The Ultimate Guide To Underwater Photography
Whether you're in search of truly great shots that can be sold to scuba magazines and stock photo websites or simply just enjoy documenting your underwater experience for yourself and your friends & family, understanding some of the theory behind underwater photography will go a long way to helping you come out with underwater images you can be proud of.
As a wildlife photographer who started his journey shooting marine life and who has over 20 years of underwater photography experience (I started on rolls of film rather than with a digital camera), I love sharing this passion with others almost as much as I enjoy taking photos myself.
In this guide for aspiring underwater photographers, we'll cover everything you need to know to ensure that you come away from all of your future dive vacations and local trips with great photos.
Table Of Contents
1. Mastering Scuba Diving Skills
Being comfortable and confident in the water is essential if you hope to produce decent underwater photographs. The following skills form the cornerstone for that: Advanced diving skills and experience (preferably, you should have at least 20-30 dives under your belt), good buoyancy control, a patient buddy and be calm while diving!
If you're still a beginner but plan to start taking photos underwater immediately while learning to dive at the same time, all I can say is: DON'T! You're simply not ready yet and you're most likely only going to slow down your progress in both skillsets.
How being a good diver will make you great underwater photographer
Once you start taking down a camera, you'll naturally start to focus more on taking photos than actually scuba diving.
This means that all scuba related activities should already be second nature to avoid too much task loading and minimise the risk to yourself and the environment.
Aside from the safety aspect, all great underwater photographers know that being comfortable and in control is what allows them to capture great images!
Moving in three dimensions to shoot moving subjects around often sensitive environments and in variable conditions requires an innate understanding of buoyancy that is built primarily through experience.
The ability to dive upside down or in other 'unnatural' postures will help you to position the camera where it needs to be to get the shot.
When you also take into consideration the weight of the camera and the drag it creates through the water, you start to understand why having excellent dive skills is so important.
Once you've identified what you think will be the next winning entry for “Underwater Photographer of the Year”, you’ll be there for quite some time snapping away.
Personally, my air consumption goes up by around 20% compared with when I am not taking photos. If you already have relatively high air consumption, as I do, I would suggest using a 15L (125 cf) tank to gain some valuable bottom time.
Nitrox (oxygen-enriched air) is also great for extending your dives - just be sure to get certified (it only takes a couple of hours) before using it!
2. Equipment For Underwater Photography
Where better to start than with your underwater camera setup?
Aside from your scuba gear itself, which certainly matters when it comes to underwater photography, but which there isn't scope for in this particular article, there is plenty to consider when selecting your camera equipment, underwater housing and accessories.
Selecting your equipment
Will you be shooting macro (small subjects) on a coral reef or focusing more on large pelagic species and the open ocean?
Are you mostly going to be in shallow or deeper water? What kinds of lighting conditions will you primarily be working with?
If you can answer these questions definitively, it's likely you're better of going with highly specialized equipment that suits the kind of photography you'll be doing.
More likely, however, you'll be diving in varied conditions that will depend on the locations you select for your dive vacations and the local conditions where you practice and train.
Although there is a lot to consider, such as whether you'll be using a DSLR, mirrorless camera or a point and shoot, as well as what accessories you'll need, the two most fundamental pieces of underwater photography equipment that you need to consider are your underwater housing and lens(es).
Shelecting an underwater camera housing
Selecting an underwater camera housing is normally quite easy as each camera model requires its own bespoke housing design that matches its ergonomics and button placement.
That means your main consideration is the brand of housing you are going to use and how much you're able or willing to spend.
Underwater housing brands
When it comes to housings for point and shoot cameras, there are plenty of affordable options such as Fantasea or the in-house brands made by the manufacturers of the cameras themselves.
My advice is that if you're planning on taking this hobby as far as you can, invest in a high-end underwater camera housing now rather than upgrading later. After all, even entry level models are not cheap!
Once you've selected a brand, learning how to put your camera inside its underwater housing correctly is essential to avoid flooding it and destroying your expensive investment.
You'll also want to practise using the buttons and levers on the surface to get accustomed to their placement before attempting to take your new rig down and begin snapping away.
Lens selection for underwater photography
As with on the surface, choosing a lens for underwater photography depends mostly on the size of the subject you are shooting and the kinds of distances you're expecting between yourself and the subject.
If you're mostly planning to shoot little critters on coral reefs, you'll want a macro lens with a longer focal length and close minimum focusing distance, whereas if you want a lens capable of capturing great shots of large pelagic animals you will need something a lot wider.
My preferred lenses
While different brands and cameras each have different lenses, the three lenses mentioned above are also perfect archetypes for wide-angle, macro and ultra wide-angle zoom photography respectively.
Fisheye lens (Ultra wide-angle photography)
With its ability to focus close-up and deepen the depth of field, this extremely wide-angle lens allows you to drastically reduce the distance between you and your subject.
Reducing the water column between the camera and subject results in clearer, sharper photos.
Macro lens (Macro photography)
When combined with twin strobes (the name for an underwater flash), you'll be able to shoot fantastic photos with excellent colour and clarity.
For a cropped sensor camera, a 60mm lens would do the job just as well. The 100mm can also be used as a fixed zoom to shoot larger yet more timid animals that you can't easily approach or even to capture a marine life portrait photo.
16-35mm Lens (Wide-angle zoom photography)
The best thing about using a 24mm focal length is that the shots come out just as you see with your own eyes, making it quite intuitive.
It also means that more than 90% of the photos I take with this lens do not require any cropping, resulting in higher resolution edited images that still look great when blown up and printed!
The exception to this is when you need to use it for macro while already on a dive, as you obviously can't swap lenses underwater, so you might as well capture the shot anyway and crop later. This versatility is another great feature of wide-angle zoom lenses.
3. Understanding the importance of light
The better you understand the behaviour of light, especially underwater, the better your underwater images will come out.
Keep in mind that water is 800 times denser than air! This added density means that it absorbs more light and decreases contrast and sharpness, resulting in duller, more monotone images than what you would get photographing the same thing on the surface.
Variables that affect the behaviour of light underwater
The amount of particulate matter in the water (plankton, sand, etc.) - once again, this is similar to dust, pollution or water vapour in the air, but with effects being more pronounced underwater.
Your depth - In totally clear water on a cloudless day some light penetrates to below 100m (330 ft) and you should have a lot of natural light down to at least 30m (100ft). In low visibility conditions on a cloudy day, it can be nearly pitch black at 5m (17ft)!
Weather conditions - As mentioned in the previous point, the amount of sunlight hitting the water can drastically affect visibility and thus your photographic strategy. Stormy weather can cause surges that kick up particulate matter.
The time of day - This factor is just as important in underwater photography as it is on the surface. You'll need to anticipate the effects of back and front lighting images, overhead sunlight and the overall amount of light based on the time of day you are diving.
Water conditions - Storms aren't the only thing that creates surges and kicks up particles, the ocean is a complex system of tides, currents, seasonal changes and much more.
Being close to your subject and/or having ideal conditions with minimum particles in the water is essential for clarity in underwater images.
Obviously, you don't always get what you want. This means you'll either need to keep on going back to the same spot in search of the 'perfect' shot or simply be in the right place at the right time – much the same as with other forms of wildlife photography.
Ambient light underwater photograpghy
Red has totally disappeared by 5 m (17 ft), with all colours other than blue rapidly disappearing by 30 m (100 ft). Much of this light can be restored using strobes, however, they are not the only (or even the best) tool you have at your disposal.
The direct effect of water filtering light is that no matter how powerful your strobes are, being more than 2.5 meters (8 ft) away from your subject (meaning the light travels a total of 5 m (17 ft) from the strobe to the subject and back to the sensor), will mean there is no red in your photo.
Any further and you'll also start to lose oranges and other warm colours. This is true no matter how big or expensive your strobes are!
Custom white balance
Many point and shoot cameras don't have this option, which is another great reason to make an upfront investment in something more powerful if you can afford to do so.
When used correctly, this setting allows your camera to automatically compensate for the colours you lose when photographing underwater.
To do this, you'll need to set your white balance using an image of a white or light grey slate taken underwater (this helps the camera to understand which colours to put back into the image to make the whites white again).
You'll need to read your camera's manual or watch a tutorial to see exactly how to do this for your model, but it shouldn't be complicated.
Top white balance tips
• Do a shallow (+- 5 m / 17 ft) and deep (+- 15 m / 50 ft) balance for best results - you can switch between them as you change depths.
• If you don't have a slate, try using white sand or anything else white, grey or even silver (fins, scuba tanks, etc).
• If your camera doesn't allow you to do custom white balance, you can shoot in 'Cloudy' (some cameras even have an 'Underwater' setting which is also OK, but not as good as custom).
• If shooting in RAW, white balance can be more easily modified in post-processing, which is a quick method but still not as good as using custom white balance.
Strobes and using artificial light
They're especially important if you'll primarily be doing macro and/or low-light photography. However, once you move on to using artificial light, there are a whole new set of challenges to overcome.
How to position your strobes for underwater photography
I am forever moving mine around underwater and adjusting the power output as required.
The objective is not just to light the subject and control shadows but also to reduce backscatter caused by particles in the water.
Having the strobes angled towards the subject and back slightly from the front of the lens helps a lot.
To further reduce backscatter, shooting across the direction of any natural light is also advisable.
After getting out from a dive and finding black bands through all my photos, I thought my camera had malfunctioned. Alas, no – it was simply an issue with sync speed!
What does this mean?
Well, essentially, with my Canon 5D Mark II, I could only use a maximum shutter speed of 1/200 sec because any faster would result in this so-called 'banding'.
All DSLR cameras suffer from this limitation, but not all cameras have the same sync speed.
Today, mirrorless cameras are in vogue and the newer ones seem to suffer even less from banding.
There are also differences between manufacturers, meaning it's best you do some research about the ideal sync speed for your specific model of camera.
4. Camera Settings For Underwater Photography
RAW vs JPG
As we've already discussed, the underwater world is not an easy environment for photography.
Your camera was not designed to work in this environment, so the ability to fine-tune your underwater images in post is critical.
In that sense, JPEGs simply just don’t cut it.
Shooting in RAW will give you a flatter (in terms of colour) image to begin with, but you'll be able tobring more of that colour back when editing.
Best camera modes for underwater photography
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to camera settings, however, as with surface photography, the more you can directly control (focus being the exception) the better the images you can create.
On the flip side, this means more to think about. That's where practice comes in!
When not using my strobes, I prefer aperture priority mode and manual ISO - generally set to over 800 to achieve as high a shutter speed as possible, as this creates sharper images.
That said, in low-light environments, the autofocus can be fooled at times and may end up hunting for a subject.
For closer subjects, you can get around this issue by using a focus light. This feature is built into many strobes and is much better than a torch as it automatically turns off before the flash happens and then comes back on again afterwards.
Focus light tip: Using a red filter makes it much less likely that you'll disturb the marine life before the strobes fire as most fish do not see red. A white light exposes them to predators, making it more likely that they will move off before you get a chance to capture the image.
5. Setting up and capturing underwater images
I look through the viewfinder to compose my shot as I would do on land, but this takes some getting used to.
If you're so inclined (and have some extra budget lying around), there are magnifiers available that make framing your image easier. Some are even angled to make it easier to get eye-level shots.
I use central spot focus, but I do move the spot around for composition, although this takes a little longer and requires a patient subject.
This is where your dive skills really come into play. Don't be afraid to get creative with your body position, but always be aware of your surroundings.
Even the best image is not worth getting separated from the group or running out of air at great depth.
Getting stung/bitten/scratched by a venomous critter or damaging sensitive marine life and/or your expensive equipment is no fun either.
It's not cheating, it's simply compensating for what the water takes away in terms of colour and clarity.
Good underwater photography requires that you get it right below the waves - no amount of post-processing or editing can make a bad image into a good one!
Hopefully, you remembered to set up your camera to capture images in RAW!
It's also important that you edit on a calibrated screen, as you would with any other kind of image or video post-processing.
The kinds of things you'll want to play around with include white balance, black and white adjustments, contrast curve adjustment, shadow recovery and sharpening. Cropping is also done here when necessary.
Best post-processing programs for underwater photography
As a final step, if there is excessive backscatter, I use Adobe Photoshop to apply layers of "Dust & Scratches” filters to the affected areas.
Having a good working knowledge of whichever software you use is essential to getting the most out of your images.
If neither of these exists in your neck of the woods, the internet is full of forums and discussion boards where you can get underwater photography tips and advice from fellow scuba divers and photography enthusiasts.
Before running off to the other side of the world for a fancy dive trip, watch tutorials about setting up your equipment. Start by practising on the surface and then move to shallow water.
Most importantly of all, enjoy every moment of your time underwater and never stop striving to showcase the wonder of Earth's blue places!
If you want to learn more about wildlife photography, check out my Ultimate Guide To Photographing Wildlife.
Want to see examples of my work?
If you're sufficiently inspired and would like to purchase one of my prints, be sure to visit the MS shop on your way out.
Thanks for reading and good luck out there!
About the Author
Originally focusing on underwater photography, he has since diversified his portfolio and is now passionate about all aspects of nature and wildlife photography.
Martin is based in London, UK but is always planning his next trip in search of more stunning images. The places where he has enjoyed photographing wildlife the most so far include Mongolia, Svalbard, Antarctica, South Georgia, Vietnam, Namibia, Kenya, Egypt and, of course, his native United Kingdom.