Underwater Photography: 7 Beginner Tips To Get You StartedFebruary 8, 2022
For a long time, underwater photography was a privilege to those most experienced divers, camera nerds, or professionals. However, in the last 10 years or so, there has been a boom in technology and the popularity of underwater photography.
But with so many cameras now on the market, it can be overwhelming to know which to buy and how to stand out from the crowd. If you’re interested in underwater photography or want some sound advice, our top tips are sure to help you get started!
1. Choose the camera right for you.
As with many extreme hobbies, the first question people will always ask is "So what gear do you use?" And everyone wants to be one with the biggest, best, and more expensive camera, boasting about how great it is.
But like with cooking, no matter how fresh or how interesting the ingredients are, it is ultimately the chef that makes the difference.
The same can be said for photography, and there is no "best" camera. Just go on YouTube and see the wide variety of cameras used and you will see that in the hands of the experienced (or inexperienced!) diver, anything is possible.
Here is an easy overview of the 4 main camera types available for diving:
- Action Cameras like GoPro, Sealife, or Paralenz.
- Compact, like the Olympus Tough or Canon Powershot.
- For DSLR, you’re better off with Canon or Nikon and good housing.
- Mirrorless cameras such as the Canon R5 and Sony Alpha series.
2. Make a plan that works.
When it comes to having a successful underwater photographic experience, making a good plan is the most important thing to do.
We’ve all been in that situation when you arrive at a new destination and there’s all these wonderful new seascapes and creatures, just begging to be snapped up by your camera.
The result? Well, you successfully photographed everything that passed by your lens (is that your buddy’s fin or a small whitetip?) but these pictures are "meh okay" at best.
For some divers, that’s all they want; just a general catalogue of everything they saw underwater to look back at later.
But for most of us, we want the bragging rights of having that spectacular photograph that will be the envy of all your buddies. The key?
Make a plan! If you have just an inkling of an idea of what kind of photograph (macro perhaps) or creature (shark) you have in mind, it will make your dive much more enjoyable and rewarding.
A few ideas to help you make a photography plan:
- Keep it simple.
Time underwater is limited, and you don’t want to be huffing and puffing getting all frustrated, guzzling up all your air quicker than you can say "safety stop".
Whether you’re new to underwater photography in general or have a new setup, don’t overwhelm yourself. Choose a simpler idea such as shooting a starfish.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Starfish aren’t the most exciting creatures, but they don’t move much and are generally quite abundant.
This way you can experiment with your gear ("what happens if I slow down shutter speed?" "If I dial up the strobe?").
By the end of your dive, you’ll have a much better understanding of your gear, be able to focus on your buoyancy, and have a greater love of starfish…
- Use your dive guide.
Most dive guides know their sites inside out and like to show that off, so let them!
As soon as they see you have a camera, they will ask if there was a particular photo you had in mind, or perhaps suggest a subject they think is interesting.
Dive guides can cater to your needs and dedicate the next dive to "finding that octopus that only they know where it lives".
And as cheesy as it sounds, when you look back on that photo, you won’t just see a beautiful harlequin shrimp, but you’ll think fondly of Tata from Malapascua with his eagle eyes and round beer belly.
3. Care for your equipment.
Just like with all your dive equipment, your camera (and its housing) cost you a pretty penny and rinsing off the saltwater can prolong its life. Most boats will have a tank specific for cameras, so you can give it a basic rinse between dives.
All dome, flat ports and compact camera housings should come with plastic or neoprene caps so place these on before getting back on the boat.
Many boat boys and dive crews will know how to handle your camera, so be sure to hand it over to them, as climbing back onto the boat can be tricky enough sometimes, without having to worry about your camera.
After extended periods of use or a diving holiday, be sure to give it a more thorough clean, both housing and O-rings.
The simplest technique is a soft toothbrush and a dot of dish soap.
- Gently brush the housing (outside only!), pressing the buttons to be sure to get the salt that might’ve dried in hidden spots.
- The O-rings can be soaked in dish soap and then wiped down with a microfiber towel to ensure no fluff. The O-rings should be lubed with silicone grease on a near-daily basis.
- The groove for the O-rings can be easily cleaned with a Q-tip and a dab of alcohol.
- Depending on the brand of the housing, dusting down the interior may be too hard. Only use a blower and get it serviced annually for a more professional clean.
4. Remember the environment.
It is very important to be environmentally friendly. You must respect marine life and its home.
Although a nudibranch may (in your opinion) make for a better photo on the coral just behind you, you can never just move it for your benefit.
Some of the hardest moments underwater are when your desired subject is in a tricky/unphotographable spot, and you just have to admit defeat and leave it be.
That being said, the oceans host a limitless supply of beautiful and colorful life. With the right ideas and techniques, any creature has the opportunity to become the star of your winning shot!
In all photography, and not just underwater, there is a general rule that states when you are 1 meter (3 feet) away from your subject, F8 is the best aperture setting.
Underwater, this is more applicable as you will find 1 meter is nearly always a comfortable working distance for yourself and the subject involved.
Obviously, with macro, you want to be as close as possible. But remember the water does magnify, so you don’t need to be as close as you might on land.
5. P.s. You are underwater!
Generally, in photography, where you are physically is not an important factor in taking an impressive photograph.
However, once underwater, you as a diver can have a great impact on making or breaking a shot. You become your camera’s tripod and having proper buoyancy and trim is paramount.
Before mastering underwater photography, we must be comfortable with all our scuba equipment, understand our computers, and know how to control our buoyancy.
Here are three tips to help become a better diver:
- Stability and buoyancy.
Stability is crucial for photography and especially macro, as it demands extreme mental and camera focus to be able to compose a photo on such a minuscule scale.
A lot of macro photography takes place during muck dives, where the bottom sediment is often large patches of sand, which when kicked up can drastically reduce visibility.
Frog kicking is the style most preferred by underwater photographers, as it directs your fins energy away and off the bottom.
- Two-finger technique.
The two-finger technique is generally accepted and appreciated by dive resorts and dive guides worldwide. Due to the viscosity of water, we can easily support ourselves with a relatively small anchor when taking photos underwater.
By placing two fingers on rocks or a sandy bottom, we can greatly help to steady ourselves. It is much better to place two fingers on a rock than to be flapping about to control your buoyancy.
Most accidents will happen just as you finish shooting and you’re distracted by your immediate surroundings.
When you’re done, have a look around and see if you are close to the reef. Tuck in your legs (if you can) and take a large breath to lift yourself away from the scene. Once clear, slowly swim away.
- Buddy system.
Underwater photographers can have a bad reputation in the diving world as we tend to have a lone-wolf attitude. We may spot a creature underwater and wish to spend an entire dive with it, while everyone else in your group continues their dive.
It is easy to get caught up in the moment, lose sight of your buddy, and forget your no-decompression limits.
In the case of separation, follow the one-minute rule-search for one minute, slowly ascend to the surface & reunite at the surface.
Or maybe you are diving with other photographers who are also interested in your subject. It is important to "share", and not to be known as "that" diver who hogs interesting subjects, with no consideration for their buddy’s safety.
6. Your first photo.
All these tips don’t matter if your camera isn’t ready. Always give yourself time for setting up your dive equipment and your camera before jumping in.
The most crucial photo you take every day is the very first one you take in your room or on the boat. This guarantees that the camera and housing are both ready for diving.
- Check if the lens cap is off.
- Are the buttons on the lenses themselves in the correct position?
- Is there an SD card inside, etc.?
The one day you do not check, is the day you jump in only to realize you haven’t put the battery in!
The next important photo you take can be of your fins. With white fins, you can properly set the white balance, get your strobes into position, and check everything is still working before going down!
All these tips boil down to one final tip…
7. Proper planning and preparation prevent poor performance!
Whether it’s deciding which camera to buy, or what you want to capture on your next dive, always take your time and think about what it is you want to achieve.
Underwater photography is an expensive hobby limited by time, so use it wisely and it will reward you greatly!