Fish underwater

The Beginner’s Guide to Better Underwater Photography

By Talon Windwalker Take Better Photos6 Comments

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There’s nothing like spending time in the underwater world. It has a completely different type of beauty to what you find above the waves. The submarine environment, however, also poses several unique challenges for photographers.

Here’s our beginner’s guide for those hoping to capture images of the deep blue for themselves.

Equipment

Obviously, you can’t just grab any camera and go diving or snorkeling. Water alone isn’t the only consideration: pressure at various depths can cause even so-called waterproof models to get flooded.

Electrical components and water aren’t friends, so make sure you know the depth limit for any camera or housing you buy. The average disposable underwater camera is good to about three meters. If you plan on taking pictures while diving, you’re going to need something better.

Flamingo tongue snail on fan coral

If you’ve done any investigation into underwater housings, you’ve already discovered that they generally cost more than a DSLR. You can find some kits that include housing and a point-and-shoot camera, however, that can still provide good shots at a more affordable price.

If you travel, a DSLR plus housing and external flash attachments will take up most of your available space, not to mention add a lot of extra weight.

Especially if you’re starting out with underwater photography, a simple digital camera and housing are likely your best bet. I use a Nikon Coolpix L22 with Ikelite housing (rated to 50 meters, which is beyond recreational diving limits) and they serve me well.

Challenges

Buoyancy Control

This skill is something that is important for all divers, but improving buoyancy control is going to make a huge difference in underwater photography. Grabbing onto coral to help hold you in position for that perfect shot is absolutely not okay.

Also, small fish use vibrations in the water to warn them of predators. If you come in fast and heavy, you’re going to scare away that critter. With good buoyancy control, you can slowly glide in and arouse their curiosity rather than trigger their flight response.

Brain coral

If you haven’t already, consider taking a Peak Performance Buoyancy class from an instructor. This also counts towards your Advanced Open Water diver rating, if you haven’t got that already. For snorkeling, you can use a weight belt with a single weight on it to help you stay down while getting a shot.

White Balance

It’s pretty easy to correct for white balance on land, and most cameras do a pretty decent job of it. Underwater, however, you’re in a completely different world!

Most snorkelers won’t have to worry about adjusting white balance (just leave it on the cloudy setting), but go below six meters and you’re going to have some problems capturing colors. First you lose reds, then oranges, then yellows, and so on the deeper you go.

Cup coral

For diving photographers, it’s highly recommended to carry a white slate with you so you can adjust your white balance at various depths. You’ll want to make sure your camera has customizable white balance, else you won’t be able to make the necessary adjustments while you dive.

You can do small corrections while editing photos, but if your white balance isn’t accurate, you won’t be able to make the level of changes you need. Don’t forget to adjust the balance as you ascend as well. You’ll need to correct for the return of colors that were lost at depth.

Lighting

In clear water, you’ll usually have enough lighting to not need flash unless you’re quite deep. If there is a lot of particulate matter in the water, though, flash will highlight the particulates and obscure your subject.

Bringing along an underwater flashlight can be pretty handy. You can use this to “paint” the subject, and it weighs a lot less than external flashes. That said, it requires good coordination to hold the flashlight, keep your camera steady, and trigger the shutter. If you have the time, you can hold the light in your armpit instead.

You may want to experiment using an opaque diffuser in front of the in-camera flash as well. This can be very helpful in conditions that aren’t ideal.

Moving Subjects

Fish tend to move around quite a bit. You generally won’t be able to use a continuous shutter setting, since you’ll need slower speeds due to the lack of light.

When setting up your shot, move the camera slightly ahead of the fish’s apparent path so they swim into your photo. This will help you avoid getting a bunch of fish butt images.

Batteries

It’s really important to use fresh batteries, since you obviously can’t open your camera underwater and put in new ones. It’s incredibly frustrating to miss a great shot just because your power source crapped out.

Murphy’s Law guarantees this will happen seconds before that shot of a lifetime. Don’t let Murphy win.

Composition

The same principles apply to underwater photography as shots above the water, especially the rule of thirds. Composition can also be a bit tricky. You will lose even more depth in an image underwater, so you’ll want to be careful about objects in the background behind your subject.

Seahorse with pinecone algae

Contrast against coral can look great, but once you lose depth, it might just look like the fish has an interesting horn sprouting from its head. Straight-on images typically aren’t as good underwater. Whenever possible, try to get a bit below the subject before taking the shot.

When photographing structures, such as wrecks, make sure to get images from multiple angles. Often an image that appears to be only marginally good on your camera’s screen is absolutely wonderful once seen on the computer.

Macro Mode

Macro mode is a very popular setting for underwater photography, since so many objects have wonderful textures that can be highlighted by macro photography. This setting can also give you a better depth of field, which can be really important for getting the best images.

Yellow stingray

Use and Maintenance

If you’re going to be diving with a camera, make sure to let the dive center know in advance that you’ll need a bucket of fresh water for it.

Before placing the camera in its housing, make sure to check the (sealed) housing for leaks. Once that’s done, place the camera in the housing and leave it immersed in water before, in between and after your final dive.

After about every 10th dive or so, I like to immerse the housing for about 20 minutes in fresh water. While keeping it submerged, I push all the buttons several times. This helps free up any salt crystals that may have formed.

Improving Your Images

PADI offers an underwater photographer specialty course that is quite helpful. Students get to work one-on-one with an instructor to not only go over the basics of underwater photography, but also to improve their images.

Giant anemone with coral

They’ll also cover some editing basics as part of the course material. The manual includes a great slate to take along on your photo dives, so it’s really worth taking the course.

I would recommend taking the full course, though. Don’t do it as an ‘adventure dive’ as part of the Advanced Open Water diver course, as you’ll only get partially certified and will have to still buy the manual.

Additional Considerations

When diving, make sure to pick your buddy carefully. Not everyone appreciates moving at the slow pace of someone stopping to take a bunch of photos.

In a large group, it can also drive people crazy as divers with cameras tend to not stick with the group as easily. Try to keep other divers in mind while you’re busy snapping photos.


This article is part of Travel Photography Month, with tips and tricks, gear reviews, and advice from several great travel photographers.

Main image via joakant

About the Author
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Talon Windwalker

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Talon Windwalker is an author, writer, and scuba instructor slowly traveling the world. You can follow his adventures at 1Dad1Kid.com. If you love all things scuba, you should also “like” his scuba page.

Comments

  1. Avatar

    This was great. I definitely struggle with my underwater photography! Anything under 10m is pretty tough.

    1. Avatar

      Glad you found it helpful! Yes, once you dip below that 10m mark, white balance becomes crucial or else you end up with mostly blue photos and lose all the rich color.

  2. Avatar

    I have yet to really get into this since I only snorkel but now that I’ve seen this, I’m anxious to get under the sea with some good photography equipment! Thanks for sharing this information from Talon.

    1. Avatar

      It’s definitely a bit more challenging when you’re snorkeling, especially if the subject won’t stay still for you. But it’s so wonderful to be able to make a visual memory.

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