Underwater Photography Tips for Beginners
Underwater photography is a natural progression for most divers who want to show their friends and family all the amazing animals they saw on their dive vacation.
Underwater photography can be extremely rewarding, however if you don’t know what you are doing, it can be equally infuriating. Many new photographers will get discouraged quickly if they cannot get the shots they desire, often blaming their equipment. While your camera equipment does limit you to an extent, most of the time it is simply bad technique or not understanding how to correctly use the equipment.
Here are my top tips for those who are just getting started with their underwater photography career.
Get the Full Package
Underwater photography is not a cheap hobby, but it is defiantly a lot cheaper today than it was a few years ago. I remember buying my first camera set up, and it set me back around £700 for a mid-range camera and a housing that looked like a toy.
Nowadays, you can find complete packages for that price that includes a pretty good camera, a decent housing, a strobe (the external flash) and all the bits necessary to put it all together. The strobe is not absolutely necessary, however your pictures will suffer without one, especially in low light conditions. Although I highly recommend getting a strobe, as a beginner, one will be enough for most situations, and you can pick up a second one at a later date if you think you need it.
If you don’t want to spend so much, consider buying a second hand set up. Many photographers will sell their equipment as newer models come out, and you can swoop in and pick up a real bargain. There are multiple groups on Facebook that focus on underwater photography, and many have market places where the equipment gets sold. I bought my current camera set up (which was released in 2009) second-hand back in 2015, and I am still very happy with it.
Know your Camera
Taking photos underwater is not like taking photos on land. You need to take a lot of things into consideration. Am I or the subject moving? How good is the visibility? How much light is available? And so on…
Most new underwater photographers will set their camera into auto mode, and end up disappointed when the final pictures end up washed out, dark, and overly blue.
Your camera’s auto setting is not your friend for underwater photography. Ideally you will use manual, or a semi manual mode such as aperture priority, however, you can only really use these modes if you understand what is happening inside the camera when you hold down the shutter button.
Your first step in learning how to take good underwater pictures is to learn the three pillars of photography – ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. There are thousands of articles online about these subjects, and it doesn’t take long to get a good understanding of how the three alter an image.
Jump in the Pool
The best way to improve at anything is to practise. Obviously this can be difficult if you only take one or two diving holidays a year, so why not head to your local dive club and join in for a confined water session. Because swimming pools are usually shallow, you can spend a long time underwater and not have to worry about decompression time.
Take a few toys in the pool with you and try different setting combinations to achieve the kind of shots you want.
If you prefer to only have the subject in focus and everything else blurred, you should open your aperture and increase your shutter speed to stop the image from being over exposed.
If you want the subject and the background to all be in focus, you will need to close the aperture and reduce the shutter speed to stop it from being under exposed. You may need to increase the ISO if the image is still too dark at shutter speeds less than 1/60.
Another important consideration is the strobe angle. Unless you want half of the subject shrouded in shadows, you should place the strobe directly above the camera at a 12 o’clock position so the flash will light the whole subject. Remember to play around with the flash power settings too.
Take a Few Test Shots
As a beginner photographer, you should always spend the first couple of minutes of a dive getting the aperture and shutter speed right. The beauty of macro photography is that once all the camera settings are in place, you don’t really need to touch them again, instead altering the strobe power settings to change the pictures exposure.
A rock or a piece of coral is a good subject for this. When you are happy with the way the image looks, you can start moving onto other subjects. This step is very important because too much flashing from your strobe or flash will stress most critters and cause them to flee or turn their back to you. If you are using any form of flash underwater, you should limit yourself to a maximum of five shots per subject.
In time, you will understand how to quickly make changes underwater to get the shot you want, but at the beginning, it is better to practise on a rock before a seahorse!
Get as Low as Possible
Our main light source while we are diving comes from the sun. You want to try to get as much of that available light as possible, and the only way to do that is by trying to get on the same level as the subject, or even below it. This rule is even more important if you are not using any form of flash, as shooting downwards will result in a very dull image.
There are times where you will want to shoot from above, such as taking shots to identify a nudibranch species, and there are times where it may not be possible to get as low as the subject. In these situations, you have to play around a bit to get the results you want.
If you are trying to shoot a scene rather than an individual subject, having the camera level or pointing slightly upwards is especially important. Just remember that you might need to close your aperture and increase your shutter speed to compensate for the extra light the sun will provide.
Get Close and Don’t Zoom
As you are probably aware, water absorbs light.
If you are using any form of flash, the furthest you can be from the subject is two metres. Any further than that and the light will not reach the subject and make it back to the camera. Zoom should almost never be used underwater because it will simply make the image look washed out and dull.
Although it is important to get close, you should be aware of your cameras minimum focal range, as if you go beyond this point, the camera will not be able to focus on the subject. For most compact cameras, this is around five centimetres.
Patience is a Virtue
No matter how good your intentions are underwater, most animals will be wary of you and not follow their usual behaviours.
If you want to get a good picture of a critter that is half hidden in its home, the worst thing you can do is just swim in there and start flashing bright lights at it. All you will do is stress the animal out more and it will retreat from you.
The best way to get a photo of almost any fish or underwater critter is to wait patiently close by it, and let it see that you are not a threat. It won’t be too long before it realises this, and then you can slowly approach to get the perfect picture.
You can use this waiting time to set the camera up if you haven’t already done so. Remember that the moment you start using your flash, the critter will most likely start retreating again.
Get the Focus Right
By far the most important rule in photography is that your subject must be in focus.
The point of focus changes depending on what you are photographing. If you are taking photos of people or animals, the key focal point is the eye. This is because our eyes are drawn to the face and the eyes of the subject, and if it is out of focus, we don’t know where to look. With nudibranchs, you should keep the focal point on the rhinophores – their antennae – as their eyes are almost non-existent. Don’t worry if the rest of the image is blurry or slightly out of focus, this can actually add to the picture if done correctly.
If you are shooting landscapes, you have a little more room to play with regarding focal point. You could even shoot with a closed aperture and get most of the scene in focus, or you could choose an object to focus on, such as a beautiful soft coral or a sea fan.
Remember when you are taking the picture that you need to half depress the shutter button to allow autofocus to do its thing.
If your camera is struggling with autofocus – which can be quite common with small critters in low light conditions, your strobe will most likely have what’s known as a “focus light”, which is a narrow beam of light that you can use illuminate the subject a little to help the camera focus.
The Rule of Thirds
Framing your image is also an important aspect of photography.
The rule of thirds is not really a rule, but more of a guideline to help you frame the photograph correctly.
Imagine your final photograph will have lines across the X and Y axis that divide the photograph into thirds. The point these imaginary lines cross is where you want the centre of focus to be. All modern cameras allow you to change the centre of focus, so you should learn how to do this and play around with this function. The best way to keep your underwater snapshots interesting for others is to keep moving the centre of focus – sometimes closer to the top left, other times closer to the bottom right. Having the centre of focus directly in the middle occasionally is fine, just don’t overdo it or your images will become boring to your viewers.
Go Super Macro or Wide Angle
Unfortunately, your camera does have its limitations. It probably isn’t capable of getting an amazing close up of a pygmy seahorse, nor can it take a wide angle shot the whole reef scene that you can see with your own eyes.
Luckily for us, there are a few simple add-ons that can help us out for these types of photographs.
Most camera housings support ‘wet lenses’, which are attachments that you can add to the outside of the camera housing. Wide angle wet lenses will increase your cameras field of vision so you can get more of the surroundings into your image, and macro wet lenses boost your cameras magnification capabilities.
Wet lenses are not too expensive, and they will unlock so many more photographic opportunities. The best thing about wet lenses is that you can change them during the dive, so by having both you are ready for whatever might show up during the dive, be it a mola mola or a blue ringed octopus. Just make sure you safely stow them away when you are not using them!
Remember that if you are interested in picking up some wet lenses, make sure they are compatible with your camera housing.
Remember that even the professionals were beginners at some point!
The learning curve is quite steep with underwater photography, but once you have the basics down you should be able to consistently get good photographs. Macro is much easier than wide angle for beginners, so at first you should focus on this so you don’t get too frustrated.
If there are other photographers on the dive boat with you, ask them for tips if you feel stuck. They are generally a very friendly bunch who love helping beginners and giving advice.
If anyone needs any help improving their underwater photography, drop us a question in the comments section below, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.
‘Underwater Photography Tips for Beginners’ was written by Mike
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I first discovered diving in 2008 after going snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. After trying diving at a flooded quarry in England I decided to head out to warmer more interesting waters in Thailand where I ended on the Island of Koh Tao completing my Open Water course. Instantly addicted with money to spend and plenty of time on my hands I decided to continue until I became a Divemaster so I could live what seemed as the perfect life.
After that I headed to the Caribbean to an island called Utila to complete my instructor course, I spent several months out there completing the MSDT internship, teaching students and leading dives. This is also where I discovered my interest in the technical side of diving, taking part in equipment repair courses and learning about blending gasses and running compressors.
With all my new qualifications it was time to head back to where it had all started, Back to Koh Tao where I intended on living the dream. Once I arrived I quickly found a job and started teaching straight away. During my time on Koh Tao I took part in all many technical diving courses, learning how to dive with re-breathers, in caves and even going down to 90m/300ft!
PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer
PADI/DSAT Tech Deep Instructor
PADI/DSAT Gas Trimix Gas Blender
PADI/DSAT Trimix Diver
TDI Intro to Cave Diver
TDI Advanced Wreck Diver
TDI Inspiration rebreather Decompression Procedures
PADI Professional Videographer
BSAC Compressor Operator
TDI Equipment Service Technician
Dream Dive Locations:
Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia
Ice Diving in Russia