Do you want to take your photography to a whole new level? Maybe you’ve thought about a new lower level, some where deep under the sea? Underwater images range from scenics and wildlife shots to artistic compositions with underwater models. There are many underwater photography jobs available in scientific and marine industries. Still, most underwater photographers are scuba divers who love to share the sights of their underwater world with landlubbers.
Fundamentals of Underwater Photography
While it's perfectly possible to get some great snaps while freediving and snorkeling, expert underwater photographers know that the only sure-fire approach is to shoot while scuba diving. Scuba allows you to control your buoyancy and to hover motionless in the water. You can carefully control your position from your subject, and you can take your time. Freediving allows you none of these advantages. Any pictures you take will be rushed and taken while moving.
Scuba diving is a skill that takes time to master. Beginning divers often have enough to think about while working to control their buoyancy and their movements, along with learning to monitor their air consumption and how to deal with unfamiliar equipment. Even if your goal is only to do photography, it's worth making several training and practice dives until you feel entirely comfortable.
Underwater images are harder to take than their land counterparts for several reasons. For one, there is less light below the surface of the water. The deeper one dives, the less light penetrates. Even at relatively shallow depths of around 10 feet, much of the red wavelengths of light have been absorbed. Each color fades out slowly until only blue light reaches dimly at more than 100 feet. Without adding some extra light, your images will lack the color you expect.
There are also problems with shooting through the water itself. If the water has any particulate in it, this can show up on photos. Strobes often exacerbate this problem, so all flashes must be off-camera and pointed away from the subject.
The water also refracts light differently than air. It magnifies objects such that things often look much closer than they actually are. This refraction can wreak havoc on some cameras' autofocus systems. The quality of light and color issues are also beyond the means of many cameras' white balance and auto-exposure settings.
The final consideration is the subject matter at hand. You are working in an alien environment and hazards abound. A good underwater photographer is familiar with the flora and fauna found in their area, as well as their behavior patterns. Wildlife photographers should always endeavor to make no impact on the animals their shooting, and all photographers should know what to do not to impact the environment. For example, coral reefs are very delicate ecosystems that are damaged by the slightest touch.
Divers should be familiar with where it is safe to sit or stand to rest, and what they can and should not touch. Always work to minimize your impact. Take only photos, and leave only bubbles.
Subjects of Underwater Photos
Scenics and Wide-Angle Shots
Perhaps the most commonly thought of types of underwater images, scenics include wide-angle shots of schools of fish or coral reefs. These are also great ways to capture unique environments like wrecks or even underwater springs and cenotes.
A subset of scenics is the unique over/under shot. Capturing these pictures is tricky since half the image is above the water, and half is below. The most common method involves fitting a wide-angle lens, or even a fisheye, on your underwater photography camera and adding a large bubble-shaped dome. Keeping water droplets off the dome is one of the hardest parts. It's also challenging to expose both sides of the image correctly. There is often more light above than below the waterline.
Aquatic wildlife ranges from fish, sharks, whales, rays, seals, and everything in between. Underwater creatures are fascinating and open our eyes to the beauty of the oceans. While wildlife might conjure images of giant sharks and whales, a lot of wildlife underwater is perfect for macro photographers and would otherwise go unnoticed.
No matter what type of image you take underwater, you are nearly always close to the subject. The farther you move away, the greater the likelihood of backscatter or refraction messing up the final picture. Even wide-angle shots are taken close to the subject.
But true macros open up a whole new world of underwater images. Even scuba divers familiar with the underwater world are surprised by all of the tiny details they miss. Looking at the macro world takes patience and a detail-oriented approach.
Of course, underwater macros require a macro lens and strobe lights to match. Having careful control over focus is very important, and you might have to look around for a housing that allows you to control your lens focus with high precision. Macros are one of the more demanding forms of underwater photos in terms of equipment.
Underwater Fashion Photography
Underwater model photography is taking off, with many Instagram influencers making names for themselves. While the photography is certainly a challenge, the modeling requires very skillful buoyancy and body control. It just is not easy for most people to look good while swimming underwater.
Underwater modeling can be a subset of beauty, fashion, and commercial photography. The models may be in scuba gear for lifestyle image purposes. But more often than not, underwater model photography is focused entirely on a unique and artistic composition. The model may be in swimwear in a beautiful environment, or they may be in flowy dresses or street clothes to create a unique piece. No matter the details, these images are eye-catching.
Most underwater photography jobs rely on more technical skills. Scientific surveys and studies, underwater construction jobs, or environmental programs rely on photography for data collection and public outreach.
Equipment and Lighting
Underwater photography equipment ranges from basic point-and-shoot models aimed at tourists on vacation to elaborate underwater housings built for the best DSLR systems.
Underwater Point-and-Shoot Cameras
Point-and-shoot underwater photography cameras can be a lot of fun for freediving and shooting at the beach. Their primary advantages, of course, are their simplicity and small size. These cameras can take a little abuse and can be used worry-free near the water. They're great fun to experiment with. If you are an occasional freediver and you want to take a few snaps for funs sake, a waterproof point-and-shoot is worth looking into.
GoPro cameras are a perfect example. They offer a lot of functionality that revolves around their ability to go anywhere, be it scuba diving or sky diving. They can get dropped, rained on, or submerged. But this comes at a price. These cameras lack any exposure or lens setting option; GoPros are point-and-shoot cameras in their purest form.
Many cameras fall into a middle group. They aren't as simple as GoPros, but they also aren't as expensive as DSLR or mirrorless setups. If you can find a good point-and-shoot camera with a decent lens, chances are there is also a quality housing available for it. With the right combination of pieces, you can put together an excellent training setup without investing thousands of dollars. With this starter kit approach, you can build your underwater shooting experience and have a better idea of your equipment priorities before you spend your big bucks.
Underwater DSLR or Mirrorless Setups
To compensate for the lighting and refraction difficulties found underwater, professional underwater photography equipment revolves around using good cameras in underwater housings. The housing must be matched perfectly to the camera and lens you are using. Even still, some housings do not have all of the buttons accessible, so you must research the models for your camera to see how they stack up.
While diving underwater, it's impossible to look through your mask, the housing, and the viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras excel here, especially if they have big bright back displays. If you choose to shoot with a DSLR, make sure that its live view mode functions quickly and accurately.
A DSLR underwater setup isn't complete without some strobe lights. Strobes add light to the scene and revive the colors that are filtered out in the water column.
A complete DSLR underwater setup is quite bulky, and because each configuration is a custom design, it's crucial to ensure that it is neutrally buoyant. A neutrally buoyant object does not sink or float; it hovers in the water motionless. This is important because any effort made on the part of the diver to hold the camera still will show a handshake or blurry photographs. You shouldn't have to struggle to get your camera to frame the image you want.
If you choose a DSLR for your underwater photography camera, your lens choice is going to be tied closely to the types of images you're after. Scenics are nearly always taken with wide-angle lenses. Macros will require a good macro lens with detail focus ability.
Aside from macro photography, a longer lens will generally do you little good. For one thing, there just isn't enough light for a long lens to capture a fast enough image. You cannot use slow shutter speeds since you are floating, and strobes will not travel far in water. Finally, the farther you are from your subject, the more likely you are to capture unwanted sediment and backscatter in the images.
Your lens choice is limited by the housing that you can find for it. Housing pieces are not interchangeable, so if you find one company making a housing for your body and another making one for your lens, chances are they aren't going to work together. Careful research is needed to figure out all the components you want to work with. Lens ports for wide-angle lenses are usually dome-shaped, while flat ports are for macro lenses.
Once you find all the pieces, it's also vital to analyze how you can use them together. For example, some less expensive housings do away with many camera function buttons. This will mean you will either be limited to program auto shooting or will have to find workarounds.
Arguably the most important part of the entire setup is the housing that you choose. There are several manufacturers of high-end housings on the market, Ikelite and Nauticam being the big names.
The housing has a few jobs, the most important being that it must keep the water out and your camera safe. This is accomplished by a simple o-ring and clamp seal system. Each time you place your camera in the housing, you will need to clean and lubricate the seal.
Some high-end housings may have vacuum ports that allow you to test the housing's seal, as well as warning systems to alert you if the seal has failed.
The housing also features waterproof buttons and knobs that allow you to control your camera's functions. These all have their own o-ring seals, which are delicate to grime and gritty particles getting in them. Housings must be cleaned thoroughly with fresh water after each use. Proper maintenance is key to protecting your camera.
These are general guidelines. Be familiar with and always follow the housing manufacturer's instructions for use. Getting lazy with the procedures might well cost you your camera and lens.
Underwater Photography Techniques
Underwater composition techniques aren't greatly different from what you do above the waves. But the lighting you have to play with underwater is unique, and that gives you some options that you might not have considered.
Having sunlight filtering down from above often makes an underwater image stand out. While the strobes are essential tools, don't disregard the presence of other light sources. Light from above could be considered a composition element, especially if you are working with silhouette shots and capturing rays of sunlight in the water.
With all of the excitement of working undersea, don't forget everything you know about the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio. These classic compositional techniques still make or break your images, regardless of their content. Here is an article on 12 Photography Composition Techniques to take eye-catching photos.
Water that has particulates floating around will often produce backscatter in photographs. Backscatter shows as random artifacts on the image, almost like dust on the sensor but much more severe. Predicting backscatter and preventing it from appearing on the photos is of prime importance.
The first step is to set realistic expectations. If you are diving in murky water with a lot of particulate floating around, there's no way to avoid backscatter. The best bet in these situations will be to get as close as possible to your subject. Today is the day to try macro photography!
It's important to realize that there is always some level of particulate in the water. Even if you are diving in clear water with more than 100 feet of visibility, there is some. So your go-to camera and strobe setup should be made to avoid exacerbating it. For starters, never use an on-camera flash. If the light source goes straight forward and bounces straight back to the camera, you are guaranteed to capture the maximum amount of backscatter.
The better technique is to use off-camera strobes that are aimed away from the subject. You'll have to play with angles and find the right amount of bounce light for the subject at hand. Very reflective objects, like scaly fish, might require you to reduce the strobe output to one-half or even one-quarter power.
Colors and levels adjustments can make a world of difference in underwater photos. Even the most basic point-and-shoot photos can be greatly improved by balancing the colors to correct for the light and color lost in the water.
What post-production cannot fix, unfortunately, is backscatter. This is why it's so important to address this issue when capturing underwater.
Ten Tips to Getting Started with Underwater Images
Should You Have a Dedicated Camera for Underwater?
That's a tough question, and it's a personal choice. But it's worth considering for several reasons. If you're a professional photographer who relies on your equipment for your livelihood, then adding a housing to your existing body might not make the most sense. Let's face it; underwater equipment gets placed in the riskiest environment imaginable. Catastrophic failures of dive housings can and do happen. All it takes is one damaged gasket or one small crack that you didn't notice before you left the boat.
Perhaps you have an older body that is nearing retirement, or you can afford an entire setup dedicated to underwater. Whatever path you choose, underwater equipment is a major investment since you are adding in the cost of the housing and other specialized equipment.
Being at home in the water is key. Get comfortable in the water by making as many practice dives as possible. Be familiar with your equipment before you go.
While you can shoot photos freediving, scuba diving is the prime option. Scuba gives the diver the most control over their movements and allows them to slow down and hover motionless with their subjects. Scuba is far less likely to startle wildlife, as well.
Every diver learns to control their buoyancy, but underwater photographers need to be masters at it. It takes practice, but buoyancy control should become second nature. This frees your mind up to worry about other things, like the camera equipment and composition.
Practice with your Equipment
Take any opportunity to practice, even if it seems a bit silly. Short swims off the beach or afternoon jaunts in the pool are great training sessions. This helps you practice not only using your camera gear but setting it up and keeping it clean too. The more you use it, the easier it will be. Choosing the best camera when you are going down under is also important, there are many cameras built especially for underwater photography. You can find a guide for the best underwater cameras here.
Most divers don't have the luxury of being out on their own boats. This means that there is always a rush, and you're likely on someone else's schedule. Make sure you don't waste time on valuable dive trips by being unfamiliar with your equipment.
Learn About the Marine Environment
Knowing a little about the marine life you are shooting is very helpful. For one thing, you'll know what's dangerous and what to avoid. You'll also be more familiar with animals' behavioral habits so that you'll have a better idea of how and where to shoot them.
It's also worth noting that things look different while underwater than they do in your photos. Much like astrophotography, the image results are going to be more vibrant than you would expect. Knowing what colors are actually present and how to use them in the composition is helpful.
Don't Overlook Natural Light
External strobes are extremely important to underwater images, but flashes aren't always the answer. You can use backlight from the water's surface to frame interesting shots. It also adds depth and interest to your composition. Bright objects, like reflective sand areas, are also sources of light in photographs. Read more about natural light photography, the best time to take pictures, essential notes on lighting and equipment.
Try Some Black and Whites
A great deal of the things you see and want to share underwater are otherworldly and colorful, especially in tropical areas. But underwater black and white photos add an unexpected layer of drama to the composition that shouldn't be ignored. Look for wide-angle shots where you can use black and white to emphasize textures and shapes with deep shadows and high contrast. Read more on top tips for beginners on black and white photography.
Mind Your Bubbles
Divers' bubbles can make trouble for the image if they drift into the frame. Divers tend to get into a rhythm of breathing that will allow time to compose the photo and make sure the camera is out of the way.
But there's another way to look at this too. The bubbles might make an interesting composition element, especially in shots that look up towards the surface.
Diving can be a risky business, so be sure not to get so focused on your photography that you forget the basics. Avoid strong currents, always know where the boat is, and, of course, keep an eye on your air supply. Also, don't forget slow ascents and safety stops.
Enjoy the Moment
Just like with other types of photography, it's important to remember to slow down and enjoy the journey. Most people don't dive just for the photos; they dive for the love of being underwater. Don't spend all of your dive energy and time on just taking pictures. Enjoy the moment, and appreciate the opportunity to spend a few minutes below the waves.
Saving your energy and slowing down your dive goes a long way towards seeing more stuff. When diving on coral reefs, it's often interesting to pause for a few minutes and sit in a sandy patch. From here, see what passes by. The longer you sit, the more comfortable the local critters will get with your presence and the closer they’ll get to you.
Try New Things
It's natural to find a niché you enjoy and stay within it. Mastery comes after lots of practice. But it's also important to exercise your creative muscles and try something new. Mix up your dives by making one macro and one wide-angle. If you're a reef diver, try working on a wreck for once. You could also hop on a plane and try diving in an entirely new area.
Taking your photography underwater requires a lot of specialized equipment and a lot of practice. But for divers who want to share what they see below the water, it's worth the effort. Here is a complete guide to creating a professional portfolio website to share your images and photo stories online. Underwater images bring awareness of ocean issues to the rest of us and remind us of the interconnectedness of the planet.
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