Welcome to the amazing world of underwater photography. Have you ever seen a photograph taken underwater and thought “meh”? Probably not. As Jacques Cousteau once said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Maybe it’s its beauty, its unusual subjects, or simply the fact that we know more about a planet 54.6 million kilometers from us than about the water bodies that cover nearly 70% of Earth. Whatever it is that makes them so special, underwater photos will surely take your photography website to a whole new level.
But being able to capture such stunning images comes at a high cost, primarily in terms of skills, but depending on your goals it might also be significantly demanding for your wallet. Not only do you need to master diving/swimming and underwater photography skills, you’ll also have to become a pro at actually putting these two skill sets together. Want to know more? Take a deep breath and jump into the ultimate beginner’s guide on how to take underwater photos.
What is underwater photography?
Water is wet and underwater photography is taking photographs underwater. Now that we have stated the obvious, let’s take a closer look at the common practices and potential images you can capture in this kind of photography. The most common way to take underwater photos is scuba diving. However, they can also be taken while snorkeling and swimming, or with an unmanned underwater vehicle or automated camera. When it comes to subjects, wildlife is by far the most popular in the genre, with other favorite themes including shipwrecks, caves, and portraits of other divers.
Over the last few years underwater photography in shallow seas (and sometimes pools) has become significantly popular, primarily due to the sinking cost of underwater photography equipment. Wedding photoshoots and maternity sessions have risen as two strong underwater photography genres, while already widespread themes, such as over-under technique and action shots have captivated a much larger audience. No matter which underwater photography style you choose to pursue, you must remember that diving and swimming skills play a major role in this kind of photography. Poor visibility, rip currents, tidal flow, dumping waves… there are so many things that could go wrong when shooting at sea. Diving training is recommended even if you plan to shoot at shallow depths, as it will teach you how to confront these situations and adapt to whichever conditions you encounter while shooting.
Light is the foundation upon which photography is built, but underwater it becomes its biggest nightmare. There are three main challenges you will have to face when shooting below water: loss of light, loss of contrast, and loss of color. While contrast and light loss are quite noticeable, color loss may not be obvious to the naked eye, as our brain tries to compensate for it.
So how deep can you go before colors start disappearing completely? You will start noticing the effects on warm colors in depths as shallow as one meter. Red will be the first color to vanish at around five meters, followed by orange at eight meters, and yellow at approximately 12 meters. Greens are the last to go, resisting up to 23 meters. Keep in mind that these distances include vertical and horizontal areas, and you will need to take into account how far the subject is from both the surface and your camera.
There are two main techniques to help you compensate these losses: get as close as possible to the subject to minimize horizontal loss, and use artificial light to illuminate the subject and restore its color and contrast.
Choosing the equipment
Because of how broad this genre is, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all list of underwater photography equipment. However, there are two main pieces of gear that are needed to shoot underwater: camera and flash. Needless to say, this is in addition to the gear you require to carry on the kind of swimming or diving of your choosing, which is also quite necessary.
The main characteristic your camera must have is to be waterproof. Luckily, nowadays it is possible to make pretty much any camera water resistant. So what should you keep in mind when choosing an underwater photography camera?
When using a waterproof camera, make sure it’s safe to use it in the type of water and depth at which you want to shoot.
If your camera is not water resistant, invest in buying or renting a high-quality underwater housing. Trying to cut costs here may result in leaks and a ruined camera.
Even if you’re planning to shoot in shallow seas, keep in mind that the amount of natural light significantly decreases as soon as you’re underwater and your camera will require good low-light capabilities.
No matter if you’re using a simple or complex camera, you should know its settings well enough to operate it without restrictions regardless of the situation.
Depending on the conditions you’re shooting in, a flash could be anything from a handy accessory to absolutely essential. Either way, using artificial light could significantly improve your images. Here’s what you must know about using a flash underwater:
Some housings allow the use of on-camera flash, however, this option is not recommended as the light is not powerful enough and the flash itself is usually not properly placed.
Underwater strobes, also known as underwater flash, is the type of artificial light recommended for underwater photography. If possible, use two strobes for better lighting of wide areas.
Backscatter is the name given to the phenomenon in which the flash light reflects particles of plankton not visible to the naked eye. You can avoid it by lighting the subject rather than the area directly in front of the camera.
The only reason we didn’t mention lenses as a core piece of equipment for underwater photography is because they are not needed when shooting with action or compact cameras. However, if you are going to shoot with an interchangeable lenses camera, they will be one of the key components of your gear. Here’s what you should remember when choosing your lenses:
If you plan on buying your equipment, lenses should be the first thing on your mind. Don’t be afraid to invest a big part of your budget on a single lens – a good-quality purchase will last longer and offer better results.
Just like the camera, the lenses you use should be able to capture as much light as possible. Preferably, you want to be able to use apertures around f/2.8 or lower.
Wide-angle and macro: these are the two main types that underwater photographers shoot with. Think about the kind of images you want to capture to see which type will best fit your work.
When shooting with a wide-angle lens, match it with a dome-shaped port in order to avoid distortion due to housing refraction. Many manufacturers offer dome ports designed for specific lenses to maximize their potential.
In order to make the most of your equipment and shooting time, test all the gear and settings before getting in the water. This will allow you to detect potential issues beforehand, as well as give you more control over the technical part of the shooting.
The main underwater photography tip you should keep in mind is to always be prepared for the unexpected. Once you’re in the water, your control over any situation will be minimal. The unexpected can go anywhere from strong waves and cloudy skies to sharks and seals trying to eat your camera. So just be prepared to deal with any of that. But focusing on the things you can actually control, here are some fundamental underwater photography tips:
The best lighting conditions underwater arise on sunny days with a calm surface, commonly around 11 am and 3 pm. Sunrise and sunset also offer interesting soft lights that allow for beautiful natural light shots.
Shooting in RAW will allow you to make the necessary edits in post-processing without compromising the quality of the image.
Don’t use Auto ISO. Stick to your camera’s base number when illuminating the subject with artificial light and increase as needed if your subject is too far away to be completely lighted.
If the thought of shooting completely manual overwhelms you, set your aperture to a medium number and use your strobe and shutter to control the foreground and background lights respectively.
The lack of light and contrast will make it difficult to focus the image. Faster lenses and wide-angle lenses focus faster. Go back to the previous section to read more about this piece of equipment.
Artificial light should generally be used to improve exposure and color, rather than as primary light source. Exceptions to this rule include dark scenarios such as interior of caves and macro shots of subjects very close to the lens.
Get as close to the subject as possible in order to minimize loss of color and light. Most underwater photographers recommend to stay within one meter of the subject.
Shoot upwards or at eye level to capture more interesting and attractive images. Shooting a subject from overhead is much easier, as you’re likely to be swimming above them, but it commonly results in less striking images.
Include more than one subject in the shot to create a dynamic composition. This can be your diving partner or an interesting background that is close enough to the camera to provide enough clarity.
When capturing larger subjects, upwards shots with sunlight beams can result in beautiful scenes.
To shoot underwater portraits, stay within two meters of the surface in order to avoid losing warm colors in skin tones.
For over-under underwater shots, use a dome port and strobe lights to balance the light contrast between both sides.
Processing the images
First and foremost, it is important to understand how camera technique will affect the final result. Starting the post-processing process with images that are already good is always preferred, but in cases such as underwater photography where the quality of the captures is jeopardized by nature, technique becomes a key element in the final outcome. Here’s a brief look at how to edit underwater photography:
Adjust the color. As mentioned before, warm colors are lost even when shooting at shallow depths. Thankfully, you can easily fix it by adjusting the white balance of your image.Improve the contrast. Another main issue in this kind of photography, which can be fixed using your photos’ histogram and boosting the darks and lights as needed.Increase the saturation. Depending on the depth at which you shoot and the end result you’re aiming for, this saturation boost will be more or less intense.Clear backscatter and unwanted bubbles. Use your preferred tools (dust & scratch, healing, clone) to deal with unwanted imperfections.
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