There’s no greater pleasure for me than to bring back underwater pictures from my scuba diving trips whether they are tropical destinations or local dive sites. I love the diversity of aquatic ecosystems. For us, scuba divers, it feels natural to share with family and friends the absolute beauty that lies below the surface. The beauty we are the only one to witness. I know how frustrating it can be if all your tentatives at underwater photography end up with blurry or all green shots. So let me share with you my top 5 tips for beginners on how to take pictures underwater.
Disclaimer on how to take pictures underwater
This article is not meant to transform you into a professional underwater photographer, but to significantly improve the underwater images you take. You should be proud to showcase the treasures you brought back from your underwater adventures. I don’t consider myself a professional photographer. Yet, as a dive travel blogger, I strive to continuously improve my underwater pictures to add great content to this blog. To guide you in the right direction, I asked two very talented professional photographers to share on this blog their best tips for beginners: Indah Susanti from Indonesia and Matt Mead from the US.
Be careful. Underwater photography is a highly addictive activity. It can lead to addiction to equipment upgrades and serious money expenses!
1 – Invest in a high-quality compact camera
From the beginning, I decided to keep my underwater photography kit light. I wanted to keep travelling the way I love. This is why I started with a premium compact camera. With my Canon S95 then Canon S110 (a burglary forced the upgrade) and the waterproof housing of the same brand, I found the perfect way to get high-quality pictures while keeping my set-up light and compact. Although it looks like a toy, I chose the Canon housing because it is made of plastic hence lightweight and not only because it was the cheapest option. It can go to 40 m deep, which is good enough knowing it is the recreational scuba diving limit.
After 3 years of service, my Canon S110 got a “lens error” default. It means the lens cannot retract anymore, and the camera refuses to run. As the repairs out of the guarantee period are usually more expensive than a new camera, I decided to replace it with a camera with upper specifications, the Canon G7X. As the Canon G7X II was just released when I purchased it, I could benefit from a special offer on both the camera and a Fantasea housing which is guaranteed down to 60 m. The advantage of this new housing was the ability to use additional wet lenses such as a wide-angle dome and a macro lens.
Although I am happy with the results of my Canon G7X, I have already started to look for my new camera to take pictures I can”t today because of the optical properties limitation of my current camera. Without speaking about DSLR cameras that are still too heavy and bulky for me, I am interested in mirrorless hybrid cameras that are compact while offering high-quality changeable lenses. My current target is the Canon EOS M5.
However, if you are just getting started and want something cheaper and easier to learn how to take pictures underwater, I recommend choosing a waterproof compact camera. Knowing that usually, the underwater housing of a camera double its cost, these are significant savings not to have to buy one. These cameras didn’t exist when I started taking pictures underwater, but I have seen the results, and I’m sincerely impressed. If I would start today, this is precisely what I would buy. The best waterproof cameras on the market today are:
- Olympus TG-5 waterproof down to 15 m, this model is currently the favourite of many divers thanks to beautiful results especially in macro mode, but its maximum guaranteed depth often requires the purchase of an additional waterproof housing to extend the range.
- Nikon Coolpix W300 waterproof down to 30 m
- Panasonic Lumix FT7 / TS7 waterproof down to 30 m
2 – Get your buoyancy in the water right
Taking beautiful underwater pictures starts with perfect buoyancy. This can be frustrating if you are a beginner scuba diver, but I would say you need to work on your buoyancy before touching a camera underwater. Personally, I started to get it right during the my Advanced Open Water course thanks to the buoyancy exercises through hoops. Another important thing to know is with a camera in hand, you will consume much more air, especially at the beginning. Honestly, wait for 30 to 40 dives before you start underwater photography.
When working on your buoyancy, the idea is to lie in a horizontal position underwater. Always carefully approach marine species by gently fin kicking. Your bubbles can also scare the fish so breath slowly and gently. In case you need to stabilise yourself, especially for macro subjects, always carefully look for a piece of rock, where you can put a finger without damaging anything. Be a mindful diver and never touch corals (or any other marine species). Underwater photography can show the beauty and fragility of the ocean; don’t turn it into an additional threat.
Most cameras offer an autofocus function that can be selectively activated by pointing at the desired subject and pushing the shutter halfway. Practice stabilising yourself underwater and get sharp pictures using this feature. You should see the continuous improvement of your photos as you gain confidence with your buoyancy.
Be careful, underwater photography is time-consuming. In less than a minute, it is easy to lose your dive buddy. Plan your dive accordingly and tell the divemaster that you will take pictures. Check where your team is every 15 to 30 seconds. Last advice, do not waste time to delete your photos underwater, take all the images you want, you will sort them later.
“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
3 – Train your eyes to find good compositions
The composition is the art of playing with lines, perspective, the position of subjects, close-up or wide angles. Each of us has his own artistic sense, but there are typical compositions that almost always work and will make your pictures look great. Books and websites of award-winning photographers helped me a lot to find ideas and inspiration at the beginning. It helped me recognise the compositions I had seen before. The most famous rule of composition is the rule of thirds. You divide the image with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines (most cameras offer this mode of visualisation), and we use them to distribute lines and perspectives in the frame harmoniously.
Here are three classic compositions of underwater images that I use and that you can quickly reproduce:
- The diagonal half close-up, half blurry background: Maybe the most classic 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: While being a bit deeper than the other divers in your group, you look at the surface facing sunlight. Of course, this works better with excellent visibility and good weather. Night diving also offers excellent opportunities for this kind of shot playing with other divers’ torchlights.
- Encounter diver & marine 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 small, it usually gives great shots if you can feel the fascination of the diver and the curiosity of the animal. Look for parallel lines in your composition or wavy movements.
4 – How to take pictures underwater with the flash of your camera and manual settings
As we dive deeper, water absorbs more and more light and makes colours disappear, especially red. The only way to get beautiful colours underwater is to bring a source of artificial light. And the easiest way to start is to use the internal flash of your camera before investing in a video torchlight or a strobe.
The first few times you use your flash, especially when visibility is low, you may have the unpleasant surprise of seeing many white particles in your photos. Remember to use a white diffuser in front of your flash (usually supplied with the waterproof housing) and to be closer to your subject. Finally, in automatic mode, the result is often overexposed (too white) because the light of the flash is too strong. That’s why you need to tone it down by using manual settings to get a sharp picture with bright colours.
“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
Many people think the manual mode of their camera is only for expert photographers. But it takes only little theoretical knowledge to go beyond the automatic mode. Play with these settings outside the water to familiarise yourself with them:
- Aperture (F): 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. In most cases for underwater photography, an aperture between F6.0 and F8.0 is a good starting point.
- Shutter speed (in second): It is your exposure time. It is how quick your shutter is closing. The slower, the more light you get. But at the same time, the slower the shutter speed is, the more a moving subject gets blurry. So for a shark swimming away, it is, of course, better to use a shutter speed at least of 1/500 s but for a nudibranch, you can decrease below 1/100 s without any problem.
- Sensitivity (ISO): This is the light sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. For example, in the dark, you will need an ISO higher than 1000; in bright sunlight 100 will be enough. However, it is the setting on which cameras differ the most. At high ISO, more and more noise appears on the picture, but some devices deal with this problem better than others.
Depending on the conditions of light and visibility, and your camera, you will undoubtedly have to play with settings to find the best ones. You can use these as a starting point :
- Aperture F6.0
- Speed 1/100 s
- ISO 200
5 – Improve your pictures with an editing software
The idea is not about editing your underwater photo to the point of creating an image that is no longer real. However, you will be surprised to see how, with straightforward edits such as brightness and contrast, you can improve your underwater pictures.
In my case, after several years of using Photoshop, I decided to try the free photo editing software Gimp. It took me a while to lose my habits with Photoshop and acquire new ones with Gimp, but I am now delighted with what I can do with it. If you want to know more, I have prepared a special article on how I edit all the underwater photos of this blog using Gimp.
Many of you have contacted me for further advice in underwater photography, so do not hesitate to join us in the Facebook group “Scuba diving & Adventure” to discuss together based on your screenshots.
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