You don't have to be a professional photographer to take up underwater photography. Tourists, snorkelers, and recreational divers alike have taken an interest in it as a hobby and have taken excellent shots using inexpensive underwater cameras. All it takes is a little practice and, of course, a penchant for being underwater. Yes, pulling off some of those incredible deep-ocean shots requires a lot of formal diving training–please, don't try it without training – underwater photography can be enjoyed even by those only comfortable at the shallow end of a swimming pool. Here are a few tips to help you get your feet wet in the world of underwater photography.
Freediving Competition: Official Top by jayhem, on Flickr
- This may go without saying, however, its importance warrants a mentioning; if you're going to purchase a housing rather than an underwater-specific camera, invest in a good quality underwater housing that you trust putting your expensive camera in and submerging it in water. Evaluate your budget and shop around for the best housing that falls within your range. Also, don't make the assumption that the housing will give you access to all the controls on your camera, whether it be a DSLR or point-and-shoot. Try the housing out first and make sure that it will give you access to the camera functions you most frequently use and provide easy access to the aperture ring, shutter release, etc. If you plan on using wide lenses, make sure ahead of time that the housing allows a little extra room to accommodate their size. Lastly, be aware of the depth rating of your housing. Most better grade housing will suit most recreational divers, but if you plan on diving past 40 meters or so, you may need a specialty housing.
- If you purchase a new camera for your underwater photography, familiarize yourself with it before you take it underwater. It will be a lot easier to learn its menus and settings when you are at home. Take some sample shots in low-lighting so you know how your camera will handle such conditions. Be prepared before you hit the water!
- Use your flash and consider investing in an underwater strobe if you plan to take your underwater photography seriously. The additional light will not only brighten your photographs and allow you to use a faster shutter speed, it will also help balance out the colors. Use a warm temperature strobe, ideally around 4500k, especially when shooting in blue water. You may consider using gels to warm up cooler balanced strobes or flashes. When shooting macro underwater, a good light source is almost always necessary. Make sure your camera is set to forced flash as opposed to auto. Also, many housings will come equipped with a flash diffuser so if yours doesn't, be sure to find one that will fit in your housing. Keep in mind that, when your subject is beyond 3-feet from you, your on camera flash mostly becomes irrelevant, turn it off and use a strobe instead.
Cangrejo multicolor by Pablo Bou, on Flickr
- Shoot in RAW if possible, this will make the process of white balancing much easier during post production. If you must shoot in JPEG, it's good practice to manually adjust the white balance on your camera about every 10-feet you dive downwards. You can use a white dive slate as a “grey card” and some have had good results using a silver or white dive tank.
- Move in as close as possible to your subject, within reason. Now, don't go sticking your camera and strobe in the face of a hungry shark, and use your best judgement as to how close is “too close.” Shoot in macro mode when your subject is within 2 feet of you and rather than using zoom, move your camera closer or farther from your subject to assist with focusing. Having some experience in above water macro photography will help you with this immensely, so get some practice on ground beforehand.
- Use the sun as a fill light by placing yourself at eye-level or below with your subject and shooting slightly upwards towards the surface of the water. This is especially effective in shallower water. If the sun is your only light source, stay above 20-feet and be sure that the sun stays behind you.
- Shoot at your camera's base ISO setting, usually around 100. Your aperture will vary greatly depending on your conditions and composition of the photograph. As a rule of thumb, shooting around F13 will be good for the average shot, but can increase to upwards of F29 depending on how small your subject is, how close you are to it, and what you want the depth of field to be. The best way to figure this out is to experiment using different apertures.
Mandarin Fish – mating by Stephen Childs, on Flickr
- Shutter speeds, too, will vary greatly depending on the specific photograph you are taking. A good starting point is 1/30 for still shots, 1/60 for slow moving objects, and 1/125 or faster for quick moving objects. Again, it's best to experiment, bracket exposures, and use your experience as photographer to find the correct settings.
Remember, as with all styles of photography, the best way to improve your craft is by practicing it! Each photoshoot will present you with it's own set of complications. While reading manuals and tutorials is helpful, it's difficult to learn all you will need to know from them. So get out there, start shooting, and, as always, be sure to share your best tips and shots with us below.
Tiffany Mueller is a professional music and fine art photographer. Published in various publications including magazines, art journals, as well as books, Tiffany has been fortunate enough to have been in a perpetual state of travel since her youth and is currently working on a 50-states project. You can keep up with Tiffany via Twitter at or on her personal blog.
A couple of things that need to be mentioned: #1 remember that things look 25% larger and closer underwater than they really are; if you don’t when angling your flash, you’ll see a bright spot behind your subject, which will remain in the shadows. #2 Don’t aim the flash right at your subject or you’ll have a good chance of back-scatter in your photos caused by light reflecting off particles in the water and bouncing into the lens’ “line of sight.” And you will probably blow out your highlights; white, light colors and shiny fish scales reflect light….#3 Unless you are doing natural light photography at shallow depths, you will NEED your strobe. Water is denser than air and bends the light. Remember the name ROY G. BIV; red orange yellow green, blue indigo violet. That is the order in which those colors disappear UW, shorter wavelengths going first. Reds start fading at about’ 12 to 15′ depending on available sunlight and water conditions. At 65′, BIV remains, again depending on sunlight. Your flash adds light and makes those “missing” colors visible to the human eye at depth, but only within the flash range. #3, If conditions are really stirred up, turn off the strobe and try shooting available light to minimize backscatter. Lastly, for best results, know and shoot within the limitations of your camera equipment.(Hints from a retired PADI UW Photographer and UW Digital Photographer instructor). My UW camera is a Nikon D100 in a Light and Motion housing with twin strobes; topside I shoot with a D700.