If your next holiday will take you to a tropical location, with warm, clear waters and a bounty of aquatic life, you may be tempted to bring back photos of life under the waves. If that is the case, this primer will help point you in the right direction to make the most out of your time in the water!
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in November of 2010.
We’ll start with assuming you have not chosen a camera for your trip and then move on to techniques you can practice at home and on location to help ensure you bring back memorable, quality underwater photographs.
In the past, underwater photography was the realm of those with very deep pockets. Casings built to dive the depths costs tens of thousands of dollars. Specially built cameras, such as Nikon’s Nikonos line of cameras, were not much cheaper. On top of the cost, film cameras were limited in the number of shots that would fill a roll before surfacing to reload the camera.
But now the market is becoming flooded with a variety of digital underwater cameras targeted to the casual user. These specific cameras are of the point and shoot variety, small enough to fit in a pocket but still useful under the sea.
There are also a number of sport housings available for DSLR style cameras as well, but their cost is still a bit prohibitive for the casual holiday maker. In this article we will focus on the point and shoot market, while still mentioning DSLR options for those interested.
When selecting a camera for underwater use, make sure it is waterproof to at least 10m (33′). Any rating less than this may leak when diving under the waters on a snorkel trip. It is not uncommon for a good swimmer to be able to submerge 10-20″ when trying to get close to coral reefs. Chances are that the good photos will be more than a few feet below the surface.
Also make sure the camera has a large LCD screen to make “in the water” review and adjustment easy. A larger screen will help with framing your shots as well. Water distorts distance, so the bigger the screen, the better. Also, a camera with a video mode can be a lot of fun underwater and you’ll be amazed at how well the audio will work to capture the sounds under the surface.
Manage Your Expectations
On your first attempt at underwater photography, you may find some discrepancy between photos you have seen and what you are able to produce.
If you have been lured into the idea of underwater photography by perusing the pages of National Geographic or visiting a professional exhibit at a nearby gallery, realize those are the people that have sunk tens of thousands of dollars into their craft. They also spend hours and days waiting for that perfect shot, often returning to the same location dozens of times until the perfect conditions exist for the photo.
In contrast, you are likely on a much tighter schedule and may not have the resources available that a professional on assignment may be blessed with. But that’s not to say you can’t bring back stunning images from the depths. As a matter of fact, the tips in this article are aimed at helping you do just that!
That said, it is important to set your expectations accordingly. The water may be murkier than you expected (even though it is crystal clear blue from the shore) and those fish are much faster swimmers than you are! As with any aspect of photography, it takes practice to refine the art, so if this is your first attempt, allow yourself permission to make a few mistakes while ramping up your learning curve.
Practice At Home
It is an exciting day when your new underwater camera arrives, and nothing seems more like an eternity than waiting for the battery to charge. Take some time to read the manual while the battery is charging, getting to know the camera’s limits. Most importantly, learn how to service the camera’s O-rings properly if your camera contains them (the seals that hold out the water). Chances are they will have some type of seal where the battery and media card are inserted.
If you have a DSLR and are using an underwater housing or shell, the same rules apply. You will also have to spend more time in getting accustomed to the larger control knobs and the possible limitations of the housing (not all housings allow for the control of all camera features while underwater).
I have found fitting a camera in a housing takes practice to ensure everything is seated properly. If the camera and controls don’t line up properly, you may find yourself cursing through your snorkel once out in the waves.
Also, if there is a swimming pool nearby, take your camera and a willing assistant to help you get used to using the camera underwater. It’s a good time to play without the pressure of figuring it all out while at your favorite tropical location.
One thing you might notice is that holding the camera up for a picture is not as simple as on land, because you are often using your arms and hands to keep yourself steady in the water. And don’t forget to rinse your camera off when you’re finished!
Use The Underwater Setting
Now that you’ve taken the time to learn all your camera’s normal settings, it’s time to play with the underwater settings. For a number of point and shoot cameras there is a “scene” setting for underwater photography. This is because of the inherent color cast found below the surface.
You’re familiar with the gorgeous deep blues and light greens seen in tropical pictures when shot from the beach. It is the ideal scene most of us have in mind when we think of the tropics. The color on the surface is also the color typically found in the water (except for the deepest blues that come from very deep water).
What looks good on the outside can be an off-color in the water. By its nature, water scatters light. Depending on the makeup of the minerals and salts dissolved in the water, water also absorbs certain colors more than others. On top of this, other life in the ocean—the really little beings like plankton—will add more color.
To put it simply, most water is not as clear as the air above it!
To that end, camera manufacturers have added a preset “scene” setting which helps compensate for the average colors seen underwater. If you use this setting above water, you’ll find the colors tend towards the yellow and orange in color cast. This is to compensate for the shift in colors below water.
Learn how the settings change on your individual camera so you’re not too surprised when what you see underwater is not exactly how it shows up on the computer screen afterward.
If you are shooting with a DSLR or another camera that doesn’t have an underwater scene mode, I highly suggest shooting in the camera’s RAW mode with one static white balance point (‘sunlight’ is a great option to start). This will allow for the greatest flexibility for adjustment when back at home.
While your white balance will change depending whether you are near or far to a subject (thus allowing more light changing water between you and the subject), shooting in RAW will allow for better batch processing when back at your computer, speeding up processing time before you can share your pictures with the world.
Water amplifies a number of things. For one thing, its weight amplifies the pressure on your body. Divers know this, and you’ve experienced it too if you’ve ever dived to the bottom of a pool. Going five feet underwater leads to a far greater pressure difference than rising five feet above the surface. There’s simply more substance per given square foot. All that water and its light changing capabilities effects your photography too.
This is why it’s important to get as close as you can to your subject matter (while maintaining safe distances for any given coral, fish or plant life). The less water between you and your subject, the more vividly the colors will show. And if you’re in the tropics, there will be plenty of color to show. While some of the color cast created by water can be removed in the computer after the shoot, it’s best to try to get it right the first time and shoot close.
Use The Flash
One equalizer against all that color cast from water is the good old fashioned strobe, or built in flash. If you go off the deep end (pun intended), there are some high quality, expensive units available on the market. But even a small flash on a point and shoot will help.
Again, getting in close is vital here. If your flash comes with a diffuser (many Canon camera cases do) use it. Scattering that small, point and shoot flash does help in producing smoother, less stark photos. Just remember, underwater your flash coverage will not extend as far as it does on land.
Dry Off And Clean Up
The last step is the most important for keeping your camera alive and shooting wonderful underwater photos for years to come (or until the next model releases with more must-have features!). If possible, rinse your camera or housing off with fresh water before opening them, either to remove the camera or the media card.
Dive boats will often have a fresh water dunk tank for cameras, but smaller snorkel operators will not. Then make sure to pat down and dry off the camera or case before opening to access the media card.
Underwater point and shoot cameras usually store the card next to the battery – not a good place to have water sneaking in. DLSRs being removed from a housing aren’t as critical, but it is imporant to clean off as much salt water as possible before opening.
Before putting away your camera until the next adventure, be sure to give it a thorough wipe down with a damp cloth and then completely dry it. No, I don’t always follow this advice myself, I admit it. But it does help in the long run to not let salt water sit any longer on your equipment than it has to.
Lastly, check all the seals on the camera or housing before storing. Most housing should not be stored with O-rings in place and the unit closed up, as this will compress the rings for extended periods and weaken them.
Inspect for cracks or peeling and be sure to lubricate the rings with a silicone based lubricant before storing. This is also good advice when it is time to bring the camera out for the next underwater adventure!
Share Your Shots
Do you have special underwater shots you have captured while on vacation? Please feel free to link to them in the comments section below!