Jumping from a cliff. Diving with whale sharks. Documenting a road trip. The compact, rugged technology of the GoPro has created incredible opportunities for capturing the action of events like these. And while the GoPro is known mostly for its video capabilities, improved senor technology means it’s also a camera capable of high-quality imagery that can withstand harsh conditions such as water and dust.
And being able to shoot in adverse conditions opens new opportunities for creative photography.
In the past few months I’ve been experimenting with a GoPro Hero5 to shoot underwater photography. Although shooting underwater is a new realm for me, I’ve found that by applying generic photography knowledge I’ve grown quickly and made the GoPro work for me.
I hope you can learn and adapt what I’ve learned for your own purposes with these five tips for underwater photography with a GoPro.
1. Know the Minimum Focus Distance
You may already know that the GoPro has a very wide field of view (FOV), which lets you frame a subject with the contextual scene around it. When searching for an image, focus on your desired foreground element and then get as close to it that foreground element as you ethically can. Place your camera close and take advantage of the GoPro’s 12-inch (~30cm) minimum focus distance. Placing the foreground element about 12 inches from the camera will emphasize it while still providing surrounding context.
2. Pre-set your Camera Field of View
Following in line with the minimum focusing distance, be sure to pre-set the FOV for your GoPro before entering the water. Even though GoPros are waterproof, I use a third-party housing to further protect the camera. And if you use a housing you can’t engage the touch screen, so you need to set the FOV first.
If you can’t get close enough to your subject, set the field of view to “Narrow”. This will require you to aim your camera precisely, which can be difficult if snorkeling or swimming. Of course, you can keep an eye on the back screen to help you compose the shot.
3. Set Your Camera Defaults to Maintain Image Quality
Setting your default settings ahead of time will help you capture quality photographs. GoPros have pretty good image quality in well-lit conditions, but the image graininess (noise) will increase quickly as the camera adapts its ISO to low-light conditions. You can control the image quality by setting a maximum ISO setting. With your phone connected to your GoPro, go into your settings and change the maximum ISO to a value of 800 or less. While you’re there, you may want to set the default mode to “photo”. Doing this will ensure you can quickly take a photo if your GoPro shuts off while underwater and you need to turn it back on.
4. Stabilize Your Camera
If the water is cloudy or the day isn’t sunny the camera will shoot at slower shutter speeds, which may result in blurry or non-sharp images. This will be particularly noticeable if you can’t keep the camera stable. If you’re hand-holding the camera, keep it as stable as possible. You can also mount the GoPro to a tripod and place it in a suitable location. This is more useful when a phenomena or animal is predictable, such as salmon in a river. Just as it does on land, using a tripod will help stabilize the image.
If you’re out of the water and photographing something near you (think of tide pools) you can keep the camera stable by mounting it on a extension pole. You can buy one, or even build one relatively easily. A long pole will help you photograph something far away, and if you have a long pole (say 12 feet) the top of it will help counterbalance the GoPro at the bottom. If you’re using the pole in shallow water try bracing it against the bottom for further stability.
Another camera setting useful for stability is the time lapse mode. Set the camera to time lapse (say, one shot every second) and start taking images. Compose your shot underwater, and then hold the camera in place while it takes pictures. Since you won’t have to fumble for the trigger button it will be easier to keep it still and ensure your images are sharp.
In some situations you may be able to trigger the camera with your phone. The GoPro’s wifi network will cut out under deep water, but if the camera is on a tripod with only a small covering of water you can trigger the camera remotely from a distance. You’ll need to experiment with how much water is too much for the wifi network. Remotely triggering the camera may help you ethically and safely photograph wildlife.
Although I don’t use underwater lighting, you can avoid blurring by using strobes or other versions of underwater lighting. These will help keep your shutter speed up and your ISO low. But use them with discretion depending on your subject. In some circumstances they may be detrimental to wildlife.
5. Use a Housing for Split-Level Photography
Split-level imagery is a way to help give an image context and tell a story. To create the effect, use an underwater housing with a convex dome and then place the dome half-in and half-out of the water. By doing so you get to observe both the underwater world and the terrestrial world. I use a housing by GoPole to create split-level images capturing the streams and local salmon runs of Alaska. You can use this technique anywhere to create compelling images. You can create split-level images by hand-holding the camera or using a tripod as I mentioned earlier.
I want to reiterate that I’m not an expert at underwater photography. But I’ve enjoyed extending my capabilities and skills to that realm. The GoPro is a fun way to learn underwater photography techniques without breaking the bank. And since GoPros are naturally waterproof, the likelihood of destroying gear is lowered substantially.
As I like to say, “pixels are cheap,” so I hope you make a lot of pixels while shooting photographs underwater with your GoPro.