Surf and Underwater Photography on Film: An Interview With Megan Barrett

Surf and Underwater Photography on Film: An Interview With Megan Barrett

With film photography becoming more and more popular, it’s no wonder people are branching out into surf and film photography. 

Megan Barrett is a surf and underwater photographer living in California, USA. She has been a prominent figure in the film photography community for years, so much so that during the 2019 Film Photography Paideia, she was among the 12 photographers brought in as a speaker. Even before that, five years ago, Fstoppers wrote up an article about Nikon Nikonos cameras and reached out to Megan for quotes and photography for the article. 

For just a bit of background, Barrett was born in England and moved to the United States and eventually studied marine biology through school and, as one would imagine, spent a lot of time in the water. She was introduced into the world of film photography through the Canon AE-1, and in an effort to avoid the massive underwater camera setup, Megan really appreciated the compact nature and versatility of the Nikonos system and to this day uses the Nikonos III – not the extremely popular Nikonos V, which is capable of aperture priority mode and was made up until late 2001. Her favorite film stocks are Kodak Ektachrome and Kodak Portra 160. She shoots around 5 to 10 rolls a month between her photography in the water and photography on dry land. 

For me, I was already impressed by Barrett’s body of work given that the Nikonos system utilize zone focusing. Zone focusing, for those unfamiliar, means that you focus the lens by estimating the distance between you and your subject, setting the lens to that distance and then firing away. Given that you don’t get any real-time feedback through the viewfinder or anything else, out of focus images are not uncommon. Aside from being stuck to zone focusing method only, the Nikonos III which Megan uses does not have a built-in meter. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if she were shooting on dry land where she could use a proper light meter. Personally, the idea of no built-in meter and no ability to use an external light meter gives me a bit of anxiety in just thinking about shooting slides. This doesn’t even seem to faze Megan, as she very confidently responded to my shock by simply stating that there are essentially three metering conditions: swimming down and shooting upward towards the sky, shooting straight ahead, and shooting below. With enough experience (and film), she assured me it was an achievable task. Before I move on, let’s reflect on this: shooting with a Nikonos III, you have no ability to get real-time feedback on the accuracy of your focusing, nor do you get any real-time feedback on your metering.

Of the film photographers that I’ve interviewed here for Fstoppers, Barrett was the first person for whom photography was exclusively a hobby and whose style is very specific. As such, I was really curious if she had similar experiences to me in that when she takes a vacation, she decides on a location based on whether it is well suited for her photography style. Indeed, that was the case, and for the first time, it came to mind that I wasn’t alone. What’s more, she has not sought to monetize her photography but rather to keep it as a hobby, which I greatly admire.

All images used with permission.

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