Five Tips For Aspiring Underwater Photographers

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The advent of affordable compact digital cameras and housings means that underwater photography is no longer the exclusive remit of experienced professional photographers. It is now a realistic and accessible pastime for members of the general diving public, and with a little practice there’s no reason why even novice photographers can’t get good shots. Here are a few basic guidelines that will help make the learning curve a little less steep.

Leave the camera behind

This may seem like a strange piece of advice for those keen to start shooting underwater, but in reality it makes perfect sense. Before purchasing a fancy underwater camera and all the accessories to go with it, make sure that your dive skills are up to scratch. A diver that attempts to take on photography before perfecting basic scuba skills is a liability- a danger not only to himself, but to his buddy and to the reef around him. Buoyancy control is key- you need to be able to adjust your position in the water column without using your hands to add or dump air from your BCD, just as you need to be able to hover in one place in order to take a clear photograph without holding on to the reef.  You also need to be generally confident underwater, and to be aware of yourself as a diver- you need to be conscious of your air consumption and depth, and be able to juggle a camera whilst checking each of your safety gauges without becoming flustered.

underwater photography tipsDivers who attempt underwater photography before they are ready will end up task-loading and could forget to concentrate on the things that really matter- no photo is worth compromising either your own safety or that of the divers around you. Before starting with your own camera, consider enrolling on a program like PADI’s Digital Underwater Photography specialty course- that way, your first experience with a camera will be in a controlled environment under the supervision of a certified instructor. Your instructor will also be able to advise you on the best tips and techniques, helping you to achieve beautiful images that much quicker.

Get close, and then get closer

Once you feel that you are ready to venture underwater with your camera for the first time, remember the golden rule of underwater photography- get as close as you can. Obviously, if photographing a temperamental moray eel or a venomous blue ring octopus, exercise caution; but otherwise, the closer you are, the better your photo will turn out. Because water is 800 times denser than air, colour, contrast and sharpness become increasingly reduced the further you are from your subject. Therefore, the less distance there is between you and whatever you are attempting to photograph, the more vivid and in focus it will be. If you are using a strobe, proximity to your subject also reduces backscatter, simply because less water means less particles to reflect the light of your flash. Getting as close as possible when using a flash also means that the maximum amount of light falls on your subject, helping to make your photo clearer and brighter.

Never use your camera’s digital zoom underwater; instead, fill your frame by moving closer. If your camera has a macro mode, or if you have a macro lens for your camera, use it to achieve sharpness in close-up photos. Different cameras have different focal ranges- on average, the focal range for macro settings is between 2 inches and 2 feet.

Pay attention to composition

 Composition is often what separates an average photograph from a really good one. Too many amateur photographers make the mistake of shooting downwards at the reef from their position a few metres above it. While this can sometimes work depending on the situation, in the majority of cases this results in an image with a confused background, and poor contrast between your subject and the darkness of the seafloor. You want the focus of your photo to be clear, not lost against the background. Instead of shooting downwards, try to get as low as you can and shoot from beneath your subject. That way, it will be framed against the clear blue of the ocean, silhouetted against the sun, or emphasised against the ridge of the reef. If you’re taking photos of marine life, make every effort to ensure that the creature’s eyes are in focus, as this will draw the viewer in to the image. Additionally, try to fill the frame without cutting off fin tips or tentacles- that way, you’ll have a complete image with a clear focal point. Many photographers forget to shoot portrait underwater, perhaps because we as divers typically move horizontally through the water. As a result, portrait photos are often interesting in their uniqueness. Experiment with composition, photographing a subject in several different ways to see which version comes out best.

Use a flash, or make the most of ambient light

It’s a fact that without the proper use of light, underwater photographs will always be rendered in unimpressive shades of blue and green. However, if you learn to use your internal flash, a strobe or ambient light correctly, you will be left with photos that accurately represent the true vibrancy of the underwater world. If you’re using your camera’s internal flash, set it to the forced flash mode to ensure that it always goes off. When using any kind of flash (internal or external), you won’t be able to manually set your white balance- leave it on auto and let your camera do the work. (NB- white balance is the setting on your camera that makes white appear white at depths where colours no longer appear as they would on land). If you find yourself getting more serious about your underwater photography, one of the best investments you can make is in an external strobe. Not only do strobes afford better illumination, but they also enable you to cut down on backscatter by positioning them as far from your housing as possible and angling them so that they don’t shine directly onto your subject. Using a flash of any kind can help increase sharpness by freezing motion.

Alternatively, if you prefer to shoot using only ambient light, you should use your camera’s manual white balance setting if you have one. This will require you to take a photo of something white (sand, for example) at the depth at which you’re going to shoot, so that your camera can adjust its colour settings accordingly. This eliminates some of the blueness that is a symptom of shooting underwater, rendering colours more as they would appear in normal light. Don’t forget that the deeper you go, the more colour is lost- you will need to reset your white balance every time you change your shooting depth. One of the best ways to get good colour while shooting with ambient light is to stay as shallow as possible, where sunlight still penetrates enough to allow well-lit photos without compromising with a slower shutter speed. At depth, you will have to reduce your shutter speed, making your photos blurry.

Take as many photos as possible

They say that practice makes perfect- that’s certainly the case with underwater photography. Familiarise yourself with your camera on land, read the manual and learn how all of its settings work- then go diving. The beauty of digital photography is that it allows you to take thousands and thousands of photos at virtually no cost- make the most of it by diving as often as you can and experimenting constantly with your camera. Don’t be discouraged if your photographs aren’t award-winning material straight away- instead, learn from your experiences and over time, you’ll see a huge improvement. Underwater photography isn’t easy, but when it comes together, it’s absolutely worth the effort.

About the Author

Jessica Vyvyan-Robinson

Originally from England, I first learned to dive so that I could go cage diving with great whites off Guadalupe Island, Mexico, in 2008. From that first shark encounter onwards, I have been utterly hooked on the underwater world, and particularly on the issue of shark conservation. Whilst studying for my degree in London, I worked at London Aquarium, before going to Mozambique to research whale sharks off Tofo. I completed my PADI Instructor’s course while living in South Africa, and spent nine months teaching and guiding on Aliwal Shoal, where I set up a tiger shark ID project and began writing for the conservation organisation Shark Angels. In September last year, I set off on a thirteen month journey around South East Asia, Fiji and New Zealand, and am currently instructing in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo.

Jessica writes for several dive publications including and