Tips for Underwater Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Tips for Underwater Photography

by David Peterson 0 comments

Underwater photography used to be out of reach for the hobbyist. Equipment was expensive and specialized and the process was impractical - film cameras could only shoot 36 photos at a time, which meant that a diver would have to constantly resurface to change rolls. Back in those days, looking at underwater photos in the pages of National Geographic was about as close as the average Joe could get to being an underwater photographer.

Today, improvements in camera technology and the advent of digital cameras have meant that underwater photography is something almost anyone can try. And as far as the expense goes, you can choose to spend a lot of money or you can choose to be conservative - big bucks are no longer a requirement.

[ Top image Diver photographer by Flickr user quinet]


Serious underwater photographers use DSLR cameras in underwater housings. If this is the direction you want to go, chose a camera that has manual settings, large buttons and good battery life--you'll be depending on your LCD screen when you're under water, and you don't want your battery to die halfway through a dive.

Anna Karenina by Flickr user Elena Kalis

Most DSLR manufacturers make an underwater housing that will fit your camera, or you may choose to buy one made by a company that specializes in underwater camera equipment. This is one area where you don't want to cut corners. Choose a housing that allows for good usability, but make sure it is well-reviewed. Stories abound about housings that leak, destroying valuable equipment. And when this happens the "guarantee" that comes with the product doesn't protect your camera, just the housing. Before you purchase make sure you find plenty of people who have used your housing and are happy with it, and make sure you know how to use it correctly before you take it underwater. For a good underwater housing, expect to pay at least $300 or up to $1,000 or more. Does that seem pricey? It's not as pricey as a flooded DSLR.

You've heard me say many times that you should avoid flash whenever possible, but underwater photography is an exception. You will need a lot of light to bring out those vibrant colors underwater; for close-range subjects you can use your on-board flash, but the farther away you are the less happy you'll be with your results. If you think you might be serious about underwater photography, you will almost certainly need a good underwater strobe.

Let's say you don't want to get fancy or spend all that money, but you would like to get some underwater shots of your kids in the pool this summer. There are a few good point-and-shoots out there that don't need an underwater housing; they are waterproof right out of the box. If you are just toying with underwater photography you may want to consider one of these cameras for a couple of reasons:

  1. They are more portable and less cumbersome, so they don't require you to spend time setting them up in advance - just jump in the water and go.
  2. If they fail, you're out a couple hundred bucks. Conversely, if that underwater housing you got for your DSLR springs a leak, well, you know how much you'll be out at that point.

Your Subject

  • Canon PowerShot A640
  • f/2.8
  • 0.002 sec (1/500)
  • 7.3 mm

anemone fish in Sipadan by Flickr user cloning girl

If you're scuba diving, your subjects are (at least some of the time) probably going to be fish. This means you need patience, and above all you need to move slowly. But one of the most important things to remember is that you shouldn't rely on your zoom lens to get close to those fish. Water is not like air - your subject will lose color, contrast and detail if you have to shoot it through a lot of water. So get as close as you can to your subject, and move as slowly as you can so that you don't scare Nemo away.

If you don't have your underwater strobe yet, try not to go too deep - the shallower you are, the more ambient light there will be. At greater depths the water will filter out the light, forcing you to use a slower shutter speed, which will of course result in blurry images. Experiment with ISO and aperture but remember that underwater photos are like landscapes - they tend to look best at small ISOs and wide apertures. And because you can't use a tripod under water you should try to remain close to the surface, where more light is able to penetrate.

If you do have a strobe, keep your strobe as far away from your lens as possible and don't point it directly at your subject. Just as in land photography, you want the light to be soft, not harsh. You also want to avoid backscatter, which is what happens when the light from your strobe reflects off the particles in the water. So check every shot and make adjustments in the placement of your strobe as necessary.

  • Sony DSC-W200
  • 125
  • f/8.0
  • 0.001 sec (1/1250)
  • 7.6 mm

In The Blue by Flickr user sharkbait

Underwater photographs often look more dramatic when you shoot your subject from below, towards the surface of the water. Experiment with capturing a "sunburst," or just the rays of morning or afternoon sun as they come through the surface of the water.

When shooting macros, you will need to use that external strobe we talked about earlier, but make sure that the light is diffused or that you are not using the flash at full strength, otherwise you'll end up with a harshly-lit subject.

  • Canon PowerShot S95
  • 80
  • f/4.5
  • 0.001 sec (1/1000)
  • 6 mm

Hold Your Breath by Flickr user Sirsnapsalot

Of course you may not be scuba diving at all - perhaps you're just after those water-fun images at the pool. You will probably want to wear a diving mask anyway, so you can clearly see those kids as they fling themselves into the water. Children are generally much more agreeable than fish, so your job is going to be a lot easier in the pool than it will be out there in the Big Blue. Have your subjects swim towards the camera, or get some action shots as they jump or dive into the water.

  • Canon PowerShot A630
  • f/4.0
  • 0.004 sec (1/250)
  • 7.3 mm

The deeper you go, the more color is filtered from your final image.Forest sightseeing by Flickr user Maritime Archaeology


It is really difficult to capture natural looking colors under water. This is because your camera is designed to work in daylight - the sort of daylight that happens on dry ground. The water actually has filtering properties that will prevent certain colors getting through at certain depths. Red is the first color to go, followed by orange and yellow. The deeper you go, the bluer your images will look. You can correct this to a certain degree by changing your white balance, but not all cameras have an "underwater" setting. If yours doesn't you'll need to use the daylight setting only when you are close to the surface and then switch to "cloudy" when you go a bit deeper. You can also try manually setting the white balance by shooting something white while you are under the surface.

Colors can also be fixed with underwater color correction filters, which are available in different tints depending on where you're going to be shooting--green for those temperate lakes, for example, and blue for the tropics. These filters block ambient light, though, and may create unwanted color casts when paired with a strobe, so they are not always a good choice. The best course of action is to shoot in RAW, which will capture all the color information available in a scene, making it easier for you to correct in post-processing.

Underwater photography has a lot going for it, and if scuba is already your hobby, the addition of photography will make it even more enjoyable. Or if you're just out for a good time in the sun with your kids, having that little waterproof point-and-shoot will help you capture some memories that have heretofore been absent from your summer scrapbook--like that great look on your child's face as he plunges through the surface of the water from way up on that diving board.

For more inspiration, see my gallery with 24 spectacular underwater shots.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.