Yes, I do not really look like a mermaid with all my photographic bazaar under water! (Philippines, May 2018 - Photo by Steven Weinberg)
Yes, I do not really look like a mermaid with all my photographic bazaar under water! (Philippines, May 2018 - Photo by Steven Weinberg)

6 tips for successful underwater photography when you are a beginner

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic Google translation from a post originally written in French. My apologies for the weird sentences and the funny mistakes that could have been generated during the process. If you can read French, the original and correct version can be found here:

  Between Two Journeys

Here are some basic principles for successful underwater photography, when you are a beginner. Six simple tips to start taking nice pictures underwater....

Because underwater photography is more difficult but much more beautiful than photography without water... 😂 😉

From compact to DSLR camera

Diving in Weda Bay. Maluku, Halmahera, Indonesia. March 2013.

I started shooting underwater in 2005. My very first camera was a disposable cheap one, with a film inside, enclosed in a waterproof plastic case with a yellow background. It could be found in tourist shops...

I liked it so much, that I bought in the wake my first digital camera. I first "made" my hand (and my eye) with a modest compact, the small Canon Powershot A95, from 2005 to 2009. I've learned a lot with this "basic" equipment and the advice I give below comes from this experience. After a while, I've done the best I could do with it, and the camera eventually stopped working...

So, I switched to SLR at the beginning of 2010 (Canon Eos 7D, Ikelite housing). With the experience, my images have gradually progressed in quality over the years. And I continue to learn, to try to improve myself ...

Read also → How I started self-taught underwater photography

Many people think that a compact camera does not allow to achieve beautiful images underwater. It's wrong. Nowadays small cameras are technological jewels, capable of magnificent images, provided you follow some basic principles. Because of course, it is not the camera that makes the picture (which misses or succeeds), but the person who releases the shutter... 😉 I saw people taking beautiful pictures with very simple equipment, and others taking bad photos with fancy and very expensive cameras...

I summarize below some tips and advice to think about underwater photography ... before, during and after the dive!

# 1: Mastering your buoyancy

First imperative, which concerns more the diving technique than the photo: you have to be really comfortable with its buoyancy, including knowing how to do lung-ballast without even thinking about it.

Yes, I do not really look like a mermaid with all my photographic bazaar under water! (Philippines, May 2018 - Photo by Steven Weinberg)
Yes, I don't exactly look like a mermaid with all my photographic stuff underwater! (Philippines, May 2018 - Photo by Steven Weinberg)
  • Macro, in particular, you must be able to stand close to the subject, without "bumping" coral or rocks, the risk of injury and damage the environment.
  • You have to know how to move near the bottom without lifting sand ... Learn to palmer like a frog (the famous frog kick). Otherwise, hello particles in suspension that will make white spots in the flash light!
  • We avoid sudden movements, we do not rush towards his subject, we palm slowly and we breathe calmly not to frighten the fish.

⚠️ Finally, above all, it is essential to never put yourself in danger when you are caught by the photo to take. Watch out for all the usual stuff (current, depth, air conso, deco). And then we keep an eye on his team and his team to not lose them (and we warned them before the dive that we might "hang out" a little because of the photos).

# 2: Know your device

It sounds stupid, but before getting into the water, with his camera inside a waterproof case, it is better to know, thoroughly, all the buttons, settings, functions of the device.

Me with my 7D in his box Ikelite, macro configuration (with a single flash at the time).
Me with my 7D in his box Ikelite, macro configuration (with a single flash at the time).
  • The best is to train, dry, to handle it in its box to easily find the buttons that you need.
  • Even with a compact, it is better to favor a model of the device offering the manual modes (M), with a box allowing access to all settings, including priority speed (Tv) and priority opening (Av), as well as the sensitivity (ISO) to control what you do underwater.

⚠️ Yes, the picture under the water, it remains of the photo! It will be necessary to revise the basic principles to work light, that is to learn to combine speed / openness / sensitivity ...

# 3: Do some tests

For the photographic technique itself: the best is to start to train and to try different settings until you find those that work under water, to adjust according to the conditions ... There is no adjustment .

  • Photo close up: with a compact, we go into Macro mode and at the beginning we train on "easy" subjects, that is to say that do not move (starfish, nudibranchs, corals). With a SLR with a macro lens, the same recommendation: we get our hands on almost immobile subjects.
  • For more distant subjects or ambient photos, the result will necessarily be less good with the original optics of a small compact camera. But if the visibility is good, when you are not too far from the surface and there is sun, you can still get beautiful pictures (in this case, do not use the internal flash, because it will illuminate the particles suspended in the water, which will make white dots on the image). With an external flash to illuminate a foreground, playing on natural light and artificial light, rendering will necessarily be better. Finally, with a SLR with a wide-angle lens or fisheye, you can get great results.

⚠️ Some compact devices offer a "submarine" mode. I used it in my debut on mine, really nil ... The best, if you do not feel too comfortable, is to select the TV mode (priority speed) and set at least 1 / 60th or 1 / 90th for "far" photos without flash, to be at least sure to have images that are not fuzzy.

Mastering your buoyancy is essential! (Photo: © Phil North)

# 4: Ruse with the built-in flash of the compact camera

The built-in flash only illuminates subjects close enough (I repeat: for distant subjects, do not use it, the particles in the water will make white dots on the image). Remember to put a diffuser in front, the light will be better distributed.

  • Always in Macro, therefore, it is recommended to reduce the power of this built-in flash, if your compact camera offers this function. (He is often too violent up close, especially on light or white subjects).
  • Another trick: to select an under-exposure of -1 to -2 or even more, which makes it possible to detach beautifully the subject enlightened by the flash of the blue background of water (for example for nudibranchs, or seahorses, or coral branches, because the bottom then takes a dark shade, from black to dark blue).

⚠️ Obviously, the best is to invest in an external flash. There, we control the direction of light, which gives incomparable results ...

Clownfish and diver. Borneo, Indonesia, July 2013.

# 5: Make multiple images of the same subject

Do not hesitate to "shoot" once, twice, ten times the same subject to have a good picture in the pile, even to erase the less satisfactory then, after understanding why they are missed ... We learn from his errors.

  • Attention: we are sometimes deceived under water by the rendering of the screen: we have the impression that the image is successful, and we are very disappointed to discover after, on the screen of the computer, that she is fuzzy for example.
  • Do not hesitate to change your point of view, to multiply the different frames. Avoid photographing the subject from above, but always try to meet the eye of the fish, or the nude dress ...

⚠️ It is best to select the largest possible image definition (L as "Large" or S as "Super-fine" depending on the device). After, on the computer, it allows tighter cropping without too much loss in definition. 

Hippocampus pygmy Denise. Weda Bay, Halmahera, Indonesia. March 2013.

# 6: Pay attention to batteries and humidity with compact

We must also be careful to always dive with well-charged batteries. Since the flash is much used underwater, the batteries of compact cameras can be drained quickly.

  • Always inspect the seal and lightly grease with silicone gel to keep it in good condition. Often, I prepare my box the night before, quietly. It avoids the catastrophes due to the hasty preparations in the early morning.
  • Leave the device + box in a water tank if it is possible, just before the dives, so that it is gradually put to the right temperature (it avoids condensation that "fogged" on the lens, very annoying). Never leave it in direct sunlight!
  • For compact, do not hesitate to slip one or two small bags of Silicagel or equivalent into the box to absorb moisture, always to prevent condensation, favored by the batteries that heat. I did not have this problem with my SLR, the flash battery being external.

⚠️ It's worth having extra batteries in reserve on the boat. It is always when one is in battery stand that one makes fabulous underwater encounters ... 

Turtle in the Derawan Archipelago. Borneo, Indonesia, July 2013.

  Between Two Journeys

  1. @Alimata: Luckily you're here, with your legendary practical sense pegged to the box. It's been too long since I had to write it, this page, it was time for someone to make it live. If you have any other advice, do not hesitate, so I'll just have to copy and paste ...
    😀
    Well, well I'm going back to train in my bathtub. I will try not to forget to put the device in the box.
    😆

  2. About underwater photos, I already have a Olympus Mju with box, but I would like to switch to Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ7 with subwoofer & #8230; 💡 with orange filter, for less blue photos in the blue of the ocean ???
    It is true that for macros, the flash is sometimes too powerful, I will follow your advice. 😛

  3. @LiseMet: Yes, for the macro, even on "small" devices, you can usually measure the strength of the flash or play on the exposure.
    Otherwise, I have never tested the orange filter. It will be necessary that I try, when I will have invested in more serious gear. So, for the few photos of atmosphere that I do with my little compact camera, photos necessarily too blue, I rework after returning home, on my computer, balancing the white balance, luminance, contrast Color layers ... Underwater videographers often use the orange filter, or reset their white balance underwater.

  4. I am new in SLR (past the G10 to the EOS 7D + 60mm), I photograph a lot in a lagoon of 1.5m background on average, mostly very sunny. Big problems of contrast on-ex / sub-ex in addition to rainbows due to iridescence, and too often blur with collimators yet correctly placed (verification done on DPP). What would be your advice, especially for these special lighting conditions?

  5. @Flaqueux: I guess you do not use flash ... This would probably be the solution, to unclog the shadows in this kind of situation very contrasted. Otherwise, photography Raw, with a little sub-ex to prevent the bright areas are burnt, and like that you can rework your file after and properly rebalance the contrasts. As for the "blur" is that the focus should not be done correctly (for my part I focus on a very small portion of collimators, in the center, so that it is done well where I have decided) or while you are in too slow speed ... (I imagine that you work in manual, obviously, not in automatic mode.)
    Good bubbles!
    🙂

  6. I only shoot in RAW and I tried the sub-ex, which actually improves things a little. For speed, I navigate between 1/400 and 1/800. By cons, I used this morning systematically a central aim (which I kept for fixed or slow subjects), and it is already much better. Thank you for your advice!

  7. Hello Corinne,

    Your photos are superb! We enjoy watching them and reading you !!
    I am in the same situation as you in 2009 when you went to the SLR. And I ask which objective (s) to choose, because I understand the ideal objective that would make the macro and the ambient photo (and the wide angle while there is;)) does not exist! Especially since a fixed optics is often of better quality with a better photo rendering.

    I see that you do as much of the macro as the "ambient photo": do you have two objectives? With this dilemma before diving to put a macro lens praying that the nubi are well in the appointment, and not a beautiful manta not expected 😉

    Thank you very much in advance for your advice !! Carolina

    1. Thank you very much, Corinne !!!
      I feel very stupid of you to have looked at all your site and to be next to this useful page 😳

      So you dive first with the Tokina, and if you spot nubi, shrimp, seahorses or other cute little things, you do a second dive with your macro lens?

      I spotted the Sony Alpha 6000, it is a hybrid that is supposedly very fast with a photo quality tending towards the SLR, and is lighter than a SLR - benefit not bad when you are a woman. In case (I try): would you have met people with this camera and doing underwater photography?

      Yours truly, Caroline

    2. @Caroline: no problem & #8230; 😉 No, I choose the goal according to my desires and what they tell me about the site. For example, right now, I'm in Bali, in Tulamben. I do dives on the famous wreck of Liberty, where, what interests me is the atmosphere: I take the fisheye Tokina. But other divers go with their macro lens, because the wreck is full of fascinating little animals. After the Liberty this morning, I'm about to go diving again, and we go to the Seraya Secret site, sandy bottom, which has no interest in fisheye, but is exciting for the macro. I just changed my lens and put my Canon 60mm macro instead of Tokina 10-17 & #8230; If you come across a turtle, well, so be it, I'll just admire it with my eyes & #8230; 🙄

    3. A huge MERCIII, Corinne !!!
      I hope you feasted again on the Liberty - this was my first dive outside France, a feeling of euphoria and total well-being had then invaded me: small fish and flashy colors everywhere I did not know where to turn, or rather the mask ...
      Nice continuation of Bali trip 🙂 and thank you so much for sharing your dives !!! Carolina

  8. Hello I have an ikelite box with a canon 5d mark 3, I start in the underwater photo and afraid to put the camera in the water because next I do weddings and it's a livelihood but I I bought it for the dive because I am fond of underwater background.
    I know no setting underwater background because the bottom is blue on earth is different. I bought a flash ikelite ds 160.
    Can you help me a little?
    Thank you
    cordially
    Ps: My Fb is francky gatsby

  9. Hello !

    Thank you for this article that falls perfectly!
    I would need a little expert advice if possible? I want to go from GoPro to a Mirrorless with box and 1 flash - I'm N1, 25 dives on the counter, and photographer on the mainland for 5 years - Is the change too brutal in your opinion or possible?

    Thank you !!

    1. @Steph: 25 dives, it's really little, in my humble opinion, as an experience, to properly manage your buoyancy when you have to get close to your subject ... But I do not know you as a diver, so if you're really very comfortable under water and that the desire to move to the photo sub titillates, as much as try! This will be the best way to know. Before you go shopping, rent or lend a device to see how it goes ... 😉

  10. Thank you Corinne for your answer! Unfortunately I did not see your answer coming in my emails and so I cracked for my Sony and a torch & #8230; My trip to Egypt was very stressful when it came to transporting the material by plane and also for the assembly and test phases afterwards! So many beginner anecdotes !!
    That said, I managed to bring back images that I am proud of, and would like to ask your opinion if you want (photos in the middle of the article)? ❤️
    http://carnets-de-terre-et-mer.com/index.php/2018/12/16/bords-de-la-mer-rouge-egypte-part-ii/
    In any case your blog is THE reference for me, and I hope to meet you one day on a dive boat!
    😀

  11. Hello
    Do you have any tips for using external flash. I have an InonD2000 and I have a lot of trouble finding the right setting. Either the subject is overexposed or is under exposed.
    I use a compaq the S120 gun and the internal flash sends via the optical fiber the signal that triggers the external flash.
    A thousand thanks in advance
    Ps: I managed my subjects better in macro with the internal flash than with my external flash because I do not master the intensity of the flash.

  12. Following my comment below, I emailed my photos from Thailand taken with my compaq s120 and the internal flash.
    Good reception
    Good bubbles
    clear

    1. @Claire: I do not know the camera or the flash you use and it is very difficult for me to give each one personalized advice behind a computer screen (besides I did not receive your email) ...

      The only general advice I can give you is to patiently do several tests with different settings, on the same subject, until you find the one that works. With an external flash, several parameters come online:
      - the usual parameters of the device: exposure time / aperture / sensitivity in ISO
      - flash intensity
      - the orientation of the flash
      Play on the settings that are available to you, until you find the combination that gives the desired results!

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