Introduction to Taking Great Underwater Photos

Introduction to Taking Great Underwater Photos

TankPlusFish.jpgAbsolutely 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

texture.jpgThis 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.

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Some Older Comments

  • Wynand April 21, 2013 01:03 pm

    Hi, I recently bought a very affordable DicaPac, which is great for just snorkling and allows me to dive down to about 5meters. With snorkling light isn't my problem, although the Dicapac does have enough room to have my 60D's popup on. I just want to know about focusing. I found that the Autofocus seems to get it wrong almost every shot. Especially when shooting "through" the water mass it seems to focus close up and as a result I get a lot of soft images. When I set the camera to infinity MF it means that I have to be at least 5meters away from my subject, but this is only great if the water is cristal clear. I have been using a 24/105 F4L lens. Set to 24 and I try to get as much depth of field as the shutter speed will allow me. Any advise?

  • gabriel parsons March 27, 2012 07:53 pm

    Thank you for the interesting article. I took a number of very good underwater photos using a Olympus digital waterproof camera.All my photos were taken in the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. The coral heads in this area area extremely beautiful as very few people visit the beaches and being in Saudi there are no tourists.
    All my photos were taken while snorkeling. I found the light to be better when snorkeling versus diving.

  • m March 17, 2012 03:57 am

    I forgot to say ... if you start taking photos underwater you are likely to become addicted.

  • CJ March 17, 2012 02:20 am

    UV light penetrates water better than visible light. If you simply put your DSLR in a waterproof housing and go more than a few feet down, the colors will be really off. At a certain depth (my experience has been around 60' - 90' depending on the clarity of the water), it is almost like using a black light on some surfaces. Weird!

  • Rahul March 16, 2012 08:59 am

    Lol @Ilan's water photography. That's really funny. :-)

    @Walt: A big WOW!!! Great pictures.

  • Lea March 16, 2012 08:19 am

    Best bet and very affordable are the point and shoot underwater cams. I have a Pentax Optio W90 which allows decent results. Great way to have fun underwater

  • M March 16, 2012 03:46 am

    I take quite a lot of underwater photos whilst snorkelling, using a relatively inexpensive compact camera and an underwater housing. There is a high failure rate for it is not easy to take photos of a moving fish when one is also moving. When things go right it is rewarding. However most underwater photos need more processing than normal photos for shooting through water reduces contrast.

    Shooting from below can help to give more interesting photos - and may also give welcome reflections on the water surface. This photo of three squid may show what I mean,

  • Ashley March 16, 2012 03:23 am

    Backscatter can also be minimized with strobe positioning. In many cases, positioning your strobes as far away from the camera as possible and lighting the frame with the edges of the cones of light the strobes provide will all but eliminate backscatter.

  • Lin Amoore March 16, 2012 01:45 am

    previous owner, photographer, and Photos Underwater Melbourne. Winner NPCI set subject: "Family" 2001 for family, shot underwater..... with both sun and single strobe using Nikonos 4A or 5. Fantastic film cameras!!!!! I began shooting families with a Nikonos 2!!! back in 1987.

  • Lin Amoore March 16, 2012 01:38 am

    It's been my experience when little particles appear as in "Backscatter", there is a better position in which to shoot where the particles do not appear to the eye, nor the camera!

    Remember the basics, shoot from many angles, directions. Move around the subject.

  • Walt March 13, 2012 01:08 pm

    While point #2 is correct, unless your dives are relatively shallow you will always need a flash to get consistently good pictures. I first started shooting underwater with a Canon SD 990 and only used its built in flash. While the pictures were ok for family and friends, they weren't what I would consider a good photography. It wasn't until I added the Ikelite case for my 7D with the external strobe that I was able to take some pictures I was happy with. But having said that, I still have a lot more to experiment with.

    The other big tip, at last for me, is I tend to go through air about twice as fast when I'm shooting photos as opposed to just diving. This is especially true when I'm trying to do macro of very small subjects.

    I've posted a few on my web site,

  • Ashley March 13, 2012 08:52 am

    What a creative and fun idea, Jeff! I've always wanted to see the inside of a dishwasher :)

  • Marcus Davis March 13, 2012 03:59 am

    I really liked this article. As Ashley said, the housings are expensive! My wife and I went to Hawaii in 2010 and we picked up an Olympus 6020, one of their shock proof / water proof line for about $200 - $250. For the occassional underwater photographer, this is a great alternative.

    However, I would eventually love to get a housing for my Canon t2i.

    Again, great article!

  • Trevor March 12, 2012 02:55 pm

    Jeff, those are awesome. Love the idea.

  • Jeff E Jensen March 12, 2012 12:39 pm

    I don't get a lot of opportunity for underwater shooting so I recently created an opportunity:

  • Ashley March 12, 2012 05:43 am

    Underwater photography is actually what got me interested in topside photography. I still have so much to learn, but I've been doing it for a couple of years now and love it. External lighting is key--you won't get the saturated "aquarium" colors without it.

    But yeah, if you think regular photography is expensive, underwater is worse. Someday I will house my 7d, but the housing alone is ~$3500, and that's before you add ports, focus gears, etc. Definitely a commitment!

  • Ilan March 11, 2012 08:47 am

    I wish I could afford an underwater casing for my D80... These things costs like a new camera! :(
    This is the closest I've got to a 'water' photography

  • mattoau March 11, 2012 07:55 am

    For digital cameras I would suggest mastering manual white balance before using red filters, in-camera underwater settings or blowing lots of $$$ on external lighting. Due to the nature of light passing through water, every time you change depth, orientation or aspect you will need to set WB. No need to buy reference cards for this as the palm of your hand does a good enough job.

    I've also found that underexposing by 1EV produces better results.

  • K March 11, 2012 07:25 am

    Great article it really is amazing that it is quite simple to take good underwater photographs. Something I would like to try sometime. There are quite a range of cameras and housings available.