotes have shed new light on the early human settlement of the Americas. Photo Kurt Amsler.

Alex: So what are the important design factors in a housing?
Kurt: The most important thing is not to restrict what is possible with the camera on land. Why do Canon and Nikon spend hundreds of hours giving their prototypes to people - men, women, children? Refining the design until they have the right balance and everyone can control everything important without taking the eye from the viewfinder. And some housing manufacturers don’t understand or don’t want to believe it. It is always the moment you take you eye from the viewfinder to change the shutter speed that the fish will open its mouth.
So our philosophy is not to limit any of the possibilities of the camera with the housing. Without taking the eye of the viewfinder, you should be able to adjust everything you can with the camera on land.


Detail from the Seacam D3 housing, note how the controls are extended so that they fall easily to fingers without removing your hand from the housing or eye from the viewfinder. Photo courtesy of Seacam.

Alex: Also when you take your eye away to change something, you push the camera forward to see what you are doing and you push it towards the subject and scare it.
Kurt: The balance is the other crucial factor in Seacam housings, the equilibrium, trim. So many different things have to be put into a housing.
Alex: The other factor I really admire in Seacam is that they listen to photographers and are bringing a lot of innovations, ideas that are coming from what photographers need: external dioptres, the polecam system and the new fisheye/macro domeport….
Kurt: Things that gives you more possibilities getting subjects on the pix and makes the life easier.  I am actually a lazy guy.
Alex: Ha ha. No you are not!
Kurt: OK, I am not lazy, but if I can find an easier way I will take it. So I have more time to get a better photo, or to get something else on the dive. I am always looking for the most direct way to Rome, as Julius Caesar was saying: the straight road to Rome! That’s how I teach my students too.
Alex: Also I must ask you about the Seacam 150 strobe, especially the Kurt Amsler Edition?


The removable battery in the Seacam Seaflash 150. Photo courtesy of Seacam.

Kurt: I started with flash bulbs, then a land strobe in a housing, then the American Oceanics, the blue ones…
Alex: …the 2000?
Kurt: Yes. Then in about 1976 or 78, David Doubilet convinced me to try Sea & Sea when I met him in Australia. I used many of their strobes until the YS120 and also the Nikon SB105. The Sea & Sea strobes just always worked. I saw lots of people having problems with other strobes, especially those manufactured in Germany! And I said to them, why can the Japanese strobes [Sea & Sea and Nikonos] work for twenty years, and yours are always breaking.
Alex: I have had my share of problems, with non-Japanese strobes, mentioning no names!
Kurt: Seacam’s first strobes were either housings for land strobes or using the electronics from other underwater strobe manufacturers, and we had lots of these coming back because of these electronics. In the end, Harald said “Enough, we will do our own 100% Seacam strobes”.
Alex: So what were the design criteria for the Seacam 150?
Kurt: First it had to be small for its power, for travel and water resistance. Neutrally buoyant and balanced. A 135 degree beam, so that you can light up a fisheye with one strobe if you want to – placing the strobe above and a bit behind the camera.
The 150 is a strobe which can do everything, for both macro and wide angle, so we use a mid-point on colour temperature. Also the battery pack is removable, which also means you can have spares, so you can swap to a full charge and keep shooting, and is also important for security checks at airports. In build LED target lights low for macro and bright for wide. LED’s use up much less energy from the battery.
Alex: You told me the other day that when you were developing them you were even dropping them on purpose!
Kurt: Yes. But I was not playing around, I was simulating what can happen when working with a piece of equipment in the real world.
Alex: On boats, in a hurry anything can happen.
Kurt: In the end, thirty years of my wishes are in these strobes. The customer feedback we have had now, people are very, very happy.

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