You are gliding through the blue water enjoying the colorful coral reef teeming with fish. You can’t believe how beautiful it is down there. It is quiet, everything moves slowly and peacefully.
No wonder we feel the urge to capture the unique experiences under the surface in photos and videos to bring a piece back up, as a memory or to show friends.
Are you new to diving or have been diving for a while but are interested in starting to capture the underwater world in photos? Then this article is for you. The 10 ultimate tips for new underwater photographers will help you to get better shots from the start.
Before getting into underwater photography I was an experienced photographer on land using an SLR. Still I was struggling when using a point and shoot for the first time in this new environment. I can relate to the difficulties when just starting as it is a whole new world and being a good photographer on land won’t automatically make it easy to shoot underwater.
Many additional factors are important that you don’t have to think about on land.
1. Get comfortable underwater first
The most important skill for underwater photography is excellent buoyancy control for several reasons.
First of all the photos might get blurry when you cannot hover without finning all the time.
Second you want to go low to take photos (more about that later), meaning getting close to coral. If your buoyancy control and finning techniques are not good yet you might damage coral or other animals.
Third when taking photos of animals in the blue without a reference point you need to know that you are staying at the same depth and are not moving up or down with the object.
2. Start small
Start with a compact camera. For the beginning, especially when you are new to diving, get a compact camera or an action camera like the GoPro. The GoPro is better for video. Read more in the article “where to start underwater photography”
There is no point in getting a huge camera and then struggling to use it. You will get way better with a compact you are able to use properly than to have a professional set-up and not being able to use it accordingly.
You don’t even need an SLR to take awesome photos. I love to shoot with high-end compacts.
3. Get used to the camera
Set-up your camera before you leave for the next holiday. Do so indoors in a clean and dry area. Read the manual and get used to the housing, the o-rings and how to avoid flooding of the camera. And talk about your camera store about how to best take care of your camera.
You should practice the shooting before taking the camera underwater. See how close you can get to things, how to set the flash as well as the underwater or macro mode.
Always rinse it after use and make sure it is dry before opening again or risk that water can drop in.
4. Start with an easy mode
In the beginning use auto or underwater mode. Like this you don’t have to fiddle around the housing and can concentrate on taking photos. Later on you may want to start using more manual settings.
For a start automatic modes are completely fine.
5. Use light
Underwater you start to lose colours pretty quickly. Red is the first colour to disappear at around 5 meters. The deeper you go the more everything seems blue or green.
In general there is less light. When you shoot in auto mode (don’t use underwater mode with a flash) the camera will increase the ISO which leads to more noise in the image.
The only way to improve the colours and reduce noise is to use a light. To start off you might want to use the internal flash. Make sure to use the diffuser to soften the light. When you are further away than 1 m the internal flash won’t do much.
If you want more light you need to get an external light or strobe (flash). Using the internal flash you might end up with loads of white dots in the pictures. This effect is called backscatter. To avoid this you either have to go closer or use external lights.
6. Custom white balance
When not shooting in the underwater mode or with flash the pictures might end up all blue or green. Find out how to do custom white balance with your camera. To do white balance underwater you need something white like a slate, a white rashguard or a sock. Some people even use their hand.
Alternatively you can use a red-filter which is stuck to the front of the camera. This brings back colour to the pictures as well.
7. Go close
Get as close as your buoyancy control and camera allow. The closer you get the better the image will appear. Best is to “fill the frame” with your object instead of cropping later on.
Find out how close your camera will allow you to get to an object. If your camera has a macro mode you can use this as well for small critters like nudibranchs.
8. Get down
We tend to take pictures from above as that is how we normally observe the marine life. On pictures the photos then seem boring and possibly too busy with the reef as a background.
Try to get to eye level with the animal. The chances are better to get a blue or black background when doing so. This separates the object from the background and it seems as if it is interacting with the viewer of the image.
Make sure to focus on the eyes of the animal or the rhinophores if you take a picture of a nudibranch.
9. Don’t zoom in for now
There are two reasons for that. First the picture gets blurry quicker when zoomed in. Second the auto focus might struggle to get the object in focus.
10. Start with easy shots
Try to take pictures of easy objects first. Non-moving animals like starfish, coral or large nudibranchs are great to start with. Get close, use the macro mode and switch the flash on.
Or take scenery shots of the reef. Make sure not to photograph down on to a reef but straight or up. Try to have something in the foreground to make the picture more interesting. Use underwater or automatic mode with the flash off.
Extra tip: Don’t chase the wildlife
Never swim after wildlife. Besides harassing the animal you might scare it off so no one else can take a photo. In the end you will only get a photo of the bum as it is swimming away from you. The chances to get a good shot are way better when you stay where you are and let the animal approach you.
I would love to hear if these tips helped you to get into underwater photography. Leave a comment below or contact me in case of any further questions.