Absolutely anyone can take pictures underwater, either with a cheap disposable or with a standard digital camera inside a waterproof plastic housing. It’s not easy to get really amazing shots with a disposable camera (as with all things, you get what you pay for) but good quality housings are available for many of the popular digital compact families so there’s usually no need to buy a whole new setup for underwater work.
However, there is a world of difference between being able to take decent photos and getting really outstanding shots. Here are a few tips to help you make the best of your underwater photography:
1) Macro shots are by far the easiest to get right
Taking closeups makes lighting easier and reduces the effects of water that isn’t 100% clear. Shooting through a lot of water will tend to wash out colors even if it looks pretty clear to the naked eye, so the less water there is between the camera lens and the subject, the more vivid the images will be.
2) If you don’t have to use a flash, don’t
Although a flash can be used restore washed-out colors, artificial lighting is hard to get right underwater. First among the problems is backscatter. Light from the flash bounces off tiny particles suspended in the water and comes back to hit the lens, and shows up as a sprinkling of white dots across the image. You might be able to get rid of backscatter in the editing phase but it’s never easy and it’s best avoided. Sometimes natural lighting is all you need.
3) If you do have to use a flash, pay careful attention to angles
A flash coming from off to one side or above your camera will mean that reflected light bounces away from your lens rather than coming right back at it. In this way, you can eliminate backscatter by moving from an internal flash to an external strobe.
Most pros recommend using two external strobes, one on each side of the camera. Aim them both so that the edges of the beams just hit the subject rather focussing on it.
4) Side lighting can also bring out textures
This tip is particularly good for corals, which tend to be richly textured. Either extend your flash as far to one side as possible or get a buddy to help you out and hold your light source a few feet away. Experiment with the angles and you should be able to get all kinds of interesting shadow effects.
5) Check your setup on the surface
From time to time every photographer runs out of power or memory space. Usually that means nothing more than switching to a spare battery or putting in a new SD card, but when you’re shooting underwater, it’s impossible to do either without going back to dry land and towelling off. A 30 second check before you get wet could save an irritating half hour later.
Jess Spate is a scuba diver, a surfer, and an underwater photography enthusiast. She writes for Mozaik Underwater Cameras.