From street photography to sharks: Dimitri Rebikoff's pioneering inventions lit the underwater world

30 June 2023
William G. Schulz
Dimitri Rebikoff helped pioneer underwater photography starting with the first waterproof flash unit. Photo credit: International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame

Walk into any dive shop and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to underwater photography. Just about everyone who enjoys the sport of scuba diving sooner or later wants to try their hand at taking pictures beneath the deep blue sea. And they will gladly show you their results on smartphones, compact-camera screens, or social media.

A chief reason for the popularity of underwater photography is today’s bevy of affordable deep-sea-rated cameras, camera housings, and lighting systems. From compact GoPro cameras mounted on scuba masks or floating selfie sticks to systems for mirrorless and full-frame digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras—complete with advanced LED lighting—often, the only limit is a diver’s wallet.

But there was a time when the underwater world was a forbidding mystery, seen in person only by a daring few. Divers made heroic early efforts to move enormous plate cameras attached to wine-barrel buoys and drag them along the bottom in 20 feet of water.

Other challenges included the fact that seawater would destroy cameras and film in an instant, as well as the optical distortions of water itself. Bringing lighting and electrical power underwater was, for most folks, a fantasy best suited for the lost city of Atlantis.

In the aftermath of World War II, however, photographer. and inventor Dimitri Rebikoff, and adventurers like Jacques Yves Cousteau, would change all of that. It was an era that offered boundless opportunities for visionaries like Rebikoff, Cousteau, Émile Gagnon, and many other inventors and explorers whose lights, cameras, and life-support systems worked reliably when wet. Their innovations, along with countless popular books, films, and TV shows that followed, ushered in an era of underwater exploration for science, popular sport, entertainment, and commerce that has only grown with passing decades.

In fact, you might thank Rebikoff et al. for cable TV’s annual Shark Week extravaganza showing terror-filled underwater footage of sharks. It literally would never have happened without them.

For Rebikoff, it all began on the rainy streets of post-war Paris. He was a struggling tabloid news photographer and after-hours engineer in the city newly liberated from the Nazis when he first came to Cousteau’s attention. That’s because Rebikoff had invented, in 1947, a portable electronic strobe that was also watertight to suit his sometimes-miserable working conditions.

Rebikoff obtained French and Swiss patents on his invention. He sold 10,000 of them in France alone, and adapted his water-resistant housings for use with 16-mm movie cameras.

Between 1947 and 1949, Rebikoff adapted the strobe to different scientific and industrial applications. One was the study of propeller cavitation in water tunnels as well as ships’ hulls in the open ocean. “This required an underwater high-speed strobe, synchronized both with the propeller and with a stereoscopic pair of automatic, underwater, 35-mm pulse cameras,” he wrote in a history of underwater photography for an engineering journal.

At a 1968 SPIE conference in San Diego, Rebikoff recounted what happened next: He received a call from the French Submarine Alpine Club to adapt his strobe and camera to underwater photography with scuba. “Our earliest single-assembly system was immediately successful in producing the first and only really sharp and color-correct underwater photos of marine life, geology, and archeology,” he told the audience. He credited its effectiveness with design as a “complete integrated system with each component subsystem, camera, corrected lens, strobe light, controls, and housings simultaneously designed for each other to fully accomplish the required job.”

Cousteau put Rebikoff under contract in the late 1940s to design and manufacture custom equipment for his underwater expeditions. Their collaboration blossomed. Cousteau’s Oscar-winning movie  A World Without Sun and his early TV shows were enabled by Rebikoff’s lights, cameras, underwater housings, and one-man submarines. Rebikoff himself would go on to publish some 27 books on underwater photography.

Dimitri Rebikoff with his Pegasus underwater vehicle for towing imaging and lighting equipment. Photo credit: Rebikoff-Niggeler Foundation

“Our 1949 high-voltage battery strobe light was a startling success,” Rebikoff wrote in his history article. “It was housed in a long plexiglass tube filled with clear transformer oil, installed at maximum distance forward of the camera lens to avoid lighting up the particles in suspension between subject and lens. Not only did every frame have good contrast and definition in the center, but the brilliant colors of the fixed marine life, such as sponges and coral, just defied description.”

But Rebikoff didn’t stop there. Studies of the eyes of fishes had revealed that any satisfactory photography underwater would be impossible through a flat glass or plastic porthole. The plane diopter effect makes the porthole the equivalent of a 3.4 diopter magnifier lens.

“Introduced into the optical path, [the lens] not only increases the focal length of the camera lens by 34 percent, restricting the field of vision by 34 percent in angle and about half in area, but also reintroduces all the optical aberrations, such as chromatism, sphericity, astigmatism, etc., that were so painstakingly removed from the expensive modern camera lenses,” Rebikoff wrote.

With Alexandre Ivanoff of the Paris Museum of Natural History, he then  invented the renown Ivanoff-Rebikoff lens. “It is a reverse Galileo Telescope computed out of two new types of optical glass to correct fully all aberrations along with the focal length increase for the first time. It has proven since to be the ultimate improvement in underwater optics, applicable to all cameras, all optical instruments, and the human eye.”

Another of Rebikoff's underwater tow vehicles for imaging. Photo credit: Rebikoff-Niggeler Foundation

Rebikoff maintained his relentless pursuit of the possibilities for underwater photography with tightly integrated systems of cameras, lighting, and tow vehicles. According to the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, which claims Rebikoff as an inductee, his underwater vehicle Pegasus, which debuted in 1953, “looked like a torpedo with handles and a camera mount. It was quickly taken up by scientists, who sent it under glaciers to explore [and photograph] fossil life, and by oil drillers, who sent it to the ocean floor.”

The Pegasus, which could be operated manned or unmanned, and its successors would cement Rebikoff’s legacy in modern underwater photography of nearly every variety and purpose. It formed the basis of his company, Rebikoff Underwater Products, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he had taken up residence in the early 1960s and where he would spend the rest of his life. With the vehicles, he promoted the concept of strip-scanning photogrammetry, scanning the seafloor in parallel adjacent strips with high-capacity camera systems. Underwater visibility otherwise prevents large-area photography, such as with aerial or space photography over dry land.

“Typical applications are in the fields of undersea cable, pipeline and fixed installation surveys, stereophotogrammetric mapping of the bottom, photography of large submarines and marine life, archaeological surveys, landing beach and approach surveys,” Rebikoff told the audience at a lecture on photogrammetry at a 1966 SPIE conference in Santa Barbara, California.

Rebikoff, who died in 1997, told Florida's Sun-Sentinal newspaper that he invented the Pegasus because he was a “lousy swimmer” who had difficulties maneuvering underwater while trying to manage unwieldy cameras. “To design the machine, Rebikoff took a leaf from the pages of the early aeronautical engineers, who studied flight by observing the physiognomy of birds.”

Rebikoff studied sharks.

William G. Schulz is Managing Editor of Photonics Focus. He teaches scuba diving and underwater photography.

Enjoy this article?
Get similar news in your inbox
Get more stories from SPIE
Recent News
Sign in to read the full article
Create a free SPIE account to get access to
premium articles and original research