Point. Shoot. Smile. Tips for Getting Started in Underwater Photography 

For sport divers, scuba diving is a visual experience. We fall in love with the explosion of colors, stunning seascapes, sights of massive shipwrecks sitting on the sea floor, and opportunities to see creatures that range in size from inch-long, rainbow colored nudibranchs to whales when we enter Neptune’s realm. But as quickly as they fall in love with diving, a lot of divers find themselves wanting to do more than just look.

Underwater photography offers a perfect solution. With a relatively small investment, some effort, and the ever-important ingredient of time in the water, it’s amazingly easy to capture special underwater moments with your own camera system.

First Things First

It’s easy to write: “Underwater photography is easy as pie. Just grab a camera and fall off a boat.” But when you give a camera system to a diver it occupies their hands, and diving while holding a camera makes otherwise simple tasks such as clearing a mask, inflating and deflating a buoyancy compensator, and adjusting gear etc. more challenging.

Before you become an underwater photographer you must first be a solid diver. There are no exceptions. If you are still working to become proficient at achieving neutral buoyancy, or don’t have great discipline with regard to monitoring your depth, bottom time and remaining gas supply etc., concentrate on perfecting your diving skills before you take up underwater photography.

What You Need To Get Started

Getting started is much less expensive than many people anticipate. Modern day, entry-level cameras are relatively inexpensive. Entry-level camera systems provide a wonderful way to bring home snapshot memories, but they have their limitations. The most significant is that many camera systems in the lower price range do not come with an off-board, or external, flash (strobe), or a means of attaching one. Photographers need an artificial light source underwater to “paint” warm colors into photographs, and they will want to be able to place the light above and to the side of the lens in order to avoid ruinous backscatter in their pictures. Backscatter results when light from a flash or other light draws attention to strobe-lit particulate in the water column. The absolute worst possible placement for a light source underwater is right next to the lens (onboard).

Adding an external light will increase the cost of a basic camera system, but the difference in quality is well worth it.

As a photography instructor one of the questions I am often asked is “which camera, lenses, and strobe should I buy?” The answer is no single camera system set-up is best for all scenarios. That’s the bad news. The good news is that with many starter systems you can add accessories as your skill increases and budget allows.

One of the first accessories many photographers acquire is some kind of wide-angle lens or adapter. These tools enable photographers to get close to larger subjects, thus shooting through less water while getting the desired subject in the shot. Macro lenses are for subjects that range in size from nudibranchs to small lobsters. Many cameras come with a zoom lens that allows you to vary your field-of-view, but an additional wide-angle adapter is often extremely useful.

Of course, it is possible to spend considerably more money. Many serious shooters use high-end digital single lens reflex (dSLR) cameras or mirrorless cameras that fit into model-specific housings. The housing keeps the camera dry while also giving you access to its controls. One of these cameras, a back-up camera, full line of lenses, two lights and other accessories including a carrying case and tool kit can add up to a big investment. But there are plenty of options in between entry-level camera systems starting at a few hundred dollars and the highest of high-end systems. There is a camera for every budget and skill level.

A pitfall to avoid is buying every available lens and accessory on day one. Most instructors suggest new shooters master one type of photography or camera system before trying to master all. As a rule, they suggest new shooters begin with a camera system designed to photograph reef creatures, and work toward wide-angle photography, as it requires more expertise.

Although serious shooters generally end up using two-strobe systems, it makes sense to start with a single strobe and learn over time why you might like to add a second strobe.

Some Basics To Keep In Mind

No matter what type of underwater camera system you start with, some basic principles will always apply. The following is a list of ten things to be aware of when creating and editing underwater photographs:

  • Think safety first and always.
  • Water is a selective filter of wavelengths of light. The red end of the visible spectrum of light gets filtered out first. Within the visible spectrum, blue light penetrates the deepest, and this is one reason pictures taken at depth often have a strong bluish tint.
  • Underwater photographers use a light, usually a strobe(s), to “add” the red end of the spectrum back into their photographs. To paint in reds with a strobe or constantly burning light, a photographer has to be within eight feet of a subject, and closer is better.
  • Getting close to subjects usually produces superior results.
  • Fill a pleasing percentage of your frame with your subject. If your subject is too small in the frame, odds are high that your picture will disappoint.
  • When photographing any subject that has eyes, focus your lens on eye closest to the lens. And photograph subjects with their head facing the camera.
  • Look for unwanted distractions along the edges of your frame when composing a photograph. Every underwater photographer either has or will take pictures that have an unwanted fin or a piece of a sea fan or kelp etc. in an image. Checking the edges of your frame when composing a picture takes practice, but it often pays big dividends.
  • Consider the background when composing a photograph so you can make adjustments that help subjects stand out rather than blend into backgrounds.
  • Read the directions that accompany your camera and strobe. This might sound too obvious to mention, but you’d be surprised by the number of camera owners that spend a lot of money and time pursuing photographs without knowing much about the tools they are using.
  • Enjoy the process, not just the processed image. Mastering underwater photography is a lifelong challenge, and there is always room for improvement. When editing your images, look for things you did well and mistakes you made. Learn from both, and don’t beat yourself up over mistakes. Underwater photography is supposed to be fun!

Camera Etiquette

Good etiquette has its place in underwater photography. Collectively speaking, photographers catch a lot of grief for manipulating subjects to get “just the right pose,” or being unaware of their position relative to the reef, often inadvertently making contact with delicate corals. No photo is worth risking damage to the reef. All photographers are urged to remain aware of their surroundings when looking through the viewfinder.

It is not exactly a secret that a lot of divers think underwater photographers make terrible buddies. Pay heed. If you are a photographer and dive with a buddy whether by choice or assignment, have a thorough pre-dive discussion to establish expectations and responsibilities.

Another point of etiquette involves how long you can occupy a single subject. When your dive guide or another diver finds a subject you want to photograph when diving with a group, you’ll likely need to wait your turn. Remain at a distance, careful not to get in the other diver’s shot. Once you move in, consider the subject to be “all yours” only for a brief period. Then, move away to give others a turn and also to avoid potentially stressing the subject. If, on the other hand, you find the subject, most photographers consider it fair to stay with that subject for as long as you like.

Etiquette also comes into play before and after dives. Considerate photographers stow and assemble photo gear in designated areas. It is never okay to rinse dive gear in a rinse tank marked “cameras only.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Becoming proficient at underwater photography takes practice. You can become familiar with your camera’s controls and menus while sitting on your couch. That kind of effort often proves invaluable, especially when fast developing photographic opportunities present themselves.

Practice time in a swimming pool can also be helpful. This is especially true when underwater photography is new to you and when you acquire a new piece of equipment. The pool is also a great place to polish diving skills with a camera system in your hands.

Keeping Your Gear In Good Working Order 

Taking good care of underwater photographic equipment is not difficult, nor does it take an extraordinary amount of time, but it does take some understanding and discipline. Any photographer that wants their system to work needs to pay close attention to detail when assembling equipment, rinsing, cleaning, and stowing equipment in ways that protects it.

Photographers also need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when it comes to the use of lubricants for o-rings. With some o-rings you must use specific types of lubricants for them to work properly. With other o-rings, manufacturers instruct us not to use a lubricant. Read and follow the instructions!

When the use of silicone grease is called for, apply just enough to give an o-ring a sheen. Too much lubricant can be as harmful as none at all because too much grease is a “gunk magnet.” Debris on an o-ring will destroy the integrity of an intended watertight seal.

Protecting Your Investment

You might want to consider insuring your photographic equipment. No matter how well made your camera system is, and how careful you are, flooded gear is part of the game. The good news is that a number of companies offer camera insurance. When selecting coverage learn if flooding is covered, and whether you get a depreciated replacement value or original purchase price replacement value in the event of a loss.

The use of a lanyard to attach your camera system to your wrist or a clip on your BC is another form of insurance. Many professionals suggest using a lanyard, but emphasize the value of holding your camera system in your hand or hands during your dive. A lanyard is to be used as a backup method of holding onto your camera during dives.

Editing and Saving Your Images

Underwater photography involves more than just taking the pictures. At the very least, you will probably want to be able to perform basic post-capture image manipulation on your computer. You don’t need to become a Photoshop guru, but you will probably want to acquire some kind of image manipulation software and learn some basics so you can crop images, make colors “pop” and remove backscatter. You will also want to learn how to archive images in a way that allows you to locate your photographs quickly.

Additionally, you will want to back up your images to an external hard drive. Also consider some type of cloud storage.

Ultimately, one thing that is absolutely certain when it comes to underwater photography is that you can’t unleash the artist within if you don’t go diving. But if you try your hand, who knows what might happen? With a little practice and time in the water, you might see one of your images on the Best Shot page of California Diving News. Wouldn’t that make your day!

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