A completely new world of photographic possibilities exists while shooting underwater. Even seasoned photographers first have difficulty there. Underwater, photography gets more challenging in every way. I’ll share some of my favorite advice in this article to assist you learn the fundamentals of underwater photography without having to go through the learning curve.
1. Understand How Light Behaves Underwater
When light travels through water as opposed to air, it acts in a fundamentally different way. Significant ramifications flow from this for underwater photographers.
Everything is blue underwater, which is the most noticeable change. An object will appear more and more blue the further it is away. Similar to how blue starts to take the place of all other colors as you go deeper underwater.
Red is particularly vulnerable to this shift. Even if you hold something squarely in front of your eye, red objects at moderate depths will appear very dark and desaturated. If they are far away from you, they will likewise appear darker at first glance.
The full spectrum of sunlight is absorbed by water molecules, albeit red is the most prominent example. Red light absorbs first, and blue light absorbs last, but eventually both types of light are absorbed, resulting in total darkness.
Our next idea is a result of this: Light is lost underwater.
Everything grows dimmer as you dive lower. This occurs more quickly than you would anticipate, but because our eyes compensate for this, it can be difficult to notice. You may need to start pushing the limits of your camera settings on a sunny day at a depth of about 30 feet (9 meters), which is normal for recreational scuba diving.
All of this results in the blue, dark, and low contrast appearance of many underwater photographs. Many of the suggestions that follow provide solutions to these problems.
2. Change Camera Settings As You Change Directions
Shooting downwards completely alters your exposure from shooting horizontally or upwards, which is one difficulty with underwater photography exposure.
Shooting upwards is overly bright while shooting downhill may be severely underexposed at the same settings. Therefore, I advise using aperture priority mode when photographing in natural light so that the camera can automatically adjust for these variances.
Additionally, you can use the Auto ISO menu options to select a minimum acceptable shutter speed, such as 1/200 second, and let the camera adjust the ISO as necessary. You still have complete control over your minimum shutter speed and your aperture when using aperture priority mode with Auto ISO.
3. Know the Direction of the Sun
It’s not always immediately evident where the light is coming from underwater. However, because it impacts how light and shadow appear on your subject underwater, the sun’s angle is just as significant as it is on land.
Beyond that, firing towards the sun will result in significant backscatter from water particles, which will reduce contrast. Aiming at the sun’s modest inclination can cause the same issue, even when you’re shooting horizontally and it appears to be exactly overhead. This is why I aim to take natural light underwater photos with the sun at my back.
Nevertheless, due of the somber atmosphere it produces, shooting toward the sun can occasionally result in desirable silhouettes and backscatter. There are exceptions, as with most things in photography, but even in such cases, you can’t take advantage of them unless you know which way the sun is shining.
4. Make the Most of Underwater Flash
The use of a flash underwater has pros and cons. It has the power to recover light—as well as the color red—from the depths. However, it can also reflect particles, resulting in backscatter and brilliant patches. The backscatter gets worse as there are more particles.
Increasing the distance between the light source and the camera is the most effective approach to prevent backscatter (note – the camera, not necessarily the subject). This makes the particles less noticeable by preventing them from reflecting light back directly at the camera. Unfortunately, the only underwater strobe that can do this is one that has separate arms that come off the camera. Unless everything in the image is quite close to your lens, it is recommended to avoid utilizing the on-camera flash.
By putting your underwater housing to a tray table, you may connect a flexible arm that holds the strobe to the camera. A fiber optic cable that is fastened to the housing in front of the flash then triggers the strobe.
You can photograph sunlight while still exposing your subject since strobes may light up shadows. In order to avoid overexposing the subject and ensure optimum lighting, this technique necessitates carefully adjusting the strobe’s strength, position, and settings. It is advised not to let the strobe flash brightly to prevent backscatter.
A fiber optics cable, arm, tray table, and strobe are not inexpensive purchases. However, photography underwater makes a significant effect, especially when at depth or if color is significant. I should add mention that experienced underwater photographers usually use two strobes when shooting! Although the price nearly doubles, it provides brighter lighting and eliminates shadows.
5. Get Under and Up-Close
Being underwater is great because you can practically fly! Take use of that when shooting underwater. Boring underwater photos can be best captured by shooting from the surface. When shooting downward, there is far less contrast, and it is unlikely to be the most appealing viewpoint for your subject. Dive down so you can photograph horizontally, which can catch more contrast and backdrop even in only a few feet of water.
You should frequently try to get as close to your subject as you can. This brings us full round to the first consequence of photography underwater: distance degrades contrast and color. To get as near to their subject as possible, most underwater photographers use ultra-wide lenses, even fisheyes.
6. Don’t Scare Your Subject
When taking an underwater animal photo, chasing the subject is the last thing you want to do. The greatest approach to ensure you only photograph its tail or butt and that you don’t capture any other interesting images is to do that.
It is preferable to maintain your composure and limit your movements. Any animal will be more tolerant of your presence if you do this. Animals typically stay in a particular location for a purpose and won’t want to move. If you just hold fast, animals may even swim toward you out of curiosity.
To make the most of these encounters while snorkeling, I advise practicing diving down while holding your breath. To prevent your body from wasting valuable oxygen, you should also maintain as much stillness as you can. If necessary, practice in a swimming pool.
If you equalize the pressure in your ears roughly every three feet (or one meter) to balance the water pressure, you can dive considerably more comfortably (whether snorkeling or scuba diving). You can do this by squeezing your nose and taking a slow, gentle breath out through it. You ought to feel the pressure relax and hear a pop.
By doing so, you’ll be able to dive more easily and take in the experience without fumbling around and scaring off the greatest subjects.
7. Check the Water Conditions Beforehand
Successful underwater photography requires ideal water conditions, especially in the ocean. Underwater visibility is a measurement of how far you can see. In some places, like the tropics, visibility can be quite good for the majority of the year, with just a few brief exceptions, or it can be very low for the majority of the year, like on the west coast of the United States. It all depends on how many particles, usually silt or plankton, there are in the water.
Ask the dive operator about recent conditions if you’re going with them, but take in aware that they can be misrepresenting visibility to get your business. You don’t want to spend a lot of money on a trip only to be confronted with muddy water and no photo opportunities, so ask lots of direct questions.
Plankton blooms, which can make the water almost entirely murky and green, occur seasonally, especially in temperate (cold water) zones. The greatest and worst seasons for plankton are vary in every region. Find out when the best time of year is to go diving before making travel plans.
How much silt is stirred up by waves is one feature of the sea conditions that is less predictable. If you plan to take underwater photos while swimming in the ocean alone, make sure to check the surf prediction to see if there will be any particularly strong waves in the region. Forecasts for surf can be fairly accurate several days in advance because waves frequently travel a great distance before reaching the shore. When the waves are the least, you want to enter the water (preferably under 2 ft). A surf forecast might assist you in choosing the best day to go diving.
It goes without saying, but if there are hazardous conditions, never enter a body of water! The area and weather where you intend to enter the water should be thoroughly researched.
8. Edit Your Underwater Images
The process of editing is essential to underwater photography. Recall my first piece of advice about how reds and contrast get lost in the water? In order to produce high-quality underwater photos, the proper attention must be taken. Your editing program’s curves adjustment will become your best buddy.
It is absolutely worth investing in editing software that allows you to handle RAW files and that does an excellent job at color correction if you want to perform a lot of underwater photography. An image from a GoPro that has been properly edited will look considerably better than one from even the best underwater equipment.
Correcting for the loss of reds and boosting contrast are the two most crucial phases in underwater photo editing. A RAW file or an untouched JPEG is typically too flat and green/blue in color.
Here are the steps I usually take:
- Remove the green first by altering the curves or tint settings till the image becomes a little too magenta.
- Next, eliminate the blue by adjusting the white balance bar or curves (and this should correct for the extra magenta, too).
- Finally, if necessary, intensify the reds using levels or curves. It’s vital to remember that changing the red levels will have no effect if the water completely eliminated the red from the scene.
- As usual, make all other post-processing modifications.
Contrast will be slightly increased as a side consequence of changing white balance, curves, and levels, although typically this is also desirable. Pro tip: Changing the white and black levels and curves can achieve more dramatic contrast adjustments than a simple contrast slider.
But when altering, be careful! With photographs that are highly contrasted or extremely saturated, it is simple to go too far.
9. Prevent Flooding
Every underwater photographer is terrified of “flooding,” which refers to when your housing ceases being watertight. Most people have dealt with flooding in some capacity. Both tragic and expensive, it is. Fortunately, there are a few strategies to lower this risk.
Always examine your seals and O-rings first. Be sure to carefully inspect the seals to make sure there are no sand, hairs, or signs of damage before sealing the housing (or the battery compartment). A minor break in the seal is all that is needed to let water slowly seep into the circuitry. Do not rush through this phase; instead, proceed slowly in a well-lit environment. On the beach or while your hands are wet, never open a seal or expose your O-ring.
Second, look after your seals and O-rings. Their deterioration from neglect results in a flooded camera in the end. Apply O-ring grease to your O rings after each usage, and make sure to follow any other maintenance instructions provided by the housing’s manufacturer. If you have even the slightest suspicion that your O-ring or seals are compromised, never submerge your camera.
Watch out for the depth rating. You can only submerge your camera to a certain depth since water pressure rises with depth. Make sure you are aware of the depth rating and avoid diving recklessly. Without an additional housing, many GoPros and underwater cameras don’t have a very high depth rating.
Get a supplementary housing, even for GoPros and waterproof cameras, in that vein. Although they do not need one to shoot underwater, a housing almost eliminates the chance of flooding electronics. With an additional house, you can go even further. Even for the sake of your mental health, it is well worth it.
10. Prevent Fogging
Photos are ruined by fogging, which happens when water condenses behind the glass of your underwater housing or camera lens. The hardest part is that there is nothing you can do but wait once it happens.
The likelihood of fogging increases as moisture becomes trapped inside the seal. Things get worse when there is a big temperature difference between the air and the water. I frequently observe newbies using GoPros and waterproof cameras to have this issue. Fortunately, this problem can be easily avoided.
A desiccant pack can be slipped inside an underwater housing to help avoid fogging. Use a fresh or dehydrated desiccant to prevent it from becoming saturated and losing its effectiveness. These are available online, though if you’re traveling and short on time, stuffing tampon fluff in the housing will also do the trick. Be careful not to get any packets or fibers caught in the O-ring!
Unless you buy an additional housing, desiccant packs cannot be inserted into waterproof cameras or GoPros. Added support for doing so!
However, there are ways to lessen the chance of fogging for waterproof cameras and bare GoPros. If at all feasible, place the housing (along with any battery or charging ports) in a dry, cool area. To change batteries in an area without AC, ensure sure your hands are fully dry and that no liquid gets within the seal. In the camera, this lowers the humidity level. Avoid exposing the camera to the sun or letting it become hot because doing so increases the likelihood of fogging.
With these pointers, I hope your introduction to underwater photography will go more smoothly than it did for me. It’s quite satisfying to learn the underwater photography nuances. Leave a comment below if you’ve encountered any other difficulties with underwater photography that I may have missed, and I’ll try to provide you with some advice to help your upcoming project go more easily.
Learn more: 10 Tips for Taking Beautiful Photos in the Rain