Underwater Photography – 10 tips to shoot like a pro!

Posted by in Diving, Outdoors, Photography, Underwater photography

Underwater life is a world of its own, and different rules apply to underwater photography. Not only do you need to have specialized gear for that, you need some new skills to be able to capture the lively creatures of the deep blue sea.

The other half of Reconnect Discover, Arno Enzerink, is a professional photographer, and an experienced underwater photographer. Here are ten things he recommends for underwater photography:

1) Make sure you are comfortable under water
Before you start your underwater photography journey, make sure you have enough dives under your (weight)belt. Especially in more challenging circumstances or muck-dives, you don’t want to do damage to yourself, your gear, or the underwater life by being too overwhelmed with too many things on your mind. Especially in muck-dives it’s important you have your buoyancy under control so you don’t kick up all the sand and ruin any chance for good photos for you (or your dive buddies). So make sure you are comfortable, steady and appropriately buoyant before you take it to the next level.

2) Don’t be cheap with the housing
If you decide to be cheap with underwater camera housing, this may end up costing you more money in the long run. Especially don’t get one of those underwater pouches that function as a housing for some smaller cameras. The deeper you dive, the higher the density of the air in the pouch and this will create a vacuum inside your bag. This results in the pouch being pulled so tight over your camera that the controls of your camera can’t be accessed anymore, or even worse, multiple buttons are pressed at the same time. So spend a little more and get a proper housing for your camera. One that at least allows you to access the most important controls of your camera.

Squat shrimp on a coral

Squat shrimps (or sexy shrimps) are usually sitting tucked away under a coral. To shoot these, you’d have to hover steadily just above the bottom or above corals. If you don’t have your buoyancy under control it’s very hard to get a good shot of these little critters!

 

3) Always double-triple-check the housing before entering the water
It always is ok, it’s never gone wrong, so why would it this time? Trust me, it will. It’s not a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”. I flooded two strobes because I got sloppy.
Make it a routine to always check if the o-ring, this is the rubber ring on the parts of the housing / strobes that open, is there and properly in place. The o-rings are the most important things on your camera, because they are the things that seal your camera / strobe shut from the water. If it’s not there, or if it’s only slightly misplaced, or if there’s dirt in between, you run the risk of seeing the worst things an underwater photographer can see: bubbles coming out of the housing.
Keep the o-rings clean, grease them frequently with a thin layer of silicone and before you go in the water make sure the o-rings are properly placed and dirt free.

4) Shoot in raw
A lot of compact cameras these days allow you to take pictures in different file formats. Jpeg/jpg is the most common one, and it’s the one that can be used directly out of the camera. The problem with this file format is that it is a compressed file format. It means that information is discarded to be able to reduce the size of the file. This also means that your camera applies presets to the file to make it look better.
Raw on the other hand, is a lossless, unprocessed format, which contains much more detail than jpeg/jpg or other formats. If you don’t have all the pro gear for underwater photography you’ll need to correct color, contrast, sharpness and saturation afterwards, and you will need all the details you can get. It’s a lot harder to correct an already changed AND compressed file.
The underwater world is full of colors and details, so you don’t want to miss out on anything!

Green sea turtle chilling on the sea floor

The raw file format contains much more information which makes it much easier to correct images.

 

5) The automatic setting is NOT your friend underwater
The automatic settings in most cameras are based on on-land conditions. As mentioned before, in the underwater world things work differently. First of all it’s darker. The other thing is, that in a lot of underwater circumstances you are photographing while trying to stay still yourself. Currents are a very common thing underwater, you will be continuously adjusting your position underwater. You need a super steady hand and a super steady buoyancy. The automatic camera settings don’t take any of these things into consideration, so learn how to use your camera without blindly trusting the automatic settings. For underwater photography the best settings are either Shutter priority (where you set the shutter speed and the camera adjusts the other settings for the optimal exposure) or Manual.

6) Set your shutter speed to at least 1/250
8 out of 10 cameras would automatically set the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second, based on on-land conditions. Not everything underwater sits nice and still, and a lot of times there are two moving components: you and the subject! 1/60th of a second is too slow to freeze the underwater action. Set your exposure time to 1/250th of a second to ensure you freeze the action. Adjust the other settings, aperture and ISO, accordingly.
These days the digital cameras have such good, high-ISO performance, that it’s easier to correct a bit of noise than to correct an out-of-focus picture.

7) Get a red filter
If you don’t have internal flash or you don’t have external strobes, a red filter is essential. Although internal flash or external strobe lighting is always better than a red filter, depending on your housing this may not be possible. Without a red filter everything will start to turn blue already below 5-6 meters. The reds are the first colors to disappear, and a red filter will correct this up to a certain extend. The deeper you go, the harder it will be for a single red filter to correct the blue hue, but until 15-18 meters depth you should be fine with a standard red filter.

Juvenile harlequin sweetlips sitting on a coral branch

The juvenile harlequin sweetlips is notoriously hard to photograph. It’s like a hyperactive fish with ADHD on steroids. If you were to shoot this with only 1/60th of a second shutter speed, all you’d see is a blur.

 

8) Light diffuser
If you’re using a camera with an internal flash, and the housing you bought didn’t come with a diffuser in the box, buy one separately. The flash is one of the few things that has the same effects underwater as it does above water. Flashing without a diffuser will cause ugly, harsh shadows, and chances are good that it will create overexposed highlights in your images. A diffuser will spread the light of the flash more evenly and will reduce the harsh shadows overexposed highlights on your subject.

9) Be careful with silicone gel bags
It’s a general misconception that silicone gel bags will slurp up all the moisture you have in your camera housing. Trust me, if your housing leaks, no amount of silicone gel bags will save your camera. Camera housings, especially the ones for compact cameras, are made to snugly fit the camera. Stuffing the housing full with silicone gel bags will put unnecessary pressure on the back door of the housing and might even prevent it from closing properly, which in effect will cause exactly what you’re trying to prevent with the bags: water in your housing.
Condensation on the lens occurs when the water temperature is much colder than the air temperature. This cannot be prevented with silicone gel bags. The only effective way to prevent condensation on the lens is to acclimatize the camera in the housing in colder water than the air for at least 5-10 minutes before going on your dive.

10) Don’t harass marine life
You’re a guest in a different world. It’s not your world. You wouldn’t want a perfect stranger come into your house and take your husband/wife/child and put it outside on the curb or on the lawn, because that would make a better picture with an uncluttered background.
Respect the world you’re in, and don’t pick up marine life to move it to a better spot for your picture. If you can’t get the picture you like without having to move around your subject, then don’t take the picture.

 

If you want to learn more about underwater photography, you can come on a retreat with us.
Reconnect Discover’s Out Of The Blue retreat takes you out diving every day for 8 days and we teach you how to process the images you take during the dives to get the best out of them.
It’ll be a fantastic experience!

Happy Photographing!