If you’ve never tried underwater photo-graphy, you might be surprised to discover how difficult it is to shoot good images while underwater. Even at relatively shallow, snorkeling depths, there is sub-stantially less light than above water. The water also effectively narrows a lens’s field of view (i.e. a wide angle lens is not as wide when shooting underwater). There is the additional challenge of viewing and following moving subjects in a medium where you are likely being moved by the sea as well. And, importantly, underwater photos tend to appear very green and bluish because the red/orange part of the light spectrum doesn’t penetrate well into water. Near the surface red, yellow, and orange colors may be vibrant, but down several feet or more these colors become extremely dim and muted.
The important tricks to underwater photography are capturing interesting scenes, and knowing how to optimize your photos to enhance their contrast, and to bring out the colors inherent in the scene. We’re certainly not pros at underwater photography, but over the years we’ve learned numerous valuable techniques that will be helpful for anyone new to this activity.
Here are a few quick tips if you’re getting started:
Underwater Photography Tips:
Before You Get in the Water —
1) Make sure you have plenty of space on your memory card, and are using a freshly charged battery.
2) Check your underwater camera or housing for water tightness. If there is an “O” ring, make sure it is properly in place. Be aware of any hair or sand that could compromise the seal. With point and shoot cameras you can check for water tightness by filling your sink with fresh water and gently dunking the camera/case underwater. Watch carefully for bubbles (there may be a few bubbles at first but they should stop quickly).
3) White Balance. If you’re only shooting closer to the surface, auto or daylight white balance should be fine. If you are diving down below 6-10 ft, use “Underwater” white-balance/scene setting if available to get a better color balance in your images. If no underwater setting is available, you may need to set a custom white balance and/or optimize the images in post-production.
4) Set camera to “continuous” or “burst” mode. Fish and many other marine creatures move a lot, so taking multiple photos in rapid succession may help you to capture your subject.
5) Turn OFF the flash to avoid getting backscatter in the images. (Backscatter looks like snow in photos, and is caused by the light of the flash reflecting back off of small organisms in the water. This is an issue with on-camera flashes.)
6) Practice above water to understand how your camera focuses. Also test the distances for focusing on close subjects using regular or macro settings (i.e. arm’s length, hand length).
7) Check the seal again to make sure there are no leaks.
8) Look for places with interesting background, colors and fish around, then wait for a good photo opportunity. Photographing schools of fish, sea turtles, or sea lions with darker, deep water behind them can be very beautiful, helping to isolate your subject from busy backgrounds.
9) Try to be closer to your subject, and start with wide-angle. The closer you are, the clearer your subject will be in your photo, and the brighter the colors.
10) Where is your shadow? Be aware of the direction the light is coming from, and adjust your position so there is better light on your subject, being aware that you’re not casting a shadow on your subject.
Out of the Water —
11) IMPORTANT: Rinse your underwater camera gear in fresh water, letting it soak for several minutes, or whatever your manufacturer recommends. Push the various buttons on the underwater case repeatedly while under fresh water to help get salt out from cracks and crevices. Do not use a blow dryer (it can force water into the camera). Wrap in a soft towel and gently blot off excess moisture. Let dry thoroughly in a well ventilated area.
12) Optimizing underwater images after you shoot them may be the biggest key to getting good color, contrast and brightness.
Examples of post-processing optimization:
In the optimized images (above) the intense green cast has been lessened, revealing whiter tones and the subtle pinker hues in the parrotfish. It also adds contrast and vibrancy to the fishes, helping to visually separate the fish from the background.
Equipment: Many cameras (SLR and compact) have the ability to be used with fabricated underwater housings. This can be an expensive option for SLR cameras, especially for divers. But if you are only snorkeling closer to the surface, there are other camera options that will allow you to capture good underwater images.
We have seen excellent results from Canon compact cameras, especially the Powershot G-series (i.e. Powershot G11 and G12) used with Canon underwater housings designed specifically for those models. Many people enjoy the simplicity of waterproof point’n’shoot cameras, but these are more limited in their capabilities. One huge advantage to shooting with an SLR is the instant fast shutter release that helps capture faster swimming creatures underwater.
We’ve been shooting underwater with an SLR, but rather than buying a couple-thousand-dollar housing, we’ve used an EWA Marine underwater bag. EWA bags do not have the best reputation, as someone once said to us, “it’s not a matter of if it will leak, but when.” However, if you are very careful with its use and storage, and test it carefully before each use, it is a much more affordable option for people like us who only shoot underwater occasionally. (The first time we used a borrowed one we had a leak that killed the camera, so we purchased a new one, and have been extremely cautious since.)
High-end housings for digital SLRs, perhaps adding off camera flash units, are best for anyone serious about doing a lot of high quality underwater photography. However, be aware that these are quite expensive and typically only fit one model of camera, so if you buy a new camera you need to then buy a new housing too.