Underwater photography in California waters can be a bit more challenging, to be sure, but definitely worth the rewards. Adjustments in techniques must be taken to compensate for darker, less clear waters, marine life with muted colors, and even for the cold. Below are a few tips that will make your excursion into California seas with a camera more productive and enjoyable.


A higher speed film (or adjustment on the digital camera) will give you the added edge needed for exposures in the sometimes dark environments of the thick kelp forests or green water. Our eyes can compensate quite well and see even in low light conditions. Cameras can’t. A higher speed film will allow the camera to see details hidden in the low light environment. For wide-angle photography, try 200 asa film. With even marginal visibility and on a cloudy day you will be able to draw out the features of a wreck or the inner corners a kelp forest. Use caution, however, with your strobes. The higher speed film can be easily “blown-out” and over exposed by strobes at too high a power. Use the strobe light sparingly to just “kiss” the foreground subject to bring out color and detail.


Again, you are working to maximize the ambient light. The most amount of ambient light comes from the surface so aim upward with your camera. Even if you are only silhouetting your background (wreck, kelp forest, etc.), the effect will be more dramatic. With a foreground properly illuminated with your strobes, and a background contrasted against blue or green water, your photo will take on a more three-dimensional look.


That visibility-lowering soupy green water common in California in the spring is a blessing, not a curse! It is what drives our ecosystem. It is the abundance of the sea exploding before your eyes but on a microscopic level. Plankton blooms make our waters green and dark. But they also can give your subject a startling emerald green background. As admonished previously, use a higher speed film and shoot up to get the maximum benefit from this green light.


Beautiful colors are wonderful, and make for great photos but in California we are also blessed with dramatic textures as well. Sea stars are a good subject material with a variety of textures and color hues. Other good textures in California waters include kelp, urchins, and the skin of bottom fish such as scorpionfish, gobies and rockfish. If possible, contrast textures against each other — a soft against a rough, spiny against a smooth.


On tropical reef, everything is bright colors which is fun, but it is sometimes difficult to make a particular subject pop out on the photo. In California we can put our brightly colored subjects against a muted, contrasting color. The results can be very dramatic. When photographing a garibaldi, get low and shoot up, including the sunbeams coming through the kelp in the background. The bright orange garibaldi will pop out against the blue-green of the kelp.

I love to photograph divers in the underwater environment, but it is often difficult to make a diver, with a black or blue hood, stand out from his or her background. First, make sure you expose the background properly to bring out the true blue or green color. With this, a black hood will stand out well. Second, have your model wear a mask with a brightly colored frame, preferably a warm color like burgundy or red. Even yellow or pink will work, but be careful of overkill. Also, carefully expose the diver’s face so that while you are exposing your background well, you are not overexposing the face of the diver.

California’s underwater environment is beautiful and deserves to be brought home in photographs. It is, however, a bit more challenging. A few adjustments in techniques and you will be able to easily overcome these added difficulties and even turn them to your advantage.