Mastering Underwater Photography: Tips for Stunning Images

green sea turtle light photo by M Swiet Productions

Mastering Underwater Photography: Tips for Stunning Images

Learn how to take your camera underwater for stunning photos with these top tips.

Taking your camera for Underwater Photography can be an exciting but challenging endeavor. In addition to the practicalities of underwater photography, you must contend with low light, shifting colors, and focusing difficulties. However, mastering a few basic techniques will enable you to capture breathtaking images of the underwater realm.

Can I use my iPhone for Underwater Photography ?

 underwater in a swimming pool  photo by piola666
underwater in a swimming pool photo by piola666

Many phones, including the latest models from iPhone and Samsung, feature an ingress protection (IP) rating of 67 or higher, theoretically allowing them to be submerged up to a maximum depth of 1 meter for as long as 30 minutes. However, no phone manufacturer recommends doing this. While the water resistance might save your phone if dropped in the sink, it’s not intended for use on a snorkeling trip.

Using your phone in a swimming pool briefly might seem feasible, but the risk of water damaging the power socket makes it impractical. Instead of taking the risk, you could purchase a waterproof phone bag for a few dollars. Alternatively, consider investing in a dedicated underwater camera, such as a GoPro Hero 10 or an Olympus Tough TG-6, both excellent options for versatile underwater photos and videos.


Tip: If you’re eager to use your phone for underwater photos, try it out with an old phone first. Since touch screens can become unresponsive underwater, configure it to snap photos using the volume button.

Use your own camera

Underwater photographer photo by Robert Lang Photography
Underwater photographer photo by Robert Lang Photography

To use your current camera for underwater photography, you have a couple of options. Many popular DSLR or mirrorless camera models can be fitted with dedicated underwater housings from specialist brands like Ikelite. These housings provide buttons for every camera control, but they can be pricey—for instance, the Ikelite Canon R5 housing currently costs £1695.

If you are just starting out in underwater photography, consider a far more affordable alternative: an underwater soft bag. Ewa-Marine and Dicapac are two popular brands. These soft housings allow you to operate the camera through the flexible, transparent fabric, with the lens positioned within a clear cylindrical opening. While they can be a bit cumbersome to use, they are significantly less expensive.

Mask rather than goggles

Man with snorkeling in sea photo by  aydinmutlu
Man with snorkeling in sea photo by aydinmutlu

It’s a given that safety must always be your top priority underwater, so only take photos in places where you feel completely at ease. The right eyewear can make a difference. Opt for a snorkeling mask over goggles, as it prevents water from shooting up your nose while you maneuver into various positions for shooting underwater.

Set before you get wet

Handling camera settings underwater can be cumbersome, so it’s generally best to use a set-and-forget mode. A reliable starting point for underwater photography is to set your camera to Manual exposure mode with an aperture of f/4 (or another similar wide setting), a shutter speed of 1/200 sec, and ISO set to Auto. This setup ensures a relatively fast shutter speed, a wide aperture to accommodate dim lighting, and an adaptive ISO to suit varying conditions.

Having a camera that performs well in low light can be a significant advantage. Also, shoot in raw format, as it captures more color information, which will be incredibly useful when you need to adjust colors and white balance during post-processing.

Tip1: With fast-moving fish, you’ll need to use a faster shutter speed of 1/500 sec or more to freeze the action.

Watch the fall-off

The quality of light is crucial for elevating your underwater photos. Remember, the daylight from above diminishes quickly underwater, so positioning your subject to face towards the surface can be beneficial. Also, be aware that colors change underwater; longer wavelengths such as red, orange, and yellow are the first to be filtered out by the water, leaving behind the cooler blue hues. By the time you reach 5 meters depth, almost all red light is lost. To capture bright, vibrant colors, you will need to introduce your own light source.


Tip2: Daylight diminishes quickly underwater, so having your subject’s face angled upwards towards the light can enhance the photo, like a freediver gazing up at his bubble ring.

Mind the bounce

When shooting in a swimming pool, sunlight reflecting off the floor and walls often provides even lighting, ideal for underwater portraits. By contrast, in the deep sea, the lighting can be very dim due to the lack of reflective surfaces.

Keep in mind that light adopts the color of the surfaces it reflects off. For example, light bouncing off the blue floor of a swimming pool may cast a cool hue, while light reflecting off yellow sands will appear much warmer. Therefore, one of the simplest settings for underwater photography is in clear, shallow seas over golden sands with bright sunlight—think Caribbean settings for vibrant, warm tones.


Tip3: Shallow, calm seas with sandy bottoms provide ideal conditions for bold underwater photos. Bring your own lights.

Using an underwater flash or a strong LED light can dramatically enhance your subject against murky surroundings. When photographing marine life, a flash helps capture vibrant colors, particularly reds and yellows, which are often muted underwater. Flash photography is also excellent for underwater portraits, enabling you to highlight the subject and freeze motion with a fast shutter speed.

For optimal results, a dedicated underwater light is the best choice (Lume Cubes are a good option). If necessary, you could also use a regular speedlight in a completely waterproof bag—just ensure it’s fully waterproof, as water and flash components do not mix well. Avoid using on-camera lights as direct frontal lighting can cause reflections off bubbles and particles in the water. Positioning the light off-camera to one side, creating side-on illumination, typically yields better results.


Tip4: Red colors are filtered out at depth, so if you want to capture red-colored sea life, you’ll need to illuminate the subject with artificial lighting.

Correct colors

Your underwater images will likely exhibit a blue cast that requires color correction afterward. In Lightroom or Camera Raw, use the White Balance tool and click on a point in the image that should appear neutral. Adjust further with the Temperature and Tint sliders. Next, move to the Color Mixer panel to enhance the vibrancy of subdued colors. Use the target tool in the Saturation tab and drag it over the colors you wish to boost. This method allows you to fine-tune the saturation effectively, enhancing the overall visual impact of your underwater photographs.

Convert to Black and White

Applying a black and white treatment can dramatically enhance underwater photos by focusing attention on the shapes of animals and the interplay of light and shadow within the scene. Many effective black and white tools are available. For a quick conversion, consider using the B&W Profiles in Camera Raw and Lightroom. This approach simplifies the process and can bring out striking contrasts and details that color sometimes obscures.


Tip5: A monochrome effect can create bold underwater photos, and as a bonus, you won’t need to worry about color correction.

Capture the underwater surface

The water’s surface, seen from below, offers fantastic reflections, making it an excellent perspective for captivating portraits. Additionally, you can achieve striking compositions by employing a half-in, half-out framing technique to showcase both above and below the water simultaneously. For the clearest results, use a dome port attached to your camera lens. This setup helps create a distinct separation between air and water.

Tip6: For mesmerizing underwater reflections, angle your camera towards the surface, or experiment with a half-in, half-out composition to blend elements of both environments seamlessly.

Conclusion

underwater photography offers a unique opportunity to capture the breathtaking beauty of aquatic environments. From using artificial lighting to emphasize vibrant colors lost at depth, to correcting colors post-shoot in software like Lightroom, each technique adds a layer of depth to your photos. For those seeking simplicity and dramatic effect, converting images to black and white can enhance the focus on form and light, eliminating the need for color correction. Moreover, exploring different angles and compositions, such as shooting towards the water’s surface for reflections or using a dome port for half-in, half-out views, can create stunning visual narratives. With these tips, you can master the art of underwater photography, turning challenging conditions into spectacular showcases of underwater life and landscapes.

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