Underwater Photography Guide
Scuba diving is a fantastic way to spend some time away from it all, no mobile phones, no computers just you the sea and everything that lives in it. It’s also a great new exciting world to photograph through snorkeling or scuba diving. In this guide I walk you through the gear and how to take great shots under the sea.
I would highly recommend taking the PADI Advanced Diver course before you venture out and indeed take the underwater photography course they offer too.
Please make sure you plan each dive very carefully as you could waste valuable air when faffing around underwater for you and your dive buddy. If you want to take the planning element out of the equation then join up with the many tours available across the globe. Else read on and lets get you started on your underwater photography adventure.
Selecting a Camera & Housing
Knowing your camera inside out is imperative to underwater photography and the range of underwater housing available for those cameras.
Plus it’s not all about the camera itself, make sure you’re comfortable with the housing you select as this will make or break your shooting experience. The way you attach accessories, the way it shuts and level of maintenance are all to be considered. Almost as important are your hands, your dexterity will be tested to the max so how your fingers can reach for the buttons on the camera housing is crucial to success. As a result you will not only need to know the camera buttons but how those change on the back of the housing, buttons maybe inaccessible.
It would also make sense to look for a housing and then asking, which camera brands can this housing hold. As for the camera itself get the largest format you can. Full frame would be a popular choice to let maximum detail in as possible when under water.
If you can find some housing that allows it, then using the rear screen can have some huge advantages to underwater photography. Something the mirrorless cameras and some compact cameras excel at. DSLR cameras have a live view mode but sometimes doesn’t contain all the rear screen information a mirrorless does, the only downside is some mirrorless cameras especially the early generation ones have poor battery life lasting only a few hundred shots.
One brand which has been doing well in the underwater photography space (and protecting the camera from the elements) is innovative Outex. They make specialist “bags” or thick rubber skins for you camera which means you are not limited to a hard shell, very handy if you are not going deep. The Outex Pro Kit works with ALL Mirrorless, DSLR, Canon, Nikon, Sony cameras and others and is less than $500. What’s cool is that can screw into the thread on your lens to secure them meaning they are versatile; check out the video below to see more how they work.
Selecting a Lens
Selecting which lens will all depend on what kind of shoot you are planning for, however 24-70mm is a pretty popular choice for multi purpose underwater photography however most zoom lenses do not have a great short focal length distance so for photographing things like small marine wildlife close ups then select a macro lens.
Choose a 16mm or wider lens especially for larger marine wildlife. If you have an APS-C camera then a 10mm or even a fish-eye make great underwater choices and present some brilliant creative options.
Wrecks would also have a few options for lenses, depending if you plan on diving through them or not. Again if you know there are small items of interest then take a short macro lens such as a 50mm prime. For looking down onto a wreck that’s too dangerous to swim through then use a wider prime lens.
With a macro lens you will be presented with some amazing opportunities to shoot images and crop in like never before, check which is the best length which can fit into the housing you have maybe rent it for the day. The macro is surprisingly versatile underwater as long as you don’t go for a focal length of more than 90mm however the chances are that will be too long for the housing if you used a hard shell anyway.
Getting close to your subject is key to great shots of fish, marine life and fauna because the light underwater is reduced in terms of colour, contrast and sharpness as the water acts like a giant filter between your camera sensor and your subject.
At around 20 inches you will see plenty of colour appear and as far away as 2 feet but at 20 inches you should be more than close enough to get all the detail required to make a great image. Try and take the shot at the subjects eye level as just like portraits that’s much more flattering to your subject.
Before you go in and get all trigger happy there are a few things to be aware of, your interaction with subjects matter not only for marine life but also for yourself. Spooking marine life can interfere with your dive party and create murky conditions very quickly if you disturb the subject and if you need to react quickly to a situation.
Always approach with high level caution and think about how you can get the shot and remove yourself as quietly and quickly as possible, slow your breathing for the last inch or so as fish and alike are more scared of the bubbles from the regulator than they are of you.
Shallow water is the best place for underwater photography with ambient light as the surface is nice and close and during a bright day the sun can light up to depths of around 30 feet or so. Also this is within reach of some snorkeling too if you didn’t want to take out an aqualung or the seabed is close enough to free dive if you like that kind of thing.
So shooting without flash means you always have to have the sun as your light source behind you and don’t get in between that and your subject. Creating a shadow can impact your ability to capture colour affecting your underwater photography. Just like shooting on the surface, you may need to ramp up your ISO to around 1000+ to get a great shutter speed that gives lovely crisp images without any kind of blur as the light is slightly less than perfect.
UNDERWATER FLASH & ARTIFICIAL LIGHT
Creating artificial light underwater can bring a whole host of problems, mostly because many underwater photographers use the on camera flash, not only is this quite harsh on the eye and resulting image, it can over power the colour range and only make a small section of your image colourful. Certainly if you’re using a wide lens.
Adding two off camera flash heads that sit either side of the camera, one slightly higher and one slightly lower will create a lovely wall of light that will last for around 3 to 5 feet. There are many guides out there on the web that will contest flash should be used this way and that way, however I have found “spotting” your flash in one area alone can be very limiting and increasing your chance of highlighting small items in the water you may not want in your image.
Defusing the light is imperative to your success as well, making a wide spread of light is one thing but using the housing defuser will also create a softer feel to your composition. One hack that I use for underwater flash is applying clear sticky tape to my flash head which is normally enough to defuse and not block a whole stop of light from entering the frame.
Also with flash stay limited by the xsync of the camera, typically this is anywhere between 1/200th and 1/250th but should be enough to freeze any subject and if you wanted to keep the flash in TTL mode (nothing wrong with that) then do so and make sure the flash is set to underexpose by 1/3rd of a stop.
Doing so means you will never over power the scene and if it’s a tad dark you can always recover the scene in post production. TTL does have a habit of over exposing underwater, if you’re using manual flash then set to ½ power depending on your unit but that most powerful heads I set to ½ power and then adjust my camera settings or close up the aperture when needed. That way I just have one dial to worry about and not two.
Colors will also be more sensitive to shutter speed than aperture especially the colour of the ambient water around you, slower shutter makes the scene more blue, faster more green.
Another way is to use continuous lighting through LED panels or light bars that are waterproof, some need housing, some don’t the draw back here is pretty much everything in the water will see (and hear) you coming.
Remember just because you’re underwater doesn’t mean you have a new set of rules for composition, keep your rule of thirds guidelines on as they will give you a small reminder that a great shot still needs some work.
Try and plan a swim with your buddy diver and ask them to use a torch to add something to the background or something that creates an element of depth or an expansive ocean.
Pretty much all the best images I have seen from underwater photography combine the two elements or composition and bokeh really well. Bokeh or background de-focus isn’t always your friend under water so try and keep that f stop above f/5.6 for example where possible and to try and show what’s around your subject if need be but you can be creative as you like.