I have long loved underwater photos and recently began adding these photos to my own portfolio. The underwater photography experience I enjoyed in St John, US Virgin Islands, what I'm writing about here, was both challenging and rewarding for me. Especially rewarding was the education the experience gave me – I learned a lot before this trip and even more during it. I share some of that education below. This page is intended to accelerate your own underwater photography (and to serve as a repository for my own notes).
The tips presented on this page are directed toward snorkeling and water surface photography, though many concepts remain the same for scuba diving photography.
Getting Started in Underwater Photography
Snorkeling is a very cost effective and convenient way to see a lot of what is under the water. A snorkel set is the minimum gear requirement and you can do-it-yourself on your own schedule and quite often without a boat. The photographer considering this type of photography should first acquire snorkeling skills before adding the complication of photography. An underwater-capable camera or underwater camera housing for a non-waterproof camera is of course another requirement for the photography aspect. For best quality imagery, you will want to have a DSLR model in your hands.
Underwater Photography Composition and Related Challenges
The snorkeler is generally in the water facing forward/downward. This position is easy to maintain and is the easiest to photograph from (unless the water is rough), but looking downward is often not the best angle for your subjects.
Especially for living subjects, it is often best to shoot from the level of the subject. However, staying at the level of these living subjects is a bit of a challenge when snorkeling. Scuba divers wear weight belts to give them neutral buoyancy, but added weight is not in the best safety interest of snorkelers (though some experienced snorkelers do utilize weights). While talking about safety and floating, I should note that I highly recommend wearing an inflatable buoyancy vest (the Scubapro Cruiser Snorkeling Vest is my choice) while in the water. Leave the vest deflated until a rest is needed or above-water-surface work with the camera is warranted.
Underwater composition is similar to landscape and wildlife portrait photography, except that it takes place underwater. As with above-water photography, try to shoot living underwater creatures from their side, possibly with a slight angle toward the camera. Front-on perspectives can also work for some creatures – especially the wide ones. As just discussed, getting to the subject level requires diving and diving creates a pressure wave that causes nearly all living creatures to move away from the diver. Underwater creatures do not like you facing them or approaching them from the front in general, but the pressure waves naturally put them on alert.
The tail end is usually the worst photographic angle for fish and other living creatures and that, unfortunately, is the angle most frequently presented to a non-scuba diver (unless the subject is being fed – but feeding is not permitted in all locations and is not always safe). The best option is to determine the direction your subject is moving, swim hard to get a good distance in front of it and dive early to meet the fish, turtle, ray, etc. as it (hopefully) continues on its path. Note that most fish can swim much faster than you (or Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps).
Diving is important for the best photo angles, but as I've mentioned, staying deep is a very big challenge for the snorkeling photographer. Another complication to diving is that a big breath is usually what is wanted prior to a dive and that air turns lungs into large air bladders that makes us float nicely. Your underwater camera housing may also increase your floatation and may also challenge your diving (and swimming in general) by taking one of your hands out of service The housing also increases your drag in the water very noticeably and when you put both hands on the camera, expect strong reverse gravitational pull.
To dive, while floating stomach-down, take your breath, bend your waist about 90 degrees and pull downward hard with your free arm. The goal is to get your fins underwater for a stronger downward thrust. In shallow water, it is hard to get deep enough for the fins to provide their necessary downward push. In deep water, a nearly vertical head-down position is needed to stay in place at depth without your arms also working hard. I can tell you that the feet-up position is not very comfortable for photography. Imagine standing upright and taking a picture of the wall behind you. Better is to shoot upside down. Either technique is difficult to maintain. Note: I've been told that the head-down position is commonly used by experienced divers and that this position avoids stirring up sand and silt on the bottom as well as better-protecting the coral.
As with above-water wildlife photography, capturing interesting subject behavior, such as feeding, is always a goal.
Watch for pelicans, terns, gulls and other birds diving into the water to locate feeding activity. When this activity is occurring, there are likely small fish being pushed up to the surface by larger fish actively feeding.
Simply seeing through the viewfinder while underwater is very challenging. Due to water drops and fogging (yes, I use antifog drops), I find it hard to keep a snorkel mask clear. This adds complication to seeing through the mask, the underwater housing and the remaining tiny tunnel of a viewfinder. Aligning the viewfinder while trying to stay at the bottom of the ocean can become near-impossible. I opted for the sans-viewfinder point and shoot technique for much of my underwater photography on this trip. Live view would have been a good option, but the 5D III's LCD was not usable underwater (it becomes very dark). My extending arms provided quick framing adjustment, allowing me to quickly get ahead of a fish, to keep the camera on the bottom longer, etc. As expected, my framing was not always ideal.
Water Clarity is Important for Image Quality
Water clarity is very important for clear underwater photographs. And some of your subjects may be working against you in this matter.
This ray was very cooperative (perhaps just very distracted), but it was destroying water clarity as it fed along the bottom.
The less water there is between the camera and its subject, the less effect water clarity has on image quality. For this this reason, getting close to the subject is important; and for this reason, very wide angle lenses are typically the best choice for underwater photography.
I was very happy with the underwater performance of the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II and EF 16-35mm f/4 L IS USM Lenses mounted to full frame DSLRs. I highly recommend these lenses or the equivalent in your camera brand (or from a third party) and camera format – in other words, APS-C format users should consider lenses with an approximately 10-20mm focal length range to get the similarly wide angle of view. APS-C underwater lens recommendations include the Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM Lens and the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM Lens. Fisheye lenses and macro lenses, for the same get-close reason, are very commonly used underwater.
Due to clarity (and lighting), a significant contrast increase is frequently needed during post processing. Increased saturation adjustment can also improve image quality. I'll show an example of the unprocessed stingray picture below.
Unless you are using strobes/flash, the sun is the underwater photography light source. This means that the best hours for underwater photography are when the sun is directly hitting the water as water gets very dark very quickly when the sun goes over the horizon. Ideally you will have the sun at your back, but ... waves on the surface will diffract the light into many directions and split the light spectrum as seen on the bar jack below.
You may or may not like that effect, but you will all probably like what the sunlight rays add to the image below.
Direct sunlight means that your underwater subject will be brighter, but ripples and/or waves on the surface will have less effect on cloudy days. Your own shadow is another lighting issue to consider.
Under bright sunlight, the color spectrum is reasonably full near the surface. However, the color spectrum quality diminishes rapidly with depth and reds take the biggest hit.
A lacking light spectrum leads to very challenging white balance/color correction work during post processing. For images captured at depth (I was regularly diving up to 15' (5m) or so and sometimes deeper), my first post processing task was to drag the color tune selection fully to red. And some images required even more red to be added. Correcting color is the post processing task I always find most challenging (and one of the reasons why I use Canon DSLRs) and processing the many thousands of underwater photos I kept was very time consuming.
The above image is an out-of-the-camera rendition (Standard Picture Style) of the stingray image I showed earlier on this page. You can adjust color and contrast in-camera, but color and contrast adjustment is much easier to dial in for each situation by post processing RAW images.
The word "Kept" used in the above-the-image sentence was a keyword. I deleted a higher percentage of my underwater photos than perhaps any other type of photo I've ever captured in large volume. Underwater photography is very challenging – shoot a lot and be prepared to delete liberally.
Strobes and flash are useful for adding the color spectrum back into underwater photos. The first problem with direct on/near camera flash is backscatter. Particulate in the water that remains unnoticeable without flash will light up brightly when hit with flash lighting, obscuring and detracting from the subject. The other problem is the flash/strobe light fall-off rendering the background black or very dark.
Using a pair of strobes on articulating arms, allowing dual side-lighting is the best resolution to the backscatter problem, but lighting the entire ocean floor is unrealistic. A combination of strobe and ambient is the ideal configuration when possible. Downsides to underwater strobe lighting include high cost and increased bulk.
An underwater photography expert I spoke with considers 20'(6m) to be the depth where they consider strobe lighting necessary with a DSLR camera in the housing. Because there is not enough time and money in life for pursuit of every interest, scuba diving is one such interest that I have not yet taken up. Those scuba diving deeper than 20'(6m) should consider using strobes to light their subject. I used only ambient light for my snorkeling photography.
Split Above and Below Water Images
Split-water images, images showing above and below water at the same time, can look great. Most frequently, you will be shooting these split images in water that is not calm. Timing the shot with the ideal waterline is very challenging. A camera with a fast frame rate in use can increase the likelihood of the ideal split being captured.
Note that the effects of water density on light make the below water subjects appear enlarged compared to what is above water. A split-water image of your wife standing in waist deep water is going to make her legs appear much larger than she is going to want them to appear. Trust me on that one.
Avoiding Water Drops on Underwater Camera Housing Lens Port
Water drops on the underwater housing's lens port is a complication for split-water images and a complication for near/above water images in general. Photographers have many techniques for eliminating the water drop problem, but I suggest you insure that anything applied to the lens port (such as Rain-X) is compatible with the lens port material and coating (if there is one). Many photographers use the spit, smear, dunk and quickly shoot technique that leaves an even, very thin film of water over the lens port for a short period of time. This method is readily available, free and generally effective.
Camera Settings for Underwater Photography
Establishing the right camera settings for underwater photography can be challenging for several reasons. Swimming fish and other underwater creatures are action subjects and need appropriate shutter speeds. If shooting from the surface, waves will cause camera shake that challenges image framing and contributes to camera shake-caused motion blur. Swimming is also conducive to camera shake. Changing light levels are another challenge.
By the end of my time in St. John, I was going under with my Canon EOS 5D Mark III's custom mode 3 selected and programmed to use the center 9 AF points in AI Servo AF mode and Manual exposure mode setup with a 1/500 shutter speed (a compromise), f/11 (for a strong amount of depth of field) and ISO set to Auto to allow for lighting changes (such as clouds passing in front of the sun, varying depths and varying water clarity). A majority of my images required some positive brightness compensation during post processing, but the 5D III does not (yet) have +/- EV capability in M mode with Auto ISO. My advice is to shoot LOTS of pictures and anticipate the fun of reviewing the take home.
Should a Circular Polarizer Filter be used Underwater?
While circular polarizer filters can dramatically improve your above-water images, you should plan to leave these above water. I didn't try using these filters, but experts indicated that CP filters are not wanted for this type of photography. Apparently, water acts somewhat like a polarizer filter itself and double polarization results in a very dark view of the subject (you might see the same issue with your camera's LCD underwater). Underwater light is often low and adding a filter to make much less light available is not likely a good idea for you.
Underwater photography is physically demanding and photographically challenging, but the rewards of a successful outing are high. I took an incredible number of bad underwater pictures and was physically exhausted after spending about 25-30 hours photographing in the water on this St John trip. The effort was totally worth it. I'm ready to go back. Jump over to my Ewa-Marine U-B 100 Underwater Housing Review for a cost-effective way to start your own underwater photography pursuit.