Underwater photography 101 : get better pictures in 5 easy steps

There’s no greater pleasure for me than to bring back photographic souvenirs from my scuba diving trips, whether they are 30 minutes away from home or on the other side of the world. When you are a scuba diver, you want to share with your family and friends the absolute beauty you have witnessed underwater. I know how frustrating it can be if your pictures are blurry or green.

This article is not meant to transform you into an incredible professional underwater photographer, but to significantly improve the result you get. You should be proud to showcase the treasures you brought back from your underwater adventures. I don’t consider myself a professional underwater photographer. Yet, as a scuba travel blogger I strive to improve my pictures to add great content to this blog. I call my approach the “good enough” strategy which is different from the semi-professional quest some underwater photography enthusiasts are into.

I hope these 5 tips will help you to bring back sharp and colourful shots from your scuba diving trips. To guide you in the right direction, I asked 2 very talented professional photographers to share on this blog their best tips for beginners: Indah Susanti From Indonesia/Netherlands & Matt Mead from the USA.

Disclaimer: Underwater photography is a highly addictive activity. It can lead to serious money expenses and an addiction to equipment upgrades!

 

1 – Invest in a good compact camera

 

From the beginning, I decided to keep it light. I wanted to keep travelling the way I love. For this, I needed to find a high-quality compact camera. With my Canon S110 and its housing of the same brand, I found the perfect way to get really good quality pictures while keeping my photography kit light and compact. This camera can be manually set and has a great sensor for low lights. The ring around the lens is super useful to adjust many settings such as the focal distance or the exposition.

canon-powershot-s110

The housing of the same brand is solid and light even if it looks like a toy (an expensive one, always count to spend at least as much on your housing than on your camera). I chose the one from the manufacturer of my camera, not because it was the cheapest option but mainly because of the weight difference with other more intricate housings. It is made of plastic and it can only go to 40m deep, but as this is within the recreational scuba diving limits, this is good enough for me.

One thing I may look at in the near future is hybrid compact cameras where lenses can be changed. Without taking a DSLR camera, you could also consider bridge cameras that are definitely more compact while offering high-quality lenses.

Update:

After 3 years of service, my Canon S110 got a “lens error” default. It means the lens cannot retract anymore and in this case the camera refuse to run. You can imagine my despair while in a middle of a scuba diving trip to Malta, I lost my best underwater buddy. I decide to replace it while making an upgrade to pro compact camera the Camera G7X. As the Canon G7X II was just released when I purchased it, I could benefit from a very special offer on both the camera and the housing. This time, I decided not to buy the Canon housing but a Fantasea one which can go down to 60m as I’m diving more often on deep wrecks. I promise to make soon a complete review of my new underwater camera!

canon-g7x

 

2 – Get your buoyancy in the water right

Buoyancy is the key to good underwater pictures. This will aid you to take sharp pictures. It could be frustrating if you are a beginner in scuba diving, but I would say work first on your buoyancy skills before getting into underwater photography. In my case, I found the peak buoyancy dive of my advanced open water course was a great way to learn how to better feel and control my buoyancy in the water. You have to know that once you get a camera in your hand underwater you tend to consume much more air at the beginning.

A good practice is to look for a horizontal position in the water to approach your subject smoothly. If your aim is to take a shot of a fish, always approach with care and try to release bubbles as gently as possible by breathing slowly. If you subject is on a rock or a piece of coral, look carefully for a patch of rock where you can find stabilization with one finger or a metal stick. Never touch the coral, underwater photography is not meant to harm aquatic life. Once you are in control of your buoyancy and well stabilised, press the shutter button halfway to set the focus using auto mode. Look at the evolution of your pictures as long as you are gaining confidence in your buoyancy while doing underwater photography. Keep training on this stage before going on the next one.

“I find good buoyancy, lighting and understanding the marine species’ behaviors are important factors in underwater photography. Good buoyancy is important to ease our movement to take images from different angles in confidence. Lighting such as from a strobe (external flash) or a camera flash (with white bouncer) will bring back all the colors lost in deeper ocean. Understanding and knowing the marine behaviors will help us in finding the species, where they usually located, hide or camouflage.” Indah Susanti, indahs.com

Be aware that underwater photography is time-consuming. In less than a minute, it is very easy to lose your group or even your dive buddy. Plan your dive accordingly with your dive buddy and let the Divemaster know you’re planning to take pictures. Always check where your buddies are and don’t waste time deleting your pictures underwater, just take all the pictures you want but sort them after.

3 – Train your eyes to find good compositions

The composition is the art of playing with lines, perspective, position of subjects, close-up or wide angles. This is something related to your artistic sensitivity, but there are typical compositions that almost always work and will make your pictures look great. Books and websites of great artists helped me a lot to find ideas and inspiration at the beginning. It has helped training my eyes to find situations that looked like a good composition I have seen before. The composition is mainly about identifying a pattern of lines, either using a perspective going to one corner of your picture or using the rule of third. These simple rules can transform any subject into a great shot.

Here are below 3 classic compositions of underwater pictures I use that you can try to reproduce:

  • The diagonal half close-up, half deep blue: Maybe the most classical one, but I still love to use it as it is often a great way to give a general feeling about a dive site. Get the focus on your subject close-up, draw a diagonal line with the edge of the rock or coral, and let people see the background. To make this composition more alive, if you can capture an eye contact with your subject, you will get a killer shot.
  • Scuba diver silhouette in the blue: While being a bit deeper than the other divers in your group, you look toward the surface with a bright sunlight. Of course this works better with best visibility. My best experiences of taking this type of picture were in TurkeyIceland and Gozo. Night diving also offers great opportunities for this kind of shot like during my night dive in Capodacque, Italy.
  • Encounter diver & underwater life: Here you need to be reactive and capture the moment. Either it is a scuba diver facing something big or the face of the scuba diver looking at something really small, it usually gives great shots if you can feel a real interaction between the fascination from the scuba diver and the curiosity from the animal. Look for parallel lines in your composition or wavy movements.

 

4 – Get to the next level by going manual

Same picture same moment auto vs manual mode underwater picture

Same place, same crab, only 5 seconds of difference, auto vs. manual mode (no Photoshop)

As you taught during your advanced open water course, water absorbs a lot of light, changing the colours as you go deeper. This is why the only way to get beautiful colours is to use the internal flash of your camera (always make sure to have your white diffuser in front), a strobe (external flash) or a special video torch-light. When using the flash, especially if the visibility is not great, try to be as close as possible to your subject. Otherwise you might get backscatter which looks like snow falling on your picture.

“Because of the way light refracts in water, every thing appears 1/4 closer and 1/4 larger than they actually are. So when you think you are close enough to your subject, to light it properly with your strobe (external flash), you aren’t. Which means you need to get closer.” Matt Mead, mattmeadphotographyllc.com

While using the flash in auto mode you will quickly notice depending on the conditions that the result is not always great, quite often it can be over exposed (too white). This is due to the combination of being close to your subject and having the light of the flash being too strong compared to the automatic settings. That is why you need to compensate it by using the right setting in manual mode to get a sharp and colourful picture.

Basic theoretical knowledge you need to know are the 3 following concepts. It will help you then to know when you need to decrease or increase that setting:

  • Aperture: It controls how much the shutter of your camera is going to open. The bigger the aperture is, the more light your sensor will receive. It also affects the depth of field, the smaller the aperture is, the blurrier the background gets.
  • Shutter speed: It is your exposure time. It is how quick your shutter is closing. The slower, the more light you get. But as the same time, the slower the shutter speed is, the more careful you need to be not to move otherwise your subject gets blurry. So for a moving subject, like a shark swimming away, it is of course better to use a fast shutter speed.
  • ISO: This is the light sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. For example, in the dark you will need a high ISO (1250-1600), in bright sunlight ISO80 can be enough.

Here is an infographic that nicely how to understand each of these settings:

Photography cheat cardMany people think manual mode is only for expert photographers. I would say from the moment you are confident underwater, you should start playing with it. I was recommended few basic settings by a passionate photographer while training in Bali and this is how I started. Learn as you go and take tips from passionate underwater photographers!

Those settings are still the ones that I use as a starting point and then based on the conditions of light and visibility, I adjust a bit more or less on each. In addition to activating forced flash, my usual settings are:

  • For a subject at a distance of about 20/30 cm: Aperture F2.0, Speed 1/60, ISO 250
  • For a subject at a distance of about 10/15 cm: Aperture F4.5, Speed 1/60, ISO 800
  • For a subject at a distance of about 5cm: Aperture F6.3, Speed 1/60, ISO 1600

As you can see, I’m not moving my exposure time (shutter speed), as these are for macro pictures where I’m stabilizing myself as much as I can. Depending on conditions, from daylight with bright sunshine to a night dive, the ISO will need to be adapted.

 

5 – Edit your pictures for the wow factor

The point here is not to fully Photoshop your pictures and create an image that is not even real in the end. Yet, you would be surprised how, with very simple tools of any free editing software, the difference it can make.

In my case, after some years of using costly Photoshop, I decided to give the free open source software the Gimp a try. It took me a while to lose my Photoshop habits and gain new ones, but now I’m really happy with what I can do with it.

These 3 very simple actions can already turn any average picture into a good picture:

  • Crop your picture: That sounds so simple, but for me this is the killer trick that can really transform a picture. Could moving your subject make the picture less boring? Can you improve the perspective effect by adjusting the frame and altering the perspective lines going to one of the corners of your picture? Is there anything you can remove which distracts the eye and affects the story you want to tell with this image?
  • Adjust light & contrast: Is your picture too bright or too dark? Are the colours not standing out enough? In the first case a change on the light setting will solve your problem, and in the second case adjusting the contrast setting will do this.
  • Use the magic auto colour balance: I should say the first time I discovered this function I was so impressed and excited. I had a couple of pictures with good material but unfortunately taken without flash and then they were green tinted. This function in most cases can gain back the red and yellow colours. This tool is a picture saver!

In my blog post “Underwater photography 102“, I fully explain my retouch routine using the Gimp with screenshots.

“Most important tip of all: keep practicing & don’t forget to have fun!” Florine, worldadventuredivers.com 😉

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10 responses to “Underwater photography 101 : get better pictures in 5 easy steps

  1. Excellent tips! You summarize the tips very well – I agree with all these and I am sure this post is very useful post for scubadivers to start underwater photography 🙂 Thank you for the mention!!

  2. As a beginner onderwater photographer, this is of great help! Thanks for sharing ! Especially controlling your boyancy is such an important tip….another one however that cannot be outlined enough is this one: “If you think you’re close enough, get closer”.
    It’s my main struggle every time, and I’m always afraid to scare off the critter I’m after, but in case I manage to get super close the reward is often an awesome experience and sometimes a fabulous shot….
    Thanks again, the story is great to read and well written for immideate use…. And I totally agree to jeep the equipment light to handle…..

  3. Great tips! I have the same camera and housing kit as you 🙂

    I find I get good photos when I’m on a shallow dive, but my photos aren’t fantastic as soon as I lose the light. The point about 1/4 and distance being misperceived makes perfect sense – it’s easy to think you’re close enough when you’re really not!

    • Awesome, I love my camera too.. even if I’m already looking for my future baby (I think I said something earlier about addiction to upgrades? 🙂 ). Have you already tried the manual settings?

      • I haven’t actually tried the manual settings underwater yet! I bought my first DSLR for non-underwater pics a few months back, so starting to (slowly) get the hang of manual mode – might be time to try it underwater! I have a dive trip to the GBR booked next month so I’ll give it a shot!

        (also always love to plan upgrades ha ha!)

  4. Pingback: Underwater Photography 102: enhance your pictures with Gimp in 30 seconds! | World Adventure Divers·

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