Underwater Photography Tips: A Beginners Guide


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The unpredictability of nature is elevated when you enter the water and begin exploring all that lies beneath the water’s surface.  Exploring this amazing environment provides the diver with some of the most beautiful and amazing experiences that can only be found when you are submerged.  

The unfortunate part is that you can’t replicate it or just step out your back door to enjoy the experience again.  A great option is to bring back some memories of your underwater adventures and this can be done with a little effort and investment in learning to take underwater photographs.

This may sound as simple as getting a camera and heading out to the water.  Not so fast! If you want to be able to get some quality photographs, it comes with some challenges and it’s going to take some effort on your part.  The following information provides underwater photography tips for beginners, to use the next time you head out to the water.

​Underwater Photography Considerations and Suggestions

Camera

As someone new to underwater photography, you do not have to invest in the latest and greatest cameras and equipment on the market.  Start out small and conservative, learning the skills and tools before making a more significant investment. Specialized equipment like underwater housings are a hefty investment.  There are a variety of options available to you that will allow you to begin photographing underwater while practicing and perfecting your craft.

Environment

Learn the environment (rip currents, tides, waves) that you will be photographing in, for your personal safety, as well as to improve the quality of your photographs.  You ideally want the surface of the water your photographing in, to be as calm as possible. Be aware that what might seem to be calm from the shore, may actually end up being rougher in reality, especially when you are looking through the lens of a camera.

Make sure before venturing out that you check with local experts on the tides and if there are any rip currents.  You will also want to ask about any dangerous marine life to be aware of, such as jellyfish, sea urchins or scorpion fish.

reef in clear and calm water

Clear and Calm Water

Water clarity is essential for capturing underwater images.  A few considerations that will help in finding clearer water:

  • Avoid areas around tributaries, which typically will have swirling conditions, stirring up the sediments found in the water.  These areas decrease the visibility and present cloudy conditions.

  • High tide often presents clearer conditions due to the increased volume of water. 

  • Sunlight can greatly increase the quality of your photographs.  Ideal times are between 10:00 am and 1 pm. When the sun is directly overhead it will provide the best natural lighting.  At other times the sun’s light will hit the water at an angle and is refracted

  • When taking photographs underwater, refraction will cause magnification of objects, so that they appear approximately 25% larger. You will need to factor in the magnification when composing your photographs.

  • If the water isn’t as clear as you might like, lowering the aperture of your camera, will blur the environment around your subject.

Educate Yourself on Camera Settings and Lighting

To assist you in learning and acquiring skills, take the time to educate yourself on your camera’s settings and the effects of lighting on your photographs. 

sun shining on turtle underwater

​A Few Tips on Lighting

  • Sunlight will improve and enhance your photographs. The shallower you are, the less the water will absorb the available light.  

  • The deeper you go in the water, the darker the conditions will become.  Staying near the surface will allow you to capitalize on the sunlight to illuminate your subjects and maintain the vibrant colors found in marine life.

  • At some point, you will want to consider taking photographs in deeper water.  When that time comes you will want to invest in a strobe to provide additional lighting.

  • Another challenge when taking pictures underwater is color loss.  Methods to combat color loss are to use a color correcting filter, a strobe or photographing in shallower water.   

Basic Suggestions for Camera Settings

  • Consult experienced underwater photographers for your initial settings on your camera.  

  • Your environment will have an impact on the camera settings required.  You can use the suggested settings as a starting point and begin experimenting to determine what works for you.

  • Some very basic camera settings issues to consider:

    • Lower shutter speed, provides more light, but subjects will be blurry.

    • Higher shutter speed, provides less light, capturing less detail and providing a dark background.

    • ISO is a camera setting that will darken or brighten a shot.  By increasing the ISO setting, your photographs will get progressively brighter.  

    • Adjusting your ISO settings will help you to capture subjects under darker conditions. 

    • Playing around with the adjustments for your aperture and shutter speeds can also help in darker environments.

    • Set the autofocus, so if focuses continuously, keeping a moving subject and/or photographer in focus, as long as the shutter remains partially depressed.

    • You can use burst mode, which will result in over shooting but hopefully will result in some quality pictures.

    • White balance setting helps you to achieve realistic or more natural color temperatures.  You can either set to auto or preferred custom settings that will best suit your shooting environment.  

    • Underwater photos will require quite a bit of editing to attain the best possible photograph.  Shooting in RAW captures more detail and provides more flexibility in the editing process.

close up of ocean reef

Subject Proximity

A very simple tip and one new underwater photographers should utilize is to get as close to the subject as your shot will allow.  Photographing underwater reduces the sharpness, color and contrast.  

How close is close?  If possible getting within a foot or less will enhance the quality of your picture.  If your subject and/or camera do not allow for this, getting as close as you are able will have to do.  

Basic Tips and Suggestions for Photographing Underwater

  • Get close enough to your subject.  For smaller object you should try to get only a few inches away.  Larger subjects you ideally would like to be within a foot or two.  

  • Use the camera flash or a strobe to add color.

  • For photos from a longer distance, using an ambient light (no flash) is preferable. 

  • Shoot up, if possible, on your subject.  Beginners will often hover over the subjects when taking a photo from above.  Getting close to the object and shooting in an upward trajectory will create a noticeable improvement in your photographs.  

  • Provide enough room on your shoot, avoiding the edges of the photo, to capture your subject.

  • Try to focus on the details of your subject, such as the eyes of a fish or the skin tones of a human subject, to create a more intense photo.  

  • On close ups you can center your subject.  However, taking shots where the subject is off center allows you to capture other features that can enhance the quality of your photos.

  • Cropping your photos after the fact is fine, but you should strive to accomplish this during the process of taking your pictures.

  • Be aware of the background.  Is it adding to the picture, taking away from the picture, or do you need to blur it?

  • To avoid a poor background in your picture, get lower and shoot up more, position yourself for the best angle, zoom to isolate your subject or blur the background using your aperture. 

  • Wide angle shots can be spectacular, so a specific subject is not always necessary.

  • Master your swimming, diving, and ability to remain stable while floating before you start trying to take photographs.

  • Practice and improve your photography skills by taking pictures while on land.  Photographing objects close up around your home is good practice for when you are in the water.

  • If you are photographing without a strobe and relying on natural light, you should do so in 20 feet or less of water, with the sunlight coming from behind you.  

  • There will be times, especially on a reef, where there will be a lot going on.  Isolating subjects will improve the quality of your photographs.

  • Photoshop can help increase contrast.  There is a great deal of editing involved in underwater photography.

eagle ray underwater

​Final Thoughts

As we stated initially, underwater photography is not as simple as grabbing a camera and heading out to the water.  A little time and investment on your part however is well worth it when you come home with some of the most amazing pictures and memories.  

Taking pictures underwater is not governed by a set of clearly defined guidelines and as such is more an art than a science.  Additionally, what one person feels is a great photograph will differ from another. So our recommendation would be to do a little more research, start simple and grow your skills.  The enjoyment will be self evident when you see the results of your efforts and you are able to share them with family and friends.  

We would love to hear how about your underwater photography experiences.  Please feel free to share in the comments section your struggles and your successes.   

Underwater Photography Tips: A Beginners Guide