Are you a diver with a penchant for photography? Or are you a passionate photographer who knows how to dive? Do you want to take your photos to a whole new level – maybe a new lower level, somewhere deep under the sea?
Underwater photography isn’t just a whole new level – it’s a new world with infinite photo opportunities. However, it’s also where even experienced photographers struggle at first since every aspect of photography is more complicated underwater. However, this beginner’s guide will help you understand the basics of underwater photography so you can struggle less.
What is Underwater Photography?
Underwater photography refers to the practice of capturing images and videos while submerged underwater. It involves using specialized cameras, lenses, and accessories that are designed to work effectively in aquatic environments. Underwater photography can occur in various settings, including oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, swimming pools, and even artificial underwater environments like aquariums.
The primary challenges in underwater photography arise from the unique properties of water, such as light absorption, color distortion, and reduced visibility. These factors can significantly impact the quality and appearance of the captured images. Underwater photographers utilize specific techniques, equipment, and post-processing methods to overcome these challenges.
Specialized underwater cameras and housings are designed to protect the camera from water damage and maintain functionality at increased pressures. These camera housings are typically constructed from durable materials such as polycarbonate or aluminum and feature seals and O-rings to prevent water leakage.
Underwater photographers also use various lighting techniques to compensate for the loss of color and contrast caused by the water. Artificial lighting sources, such as strobes or underwater flash units, are commonly used to restore natural colors and illuminate subjects effectively. Additionally, natural light can be utilized when shooting in shallower depths or clear waters.
Composition and subject selection are essential aspects of underwater photography. Subjects can range from marine life, coral reefs, and shipwrecks to underwater landscapes and human divers. Capturing unique angles, perspectives, and moments can help create visually stunning underwater photographs.
Post-processing plays a crucial role in enhancing underwater images. Adjustments for color correction, contrast, and sharpness are often applied to compensate for the loss of clarity and vibrancy caused by water. Specialized software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop is commonly used for editing underwater photographs.
Underwater photography can serve various purposes, including scientific research, conservation efforts, commercial advertising, artistic expression, and recreational documentation. It allows us to explore and capture the fascinating and diverse world beneath the water’s surface, providing valuable insights into marine ecosystems and captivating imagery for people to appreciate and enjoy.
Purposes of Underwater Photography
Underwater photography serves several purposes across different fields and disciplines. Here are some of the key purposes of underwater photography:
Underwater photography is utilized in scientific research to document and study marine ecosystems, aquatic species, and their behavior. Scientists use underwater images to identify and track species, monitor coral reefs, analyze underwater habitats, and assess the impact of human activities on aquatic environments.
Conservation and Environmental Advocacy
Underwater photographs play a vital role in raising awareness about the beauty and fragility of aquatic ecosystems. They can be used in conservation campaigns, educational materials, and documentaries to promote marine conservation, advocate for sustainable practices, and encourage the protection of endangered species and habitats.
Documentation and Exploration
Underwater photography allows divers and explorers to capture and document their underwater adventures. It serves as a visual record of unique dive sites, encounters with marine life, and exploration of underwater landscapes, providing a means to share these experiences with others.
Commercial and Advertising
Underwater photography is used in various commercial applications. It is commonly used in advertising campaigns for scuba diving gear, snorkeling equipment, underwater cameras, resorts, and travel destinations. The captivating images help promote products and services related to underwater activities and tourism.
Underwater photography is also pursued as a form of artistic expression. Photographers use the aquatic environment as a creative canvas, capturing unique perspectives, vibrant colors, and ethereal scenes. Underwater images can be displayed in galleries, museums, and exhibitions, showcasing the beauty and mystery of the underwater world.
Underwater modeling can be a subset of beauty, fashion, and commercial photography. In some cases, models may wear scuba gear to capture lifestyle images. However, underwater model photography often focuses on creating artistic and captivating compositions. Models can be seen wearing swimwear in stunning aquatic environments or dressed in flowing dresses or street clothes, resulting in visually striking and one-of-a-kind images. It presents its own set of challenges, requiring models to have excellent buoyancy and control over their bodies. Looking good while swimming underwater is not an easy feat for most people.
Underwater photography is crucial in producing films, documentaries, and television shows that feature underwater scenes. It enables filmmakers and cinematographers to capture underwater sequences, marine life interactions, and underwater landscapes to enhance storytelling and create captivating visual experiences.
Education and Outreach
Underwater photography plays a role in educational materials, textbooks, and online resources related to marine biology, oceanography, and scuba diving. It helps illustrate concepts, showcase underwater biodiversity, and engage students in the study of marine environments.
These various purposes of underwater photography collectively contribute to our understanding, appreciation, and conservation of the underwater world while also serving as a medium for creativity and inspiration.
Skills Necessary for Underwater Photography
Before you can try shooting photos under the sea, you need to acquire these skills for your safety and enjoyment:
Scuba Diving Skills
While capturing impressive shots while freediving and snorkeling are possible, experienced underwater photographers know that scuba diving offers a more reliable approach. Scuba diving provides greater control over buoyancy and allows you to hover effortlessly in the water. This control enables you to position yourself carefully relative to your subject and take your time to compose the perfect shot. On the other hand, freediving lacks these advantages, making it challenging to capture well-composed images due to rushed shots taken while in motion.
Mastering scuba diving is a skill that requires practice and patience. Even if your primary goal is underwater photography, dedicating time to training and practice dives is highly beneficial. These experiences will help you feel completely at ease, ensuring you can fully concentrate on capturing stunning underwater photographs.
When it comes to underwater photography, buoyancy is the golden rule that amateurs often overlook. Maintaining good buoyancy is not only beneficial for yourself but also for the underwater ecosystem. Disturbing the water by kicking up sand due to poor buoyancy can result in hazy and unappealing photographs. Moreover, it may harm the habitats of marine life.
Before taking your camera on a dive, you must feel confident in your buoyancy skills. Consider taking courses specifically designed to help you perfect your buoyancy while diving. This will ensure that you capture clear, stunning images while preserving the underwater environment for future generations.
Technical Camera Knowledge
As a photographer, understanding your camera and its settings is vital. Learn how to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance to capture the desired effects underwater.
Suppose you already own a camera and are well-experienced using it on land. In that case, you may just need to apply some underwater photography tips and check if underwater housing is available for it. However, it’s important to note that a high-end DSLR camera that takes stunning pictures above water may not always be the best choice for your initial foray into underwater photography. The underwater environment can be overwhelming initially, and trying to manage a heavy camera rig while diving can dampen your enthusiasm.
Starting with a simpler point-and-shoot compact camera is often a better option. These cameras are easier to travel with and dive with, yet they can still produce impressive images thanks to modern camera technology. As your confidence and skills develop, you can consider investing in a larger or professional-level camera setup.
If you do opt for a larger camera system, it’s worth exploring special buoyancy aids such as arm floats and port floats. These accessories can help achieve neutral buoyancy, making it easier to handle your rig underwater.
Remember, the key is to choose a camera setup that suits your comfort level and allows you to enjoy the underwater photography experience. As you become more proficient and adventurous, you can gradually upgrade your equipment to match your growing skills and ambitions.
Besides knowing the ins and outs of a camera, you must also develop great photography skills before diving down. Develop a keen eye for composition and framing to create visually appealing underwater images. Consider the placement of your subject, background elements, and negative space.
Also, master the art of lighting in underwater environments. Learn how to effectively use natural light and artificial lighting sources like strobes or video lights to illuminate your subject and enhance colors.
Practice taking good photos on land first, taking note of composition, framing, colors, and lighting. Once you’ve mastered it, it will be easier to adjust underwater.
One valuable skill that can greatly benefit you as an underwater photographer is finning. There are various finning techniques to explore, and you can find helpful tutorials on platforms like YouTube to practice during your next dive. Learning to fin backward is especially useful for underwater photography. It allows you to approach rocks or corals closely to capture your desired shot and then smoothly move backward to continue your dive without turning your entire body around.
Developing your finning skills, including the ability to fin backward, will significantly enhance your maneuverability and control underwater. This skill will enable you to position yourself precisely for photography while maintaining better stability and minimizing disturbances to the marine environment.
Using editing and post-processing is a valuable tool to enhance the quality of your underwater photos. Most underwater images benefit from some level of editing to bring out their best. Familiarizing yourself with reliable image editing software, like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, is well worth the effort. During the post-processing stage, you can use various techniques such as applying filters, adjusting colors, optimizing brightness and contrast, removing backscatter, and cropping your images to improve their composition. These edits can significantly elevate the overall quality of your final photographs.
Patience and Observation
Underwater photography often requires patience and the ability to observe and anticipate unique moments or behaviors of marine life. When taking photos of underwater life, you have to be patient in waiting for the proper timing so as not to spook the marine creatures.
Adaptability and Problem-Solving Skills
Underwater photography can present unexpected challenges. Develop adaptability and problem-solving skills to overcome issues like limited visibility or equipment malfunctions.
Equipment for Underwater Photography
Underwater photography requires specialized equipment to capture stunning images in the aquatic realm. Here are some essential items to consider:
Obviously, you cannot be a photographer without a camera! Choosing a camera that suits your skill level and budget is important. Compact point-and-shoot cameras are popular for beginners due to their ease of use and portability. Meanwhile, advanced photographers often opt for mirrorless or DSLR cameras for their versatility and image quality.
- Underwater point-and-shoot cameras – These compact, waterproof cameras are ideal for beginners. They are simple to use, portable, and can take great underwater photos. They are designed to withstand water pressure up to around 65ft (20m) without the risk of flooding. GoPro cameras are a popular example of point-and-shoot cameras that are versatile and durable, perfect for various water activities.
- Underwater DSLR or mirrorless setups – If you want to take your photography to the next level, you can invest in a DSLR or mirrorless camera setup. These cameras offer higher resolution, greater control over settings, and the ability to use interchangeable lenses. However, they are not waterproof on their own and require special underwater housing to protect them underwater.
Underwater DSLR or mirrorless setups require careful camera matching with the proper housing and lens. Mirrorless cameras with large, bright back displays are particularly good underwater. For DSLRs, ensure the live view mode functions quickly and accurately. Adding strobe lights to the setup is crucial to compensate for underwater lighting challenges and revive colors.
It’s important to note that a complete DSLR setup can be bulky, so achieving neutral buoyancy is crucial. A neutrally buoyant camera setup allows for steady and blur-free shots. Struggling to frame your desired image due to buoyancy issues should be avoided.
Consider your skill level, diving experience, and photography goals when selecting the camera setup that best suits you. As you gain more experience and expertise, you can expand your gear and explore additional equipment options.
An underwater housing is a protective case that allows you to use your camera underwater. It seals the camera against water damage while providing access to controls and lenses. Make sure to choose housing that is compatible with your specific camera model.
Mainstream camera manufacturers offer their own line of underwater housings, typically rated at 30 meters (100 feet). These housings provide reliable protection for your camera in underwater environments. However, if you require greater depth ratings, specialized underwater gear manufacturers like Nauticam, Ikelite, Seacam, and others offer stronger housings that can withstand higher pressures. It’s worth noting that these specialized housings may be more expensive due to their advanced features and construction. Assess your specific diving needs and budget to determine the appropriate housing for your underwater photography adventures.
The primary function of the housing is to keep water out and protect your camera. This is achieved through a simple o-ring and clamp seal system. Before each use, it’s important to clean and lubricate the seal to ensure its effectiveness.
Some advanced housings may feature vacuum ports for testing the seal and warning systems to alert you if the seal fails, providing an added layer of protection.
The housing also includes waterproof buttons and knobs that allow you to control your camera’s functions. Each of these controls has its own o-ring seal, which can be sensitive to dirt and particles. To prevent damage, it’s essential to thoroughly clean the housing with fresh water after each use.
Remember to carefully follow the housing manufacturer’s proper use and maintenance instructions. Neglecting these procedures can potentially jeopardize the safety of your camera and lens.
Strobes or Lights
Underwater strobes or video lights are essential for illuminating subjects and restoring colors that are lost underwater. While natural light is an option, there are three main lighting choices to enhance your underwater photos: the camera’s built-in flash, a strobe, or underwater lights.
When starting out, you can rely on the built-in camera flash. However, keep in mind that its reach is limited underwater, making it suitable mainly for close-up shots of small subjects.
Using a strobe or video light is recommended to expand your creative possibilities. Strobes are more powerful than built-in flashes, allowing you to capture larger subjects and those located at a greater distance. However, it’s important to note that you won’t see the exact lighting effect with strobes before taking the photo.
Alternatively, underwater video lights provide constant illumination, allowing you to preview the lighting effect through the camera’s viewfinder before capturing the shot. These lights can be turned on and off as needed.
When considering additional lighting for your camera rig, starting with a single strobe and a small focus/video light is a practical choice. This setup will enable you to capture high-quality images of various underwater subjects.
Wide-angle and macro lenses are commonly used in underwater photography. Wide-angle lenses capture expansive seascapes and allow you to get close to large subjects, while macro lenses capture intricate details of smaller marine life.
The choice of lenses can greatly impact the versatility and creativity of your underwater photography. In underwater photography, wide-angle and macro lenses are commonly used. Different lenses are available for various shots, and compatibility depends on your camera type and model. Here are a couple of examples:
- Macro lens – A macro lens is ideal for capturing intricate details of small, close-up subjects underwater. It lets you focus on tiny marine life and reveal its intricate textures and patterns.
- Wide-angle lens with dome port – A wide-angle lens with a dome port can create a fish-eye effect, expanding your field of view and capturing the vastness of the underwater environment. This is particularly useful for landscape shots or capturing larger marine creatures.
Before purchasing lenses, it’s crucial to ensure compatibility with your housing. Check that your housing supports the specific lenses you intend to use. This ensures a proper fit and allows you to take full advantage of the lens capabilities while keeping your camera safe underwater.
Buoyancy Control Devices
Buoyancy control devices, such as buoyancy control arms or floats, help achieve neutral buoyancy while diving with your camera setup. These aids make it easier to maneuver and stabilize your equipment underwater.
Filters can enhance the colors and contrast of your underwater images. Consider using color-correction filters to correct the loss of red tones and enhance the overall color balance underwater.
Additional accessories like lens ports, focus lights, lens gears, extra memory cards, and underwater trays and handles can improve your underwater photography gear’s functionality and ease of use.
Don’t forget essential safety equipment such as dive computers, lights, knives, and a reliable dive mask. There is necessary diving equipment needed, whether you’re freediving, scuba diving, or snorkeling.
Remember, choosing equipment that suits your diving experience, photography goals, and budget is important. Regularly maintain and clean your gear to ensure optimal performance and longevity. Investing in high-quality equipment and continuously improving your skills will enable you to capture breathtaking underwater images.
Underwater Photography Tips and Techniques
Underwater photography can differ slightly from land photography, so you will need some helpful tips and tricks. To capture amazing photos under the surface, practice these tips and techniques:
Practice composition techniques
Composition underwater follows similar principles to above-water photography, but the unique underwater lighting opens up new creative possibilities. The presence of sunlight filtering through the water can add a captivating element to your shots. While strobes are important, consider incorporating other light sources, like sunlight from above, into your composition. Silhouettes and light rays can create stunning effects.
Even underwater, don’t neglect the tried-and-true composition techniques like the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio. These principles still play a significant role in determining the success of your images, regardless of the subject matter. So, remember to apply them to create visually compelling compositions.
Master your equipment before the dive
Make the most of every opportunity to practice, even if it may seem silly at first. Take short swims near the beach or have fun sessions in the pool to train yourself. This allows you to not only become familiar with your camera equipment but also practice setting it up and keeping it clean. The more you use your gear, the more comfortable you’ll become with it. When it comes to choosing the right camera for underwater photography, it’s an important decision. There are dedicated cameras specifically designed for underwater use, and you can find a helpful guide for selecting the best underwater cameras.
Many divers don’t have their own boats, so they often rely on scheduled trips with limited time. It’s crucial not to waste valuable dive opportunities by being unfamiliar with your equipment. Ensure you are well-prepared and knowledgeable to maximize your underwater adventures.
Use natural light to your advantage
When taking photos underwater, it’s best to shoot during the golden hours (early morning or late afternoon) because it’s when the sunlight creates a warm and vibrant ambiance. Experiment with different angles to capture stunning light rays and silhouettes.
External strobes are great for capturing great underwater images but don’t limit yourself to just using flashes. Get creative by incorporating the beautiful backlighting from the water’s surface into your shots. This not only uniquely frames your subjects but also adds depth and visual interest to your composition. Don’t overlook the power of natural light in your underwater photography. Take advantage of bright objects, such as reflective sand areas, which can serve as additional light sources in your photos.
Know the sun’s direction
Be aware of the sun’s direction when shooting underwater, as it greatly impacts the lighting and shadows on your subject. Unlike on land, it may not be immediately apparent underwater. Shooting towards the sun can result in backscatter caused by particles in the water, reducing contrast. Shooting slightly toward its angle can still create this issue even when the sun appears directly overhead. Position yourself with the sun behind you to capture natural-light photos with optimal clarity.
However, there are instances where shooting towards the sun can create interesting silhouettes and backscatter, adding a moody atmosphere to your images. These exceptions can be creatively appealing, but you need to be aware of the sun’s direction to take advantage of them. Remember, understanding the direction of the sun is crucial in underwater photography.
Understand how light behaves underwater
Light behaves differently underwater compared to on land due to various factors such as absorption, scattering, and reflection. Understanding how light behaves in water is crucial for capturing great underwater photographs.
- Absorption: Water absorbs light at different wavelengths, and as you descend deeper, certain colors are absorbed more rapidly than others. Red light is absorbed first, followed by orange, yellow, and so on. This phenomenon is known as color loss, and it means that the deeper you go, the less vibrant and colorful your images will appear.
- Scattering: Scattering occurs when light rays change direction as they interact with particles or molecules in the water. It leads to a loss of contrast, sharpness, and overall clarity in your photos. Tiny suspended particles, such as plankton or sediment, can cause scattering and reduce visibility underwater.
- Reflection: Light can also reflect off various surfaces underwater, including the water’s surface itself, the sea floor, corals, and other objects. Reflections can create unwanted glare or highlight certain areas, affecting your photos’ overall exposure and composition.
- Direction and Intensity: The direction and intensity of light play a significant role in underwater photography. Depending on the angle of the sun or artificial light sources, you can achieve different effects and highlight specific details. Controlling the direction and intensity of light can help create more dynamic and visually appealing underwater images.
These are why many underwater photos look dark, blue, and low in contrast. Photographers often use artificial lighting sources such as strobes or video lights to overcome these challenges. These help restore color, enhance contrast, and provide sufficient illumination to capture detailed and well-exposed photographs.
Shoot up and get close to your subject
The great thing about being underwater is that you can be free to move and take photos from any angle. Use that to your advantage when doing underwater photography. Shooting from the surface or shooting down is often easier, but it makes boring photographs. There’s less contrast, and it doesn’t captivate the beauty of your subject. Even in just a few feet of water, diving down means you can capture your shots horizontally, revealing more contrast and a captivating background. Consider shooting your subject at a slight upward angle – it gives a more visually appealing perspective of the subject and creates a striking contrast with the background, drawing attention to your focal point.
To enhance the visual impact of your photos, aim to get as close to your subject as possible. Underwater photography thrives on minimizing distance, preserving contrast, and vivid colors. This is why many photographers use ultra-wide lenses, including fish-eye lenses, to maximize their subjects’ proximity.
Focus on the eyes
When capturing underwater images, ensuring your subject is in focus is crucial. But where should you focus? In most cases, especially in wildlife photography, it’s best to prioritize the eyes. Even if other parts of the subject may be out of focus, keeping the eyes sharp establishes a connection between the viewer and the subject, making the overall image more captivating. Remember, focusing on the eyes creates a powerful bond that draws the viewer in.
Adjust white balance manually
Consider trying manual white balance adjustment for your underwater photography. When you set the white balance on your camera, you’re essentially telling it the expected color temperature of your photo. If you’re using a strobe or internal flash to illuminate a close subject, you can leave the white balance on Auto, as it adjusts to the flash’s color temperature. However, if you’re shooting in ambient light without artificial lighting, setting the white balance manually is recommended. Access your camera’s menu, navigate to the manual white balance setting, and capture a photo of a white dive slate. This helps restore the colors, especially in shallow water. Remember that manual white balance’s impact becomes less noticeable beyond 10 meters (30 feet) depth.
Adjust camera settings when changing directions
When shooting underwater, the direction you point your camera can affect your exposure settings. Shooting downwards, horizontally, or upwards requires different adjustments to get the right exposure. To handle these changes, try using aperture priority mode. This mode allows your camera to automatically adjust the settings based on your shooting direction, ensuring proper exposure. Another helpful feature is the Auto ISO setting. You can set a minimum shutter speed, like 1/200 second, and let the camera adjust the ISO as needed. This combination of aperture priority mode and Auto ISO gives you control over the aperture and shutter speed while adapting to different shooting directions.
Do not scare your subject
Avoid scaring your underwater subjects if you want to capture great photos. Chasing them will only result in missed opportunities and unflattering shots.
Instead, stay calm and minimize your movements. By being peaceful and non-threatening, you can gain the trust of the animals and capture better images. Remember, they have chosen their location for a reason and are unlikely to swim away if you maintain a steady presence.
If you’re snorkeling, practice diving down while holding your breath. This allows you to maximize your encounters with marine life. Stay still to conserve oxygen, and consider practicing in a pool if needed.
Equalizing the pressure in your ears is also essential for comfortable diving, whether snorkeling or scuba diving. Pinch your nose and gently exhale through it to release the pressure. This technique ensures a more enjoyable experience and prevents unnecessary flailing that might scare away your subjects.
Prevent fogging in your underwater photography gear to avoid ruining your photos. Fogging happens when water condenses inside the housing or lens, often caused by trapped humidity and temperature differences.
For underwater housings, use a desiccant pack to absorb moisture. Ensure the desiccant is new or dehydrated, as saturated ones won’t work. Alternatively, you can use tampon fluff as a makeshift option, but be careful not to let fibers or packs get caught in the seal.
If you’re using a GoPro or waterproof camera without extra housing, reducing the risk of fogging is still possible. Close the housing, including battery and charging ports, in a dry, air-conditioned space whenever possible. When changing batteries in a humid environment, ensure your hands are completely dry and prevent any droplets from entering the seal.
Avoid exposing the camera to direct sunlight or excessive heat, as this increases the likelihood of fogging.
Learn about the marine environment and respect it
Gaining knowledge about the marine environment is valuable for underwater photography. It keeps you safe by understanding potential dangers to avoid and helps you capture better shots.
Learning about marine life makes you familiar with their behaviors, enabling you to anticipate and photograph them effectively. Also, underwater photography often brings out vibrant colors that may appear differently in your photos than what you see with your eyes. Understanding the true colors present and how to incorporate them into your compositions can greatly enhance your underwater images.
Sometimes, it’s easy to get a bit overzealous when you see a subject you really want to photograph. But always remember that you’re just a guest, and as a guest in their environment, treating marine life with care should be a top priority.
Avoid the temptation to disturb or manipulate marine creatures for better photos. It’s unethical, dishonest, and can harm the animals. Instead, approach them calmly and capture your shots without causing any disturbance. Afterward, give the animals space to go about their natural activities.
Furthermore, be mindful of your equipment. Keep all hoses secured and avoid any dangling items that could potentially damage the delicate reef ecosystem. Practicing these considerations allows you to photograph underwater subjects while preserving the marine environment.
Learning and trying out underwater photography is an extremely rewarding activity. It may require lots of practice and specialized equipment, but it’s worth the effort for divers who like to share what they see below the surface. Underwater images bring us awareness of marine life and remind us of the interconnectedness of the planet.