Under over photography

The world of under over photography

Years ago, when the MEC spring catalogue arrived in my mailbox, the cover immediately caught my eye. It showed a young woman wading the chest-deep Homathko River, with a mountain bike hoisted overhead. Half the image was taken above the water and half below.

Under over photography

Known in the photographic world as “under overs,” I instantly knew I wanted to shoot something similar myself. It just looked so cool!

But how? My first guess was Steve Ogle, the photographer who took the cover shot, had used a waterproof point-n-shoot camera, carefully aligning the small lens with the surface of the river. So I borrowed a buddy’s waterproof camera for a kayak trip and gave it a shot, but no luck. Those early attempts all appeared blurred, and either showed everything above surface, or below – but never a mix.


Next I investigated waterproof housings. Not wanting to invest the thousands required to buy a proper diving case for my DSLR, I decided to risk one of the cheaper ($120) plastic bag-like solutions. (Note: my camera survived this ‘plastic bag’ experiment, but you must be VERY careful any time you mix cameras and water, for potential disaster is always lurking!) During a trip to the Hakai on BC’s central coast I captured a few so-so images of friends diving for crabs and starfish, but was ultimately disappointed with the results. I knew something was missing.

Under over photography

Later that year, Canadian Geographic assigned me a story on the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s new flagship property, The Darkwoods. When I heard rumours of streams clogged with bull trout during the autumn spawning run, it provided motivation to explore under-over imagery more thoroughly.

Research revealed under overs require specialized equipment: specifically an oversized dome port, measuring 9in. or more in diameter. Unfortunately, such things don’t come cheap. The housing would cost more than my entire assignment fee, and represent several months of work.  But wanted to nail a great story – it was my first time shooting for the magazine – so I went ahead I ordered an under over dome port from SPL Surf Housings in California.

Weeks later, on the edge of a chilly mountain stream in BC’s southern Selkirk Mountains, I pulled on a damp neoprene wetsuit and then carefully licked my new dome port to prevent it from fogging. Then I slipped in.

Pool after pool I found large bull trout, displaying full fall colours, most 70cm in length or more. How glorious! One apparently fell in love with its reflection, returning again and again to rub against the domeport as I shot! I later described the magic of that day in a column for the Globe and Mail.

Under over photography

I remain a big fan of under over images. They offer a unique glimpse of the world; one we could never see with our eyes alone, but a vision that feels natural and true. I continue to use my dome port – from travels to the Caribbean island of Saba to sea kayaking in Kyuquot Sound – and anytime I’m near water, I find myself seeking new and inventive under over opportunities.

MEC Ambassador Bruce Kirkby
Bruce Kirkby

Adventurer, MEC Ambassador, author, columnist, photographer, family man – Bruce’s talents roam about as wildly as his adventures do.