11 Tips for taking great underwater images

Colorful underwater subjectsUnderwater photography is rewarding and challenging at the same time.  The diversity of subjects under the sea is amazing and you will never get bored with the same kind of subjects.  Today you might be aiming your lens at a clownfish in a bed of anemone, a week later you might find yourself shooting at a shark, and after that, you may be framing up a nudibranch. With countless fish species and marine creatures in the sea,  there’s always something new that will pique your interest each time you go diving. You can also take photos of the different underwater topography like caves, cenotes, seawalls, and even wrecks that have been transformed into artificial reefs.

Unlike land photography, capturing photos underwater requires more consideration starting with the underwater environment that presents different challenges that one doesn’t normally encounter on land.

Key fundamentals

Here are some basic principles that can make shooting images underwater easier.  

1. Safety first – The first thing that you should consider when taking photos underwater is safety.  You need to sharpen your senses to be more aware of yourself, other divers and the wildlife around you.  Good buoyancy control that you learned during your PADI Scuba Diving Certification is a big advantage when taking pictures under the water because you will need to get close to your marine subjects without touching, disturbing or harming them.  Corals, for instance, are sensitive and a scuba diver’s careless movements can easily damage them.

2. Simple gear – You don’t have to feel pressured to buy an expensive camera right away to enjoy underwater photography.  Beginners can practice with a simple compact camera with manual settings or an action camera.

camera waterproof case3. Waterproof casing – Ensure that your camera is well-protected by a waterproof casing before using it in the water. The first precautionary measure is to make certain that there are no cracks or scratches on the rubber seal of the battery, memory card, and terminal covers. Remove any foreign particles such as dust, hair, or lint on the rubber seals or surface using a lint-free cloth before closing the cover properly.  Choose a waterproof casing custom-fitted for your type of camera model/brand (DSLR, point and shoot, or compact action camera) for maximized protection. Confirm the depth ratings of the casing to determine if it is appropriate for the dive that you intend to do. Keep in mind that a waterproof housing can only withstand certain pressures and may be susceptible to malfunction if you go beyond allowable depths.

4. Camera settings – Before the actual dive, spend time familiarizing yourself with the settings of your camera. If you’re shooting manual, you must first understand the relationship between essential concepts such as shutter, speed, aperture, and ISO.  Knowing how each one affects the other will enable you to come up with quality photos and the best way to learn this is by experimenting with your settings.

For DSLR in manual mode, experienced photographers recommend the following settings – Base ISO (usually ISO 100 or 200), F13, 1/200th (or maximum shutter sync speed);  center-weighted metering; and single-spot focus. You can lower your aperture to F7-F8 or increase it accordingly when taking photos of marine subjects like fish. For smaller subjects, you can lower your aperture (until F29) for more depth of field (DOF) and for supermacro, you can shoot using F25-F50 with a 100-105mm lens.  During the dive, you can adjust the shutter speed until you achieve your preferred background exposure: 1/30th for still objects, 1/60th for slow-moving marine creatures, and 1/125th for fast-moving subjects.

5. Right lens – If you already own several lenses, it’s good to know what appropriate lens to bring for your dive.  A wide-angle lens is ideal for taking shots of larger subjects while a macro lens is perfect for capturing details of tiny subjects.

Perfect shot6. Proximity – Water has the ability to absorb light and in the process reduce color, contrast and sharpness. This is why it is not uncommon for inexperienced photographers to find their initial underwater shots to have a dominant dull blue-green color. In order to produce a clearer, sharper and more colorful image under the sea, the photographer must limit the volume of water between the subject and the camera. The best way to achieve this is by maintaining a close distance to your subject; preferably within 12 inches.

7. Upward angle – Professional underwater photographers advice shooting upwards towards the surface for better composition.  When you shoot down, there is a tendency for the subject to blend with the blue water background and lose its unique qualities; with the exception of creatures with distinctive backs like turtles, sharks, whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Choosing a slightly upward angle will create the right contrast between the subject and the background.

8. White balance – White balance refers to the camera function that enables you to adjust how warm or cool your image will turn out.  The use of white balance may be a little tricky for beginners because of the risk of producing distorted colors.

If you’re new in underwater photography, the reason for adjusting white balance is to capture the true colors of the subjects as possible. Water absorbs the colors in light depending on the depth.  Warm colors are only visible up to 10 feet and the deeper you go, your surroundings appear more bluish-green. Red is the first color to fade, followed by orange, and then yellow. White balance helps you even out the missing colors by either using auto white balance or adjusting the settings. To correctly set your white balance, begin by ensuring that your flash is off then focusing your camera on something white or neutral such as a white slate or sand. Enthusiastic photographers recommend manually setting the white balance every five or ten feet for best results. However, when using the flash, switch your white balance to auto mode to prevent images from looking reddish.

9. Best time – In contrast to taking photos on land, where the best time is normally early in the morning or late afternoon, capturing pictures underwater is best done during noontime.  One must understand that the rays of light that penetrate through the water loses some of its red spectrum beyond a depth of 5 meters. Thus, it is best to take underwater shots during the time of day when the light takes the briefest distance to make its way through the water until it hits the camera lens which is ideally between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM.

10. Ambient light – If you are taking pictures underwater with natural light, it is best to shoot not more than 20 feet so that you can still have the benefit of the sunlight behind you.

11. Use of flash – If the subject is only 2 to 3 feet away, it is recommended that you turn on your internal flash but if the distance is beyond that, it is best to turn it off.  External flash or strobe light is a helpful accessory that you can consider buying later on to improve the quality of your images. Using a strobe light can help minimize backscatter which refers to suspended underwater particles or debris that usually appear as bright spots on the image.

Action camera tips

Some divers who don’t have a professional camera but love dabbling in underwater photography, go for the more affordable and versatile action cameras like the popular GoPro. These action cameras, also known as adventure cameras have revolutionized the way people take photos and videos in extreme conditions. In fact, many travel junkies are leaving their larger traditional cameras at home in favor of the GoPro.

The tips mentioned earlier are also applicable to the GoPro but here are additional tips that might help beginners like you get the best underwater shots using your action camera.

  • Waterproof capability – Before taking the plunge with your action camera, check its waterproof capability. For instance, the newer GoPro models like the Hero5 and Hero6 are waterproof up to 33 feet but they require dive housing beyond that point. The older models are not waterproof and need a dive housing to protect the camera when submerging in water. A dive housing will allow the diver to bring the camera up to depths of 197 feet (60 meters).
  • Cleanliness check – Check and clean your action camera prior to your dive. Make sure that there is no trapped dirt on the rubber gasket and that the housing is closed properly to avoid leaks. Inspect your lens for dust and fingerprints that may affect image quality.
  • Time-lapse mode and interval – It’s recommended to use the time-lapse mode of two seconds on your GoPro in order to see the LCD monitor when you adjust your composition.  Take note that using a faster interval will leave you with a black LCD.
  • White balance – For all auto cameras with no manual controls like the GoPro, using red color correction filters can help bring out the real vibrant colors of the underwater surroundings. For better results, plan your dive and the depths that you will descend to attach the appropriate color correction filters for your camera.

If you want to apply these fundamental tips in real life, enroll in our Underwater Photography Course which is specially designed to teach passionate divers like you how to shoot great images and work efficiently underwater.

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