Underwater Photography Tips To Instantly Improve Your Photos

Underwater photography is a hobby with endless possibilities, however as a beginner can be quite daunting and challenging. The ratio of good to not so good photos will be high in the beginning, however through practice and using some of the tips below, you will quickly start to see an improvement in your underwater photos.

The tips listed below are applicable to almost any camera, from a basic point and shoot to a full DSLR rig with strobes and various lenses. Once learnt, these tips will be something you take with you through your entire underwater photography career.

1) Get comfortable in the water

This first tip may seem obvious, however it will have a big impact on your photography. You cannot take good photos underwater if you do not feel comfortable underwater. If you are scuba diving work on perfecting your buoyancy skills first before you start taking a camera with you. Likewise if you are snorkeling or freediving, get comfortable duck diving down to the bottom and resting on the seabed. A stable platform is essential to taking good photos and the only way you can achieve this is through experience underwater and using your equipment.

Being comfortable in the water will also help protect the marine environment. Good buoyancy skills are essential when taking photos among fragile coral reefs or inside tight wreck spaces. It will also protect your own equipment from being damaged.

Being comfortable in the water is essential before you try underwater photography

Being comfortable in the water is essential before you try underwater photography

2) Stay shallow to maximize the light

It is a well known fact that the amount of light in the water column decreases as the water depth increases. Also different colours of the light spectrum penetrate deeper into the water than others. The colour red is quickly absorbed and by 3m (10ft) over 70% of the red light that enters the ocean is gone. As you get deeper, your pictures will become more and more blue until all of the other colours of the spectrum are gone. Therefore to keep as much ambient light colour in your subject and background as you can you should try to take your photos at shallower depths.

The most colour is found in the first few meters underwater

The most colour is found in the first few meters underwater

Using strobes can add artificial light to your foreground subject. Even with the most powerful strobes however the light will only reach a meter or so from strobe, meaning that the background will remain the ambient light colour.

Staying shallow also has the advantage of  adding attractive light rays to your photos if you frame up slightly and use a high shutter speed (more than 1/100th second). This will instantly make your photos more interesting.

3) Pay attention to the direction of the sun

The light from the sun has a huge impact on the composition of your photos. At it’s most basic, take photos with the sun behind you to maximise the amount of light and colour in your photos. Shoot into the sun if your aim is to take silhouettes or darken the background areas.

During your dives you should always be aware of the direction of the sun relative to you. Clouds passing over will temporarily reduce light in the water which will reduce the pop of your photos. As you become more adept, you will begin to notice these things instinctively and this will allow you to greatly improve the quality of your photos.

Shooting with the sun behind you will reveal the most colour

Shooting with the sun behind you will reveal the most colour

4) Get closer to your subject

When you first start taking photos underwater, you will quickly realize that the further away you are from your subject the more chance there is of the subject being out of focus and the less contrast your photos will have. If you are using strobes, the more water your strobe light has to pass through the more backscatter you will get in your images.

The solution is to therefore get as close your subject as you can. Using a lens with a wider view such as a fisheye lens allows you to get much closer to a subject, and therefore improve the contrast in your photos. This is why the tip, getting comfortable in the water is so important as you will not be able to get close to a subject if you are not comfortable and in control underwater.

Get as close to your subject as you can to minimize the amount of water you are shooting through

Get as close to your subject as you can to minimize the amount of water you are shooting through

5) Take more vertical photos

Beginner underwater photographers will generally start off taking horizontal photos as it is the most natural way to hold a camera. However the underwater environment is suited to the vertical photos, due to the dynamic range of light which is brighter at the surface and darker deeper down. Photos with a larger dynamic range are more eye catching and pleasing to view.

Another advantage of shooting vertical photos is social media platforms such as Instagram are more suited to vertical photos. Vertical images can be displayed at almost full size phone screen while horizontal photos are only displayed on part of the screen.

Vertical photos with a large dynamic range are more eye catching

Vertical photos with a large dynamic range are more eye catching

6) Frame up using the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a principle that adds two imaginary horizontal and two vertical lines at equal spacing to and image. The idea is to place the subject at the intersection of two of these lines. This creates a more pleasing image than the subject being dead center in the image. Most cameras these days allow you to add grid lines on your display or viewfinder to allow you to position your subject at an intersection. Alternatively you can also crop your image in post processing so the subject is at an intersection.

Here I tried to place the turtle in the lower right third

Here I tried to place the turtle in the lower right third

7) Start shooting in manual mode

Learning how to operate your camera in manual mode can be extremely daunting. Once you have mastered manual mode however, you will never go back to shooting in automatic mode. Shooting in manual mode allows you more creative control to capture the image you see in your mind as a photo.

The main concepts to grasp when shooting in manual mode is the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. These three parameters all play a role in the exposure of an image. It is therefore vital you understand the effect of changing each parameter. A brief summary can be found below.

Aperture

This is the opening in the camera lens which allows light through to expose the image sensor. The size of opening is defined through f-stops. The smaller the f number (e.g f/2.8), the larger the opening and therefore the more light that exposes the sensor. Conversely, the large the f number (e.g f/22), the smaller the opening and the less light allowed through. A smaller f number will result in a smaller depth of field compared to larger f number which will result in more of the image being in focus.

Shutter Speed

The duration that shutter is opened to expose the image. A slower shutter speed (e.g 1/4 sec) allows more light in while a higher shutter speed (1/200 sec) will allow less light in. Fast moving fish require a high shutter speed to freeze their movement, whilst a lower shutter speed can be used to expose darker areas such as the inside of a wreck.

ISO (International Standards Organization)

A measure of how sensitive the image sensor is. A lower number (e.g ISO 100) will be less sensitive than a higher number (e.g ISO 800). Keeping the ISO as low as possible will result in the best image and colour quality, however higher ISOs are needed in dark areas such as caves to expose them correctly.

Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO relationship

Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO relationship (credit: petapixel.com)

The good news about learning to take pictures in manual mode is it is something you can practice on land. Therefore experiment changing each setting and see how it effects the final image. Also practice manual mode with your camera in its underwater housing if you have one. Once comfortable you will be ready to try taking manual images underwater.

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