Intro to Underwater Photography
If you are just diving into underwater photography there are a couple simple rules that will go a long way to helping you produce good photos. These simple rules won’t turn you into a pro overnight but they should enable you to capture some stills worth posting to social media, adding to a scrapbook or recording a first time marine life encounter.
Different resources will emphasis different tips and suggestions that are all helpful and there are many sources available, but at this juncture simpler is better particularly if you’ve never done photography above water. There will be plenty of time to learn about aperture, shutter speed, lighting and all of the more involved details of photography, but first a few pitfalls need to be avoided. And if you quickly master the basics you can introduce more tips as you feel comfortable. If sharing snorkeling or diving photos with family and friends is the depth or your interest in underwater photography though, you may find these rules sufficient.
The most common mistake when it comes to underwater photography is not getting close enough to the subject. The picture below is of a Sergeant Major, but it’s hard to tell because despite some cropping the subject is very small. It might be surprising but this shot was taken only six feet from the subject. The combination of shooting a small fish and not being close enough produced this ineffective photograph. There are several reasons that you need to get close for underwater photography.
First, water is 784 times more dense than our atmosphere at sea level. More water column between your lens and your subject means less light reaching your camera’s sensor carrying the information needed to make the photo. Extreme cropping to attempt to fix the above photo will be futile, the Sergeant Major will not be sharp or have much detail.
Second, aside from losing contrast, sharpness and details your photos will suffer from lack of color with poor proximity. The different wavelengths of visible light are absorbed at differing rates when penetrating water which accounts for the muting of red, orange and yellow colors at shallower depths compared to the shorter wavelengths like blue penetrating much deeper. Therefore, when shooting ambient light only, if your subject is too far away the whole photo will be shades of blue.
Finally, at some point it will be handy to bring along a light source such as an external strobe. Shooting with ambient only can work at shallow depths and using the internal flash for macro can produce decent results, but eventually you might need a more powerful light source. Because of the density of water, if you don’t get close enough your flash simply will not have the power to illuminate the subject.
How close should you get then if six feet isn’t close enough? Like with most things, the answer is, it depends, but a good rule of thumb is to get as close as possible without spooking the subject and still being able to compose the desired scene in the frame.
I usually try to get within 1-2 feet, but subjects wont always allow you to get that close. Using a binary search type approach for skittish subjects works well. Snap a photo then cut the distance in half, take a another shot and cut the distance again. Repeat this process carefully to get as close as possible. If you are shooting very small subjects like a blenny or other macro subjects than you will want to be even closer. I was able to get within 1-2 feet of the Sergeant Major above which produced a much better photo.
2. Avoid Shooting Down
The natural tendency when first bringing a camera along while snorkeling or diving is to remain horizontal in the water column and snap photos of the reef and fish below. Sometimes a downward angle may be the only one available for the subject, but when possible trying to get level shots or upward angled shots drastically improves the composition; otherwise you will get the tops of fish as shown here.
When shooting down the bottom is the background which might not work well to provide a good contrast against the subject. Shooting level or up allows you to use a reef, open water or the surface as the back drop giving you more creative options for composing the shot. Also, generally speaking photographs shot straight down are less aesthetically pleasing and a bad angle might further aggravate an overall poorly composed shot.
Of course shooting down is much easier; your trim and buoyancy as a diver will need to be much better to successfully compose level and upward angled shots. When snorkeling it can be even more challenging because you will need to be able to dive down further and for longer and to try and stay neutral for a period of time while composing the shot. However, with practice it will become second nature visualizing an approach to get a pleasing angle on a subject. This french angelfish was shot at Rum Point in Grand Cayman while snorkeling. The better shot was achieved by diving down instead of shooting from directly above.
Without good lighting your photos will lack color, contrast, sharpness and detail. As you become more comfortable with underwater photography you will be able to make determinations on the fly based on the situation but it will help initially to keep it simple and remember just a few tips. As always, there are caveats but these few rules work generally to produce good results.
If your depths will be 30 feet or less and you don’t feel comfortable with adding an external strobe just yet, you can get by with shooting ambient only. The clearer the water and less particles the better. Also, if your camera supports shooting RAW you can adjust the white balance in post processing which helps ambient lit photos. You can adjust the white balance on the fly if you are comfortable doing that or use underwater modes in the camera if available.
The most important thing to remember when shooting ambient is to turn off the internal flash! Otherwise you will get backscatter, reflections and overall poor results with your internal flash triggering as shown here.
If your depths will be greater than 30 feet and you don’t have an external strobe than you will most likely be limited to macro shooting as the internal flash of point and shoots typically don’t have the power to illuminate most subjects. You can do ambient only but expect diminishing results as your depth increases, but depending on the water clarity results can vary.
The next step if you are ready is to get a TTL (through the lens) compatible strobe for your camera. TTL setups meter the light automatically of your flash so you don’t need to manually adjust your strobe. Set your camera to fill in flash and remember to get close to the subject to minimize backscatter. A good rule of thumb when using a strobe is if the subject is further away than 3-4 feet than you either need to get closer or turn off the strobe.
If you remember to get close to your subject, avoid shooting down and remember to turn off your flash when shooting ambient or when your subject isn’t within 3-4 feet you’ll be on your way to capturing memorable shots of your snorkeling or diving adventures with good color, detail and sharpness.
The shot above is of a toadfish at St. Andrew’s Jetty in Panama City Beach. I was able to get very close and use my strobe to light the subject well without creating backscatter. The St. Andrew Jetty dive is a great shore dive along the emerald coast with great underwater structure which is inviting to marine life.