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)

Underwater photography: 6 tips for beginners who want to get the best shots

  Between Two Journeys

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation made from a post originally written in French. My apologies for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have been generated during the process. If you are reading French, click on the French flag below to access the original and correct text: 

Here are some basic principles for successful underwater photography, when you are a beginner. Six simple tips to get you started with great shots while diving...

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

My evolution from compact camera to SLR camera

I started underwater photography in 2005. My very first camera was a disposable case, with a silver film in it, all in a waterproof plastic case with a yellow background. We found this in tourist shops & #8230;

I liked it so much that I bought my first digital camera right away. I first "made" myself (and my eye) with a modest compact camera, the little Canon Powershot A95from 2005 to 2009. I learned a lot in underwater photography with this "basic" camera, which is quite sufficient for beginners. This knowledge was very precious to me to progress later with my "big" reflex camera ( the Canon Eos 7D).

After a while, I went through the possibilities of the compact camera and this camera finally gave up... So I switched to the reflex in early 2010 (Canon Eos 7D(Ikelite box). Over the dives and years, with experience, my images have gradually improved in quality. Even today, I continue to improve myself, to try to improve my practice... Underwater photography is an incessant learning process!

Diving in Weda Bay. (Moluccas, Halmahera, Indonesia, March 2013)

Read more → How I started self-taught underwater photography

I want to go against a common belief here: many people think that a compact camera does not allow for beautiful images underwater. THIS IS NOT TRUE! Today's small cameras, even the affordable ones that we prefer to use when we start underwater photography, are gems of technology, capable of producing magnificent images, provided that we keep in mind some basic rules.

Because of course, it is not the camera that takes the picture (who misses or succeeds), but the person who presses the shutter button... 😉

I've seen people make beautiful pictures with very simple equipment. And others make rotten pictures with very sophisticated and expensive equipment...

I summarize below some tips and advice that you should think about when taking underwater photos... before, during and after the dive!

1. Control (really) your buoyancy

First imperative, which concerns more the diving technique than underwater photography: you have to be really comfortable with your buoyancyincluding knowing how to do lung-ballast without even thinking about it.

  • In macro, in particular, you have to be able to stay close to the subject without touching anything. It is not allowed to "bump" into corals or rocks, as this can cause injury to the person and damage to the environment.
  • Must also know how to move close to the bottom without lifting sand& #8230; Learn to palmer like a frog (the famous frog kick). Otherwise, hello suspended particles that will make white spots in the light of the flash!
  • To approach fish, avoid frightening them and causing them to flee. #8230; We therefore avoid sudden movementswe do not rush to his subject, we slowly palm and breathe calmly.

Last but not least, it is essential to never put yourself in danger when you're busy with the picture to take. We pay attention to all the usual things (current, depth, air consumption, decoration). And then you keep an eye on your buddy and your gear so you don't lose them (and you'll have warned them before the dive that you might "drag" a bit because of the photos).

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 really look like a mermaid with all my photographic junk underwater! (Philippines, May 2018 - Photo by Steven Weinberg)

2. Know your camera well

Sounds stupid, but before getting into the water with his camera inside a waterproof case, better thoroughly know all the buttons, settings and functions of said apparatus.

  • The best is to train, dry, to handle it in its box to find easily the buttons that one needs.
  • Better to favor a device model offering Manual mode (M), with a well designed box, allowing access to all settings. You have to be able to adjust yourself the speed (or exposure time), opening and sensitivity (ISO) to control what you do underwater.

Yes, underwater photography is still photography! Photography means "writing or painting with light". So you'll have to learn or revise the basic principles of working with light, i.e. understand how to combine the three parameters speed / aperture / sensitivity

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).

3. Conduct field trials

For the photographic technique itself: the best is to start to practice and try different settings underwaterThe goal is to find the ones that work, and to learn how to adjust the three parameters (sensitivity, speed, aperture) according to the conditions...

Experiment, take it as a game, have fun! Understand that there is no one setting that will work in all situations, there is no such thing as a single setting...

  • Close up (macro) : At the beginning we train on "easy" subjects, i.e. not too small and which do not move (starfish, nudibranchs, corals). It's easier to get your hands on almost immobile subjects. You have to put on the flash, whose white light will bring out the colours, and learn how to adjust the amount of light you send to your subject.
  • Far photo (wide angle) : for more distant subjects or ambient photos, it is necessary to play with the natural light coming from the surface. We take into account the position of the sun, we think about the image we want to make before releasing the shutter, we think about the composition...
  • The flashes in photo of atmosphere: if you only have an internal flash on a compact, you have to deactivate it, because it will light up the particles suspended in the water, which will then look like snow on the picture! If you have one or more external flashes, you can use them to illuminate a foreground, otherwise you can deactivate them too: remember that their light does not go beyond one or two meters.
  • What about submarine mode? Some compact devices offer this mode, recognizable by a small fish logo... All are not equal. Test to see the result. But sometimes it's really bad. Avoid it if you don't get a good picture with it.

Why is it worth switching to manual mode? This allows you to keep control over the three essential parameters in underwater (and land) photography: sensitivity (ISO), shutter speed (Tv), aperture (Av). These are three ways of influencing the amount of light that is allowed to enter the "dark room" of the device.
In manual mode (as opposed to automatic or semi-automatic modes), it is not the camera but the photographer who decides how to adjust one of these parameters or how to combine the three. Underwater, the camera can be "fooled" by the very particular conditions of underwater environments and choose aberrant settings, whereas the human being will learn with experience to choose what is appropriate.

How to tame the manual mode underwater? Start by fixing sensitivity (ISO) from 100-250 (for very bright conditions) to 400-800 (darker conditions). Then set speed (Tv) i.e. the exposure time: do not go slower than 1/60e or 1/90e to avoid camera shake. Then, as you take pictures, you will adjust opening (Av)This means that you open or close the lens, depending on the situation, until you get a correctly exposed image. There is nothing to stop you from combining these settings in a different order, depending on your priorities or the conditions.

Underwater photography, I repeat, it remains photography... 😉 So if the concepts of "sensitivity, speed, aperture" don't really speak to you, start by training yourself and learning these basic principles, by taking a photography course, for example, even terrestrial. When you understand how a camera works, it immediately becomes much easier...

Mastering your buoyancy is essential! (Photo: © Phil North)
A picture of me, taken by my partner with his compact and external flash, which illuminates the pink soft corals in the foreground, heart-shaped. (Photo: Phil North)

4. Dose artificial light

The water gradually absorbs the colours. The deeper you go, the bluer everything becomes... To have color in underwater photo, it is necessary to bring white light on its subject, with a flash.

The red disappears from 5 meters, followed by orange between 10 and 15 meters, then yellow between 25 and 30 meters... Below that, everything is bluish, greenish. Even without taking pictures, it is always nice to have a lamp with you to discover the true colors of corals and fish. We are often surprised to see a brownish or greenish clump on the reef turn into a bright red thicket! (Image source: Wikimedia Commons / Thomei08 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Clownfish and diver. Borneo, Indonesia, July 2013.
A flash on the anemone in the foreground brings out its warm colours. Beyond the area illuminated by the artificial light of the flash, everything is blue...

Good to know: a lamp or a headlight cannot really replace a flash in a photo. Even though you can make interesting pictures, it's much harder to get a satisfactory result and you really have to take the time to play with your camera settings.

It is also important to remember that the flashes, whether integrated or external, can only illuminate close subjects (one to two metres away). So I repeat what I said earlier: for distant subjects, you should not use them, the particles in the water will make white dots on the image...

  • Think about putting a diffuser in front of the flash, the light will be better distributed.
  • Learn how to gauge the right distance for your shots, moving away from or close to the subject, to avoid having a "burnt" or too dark picture.
  • Adjust the dose of light that you send to your subject: depending on what your equipment allows, you can adjust the power of the flashes, vary the exposure time and/or aperture.

Try to make sure your subject stands out against the blue background of the water, rather than taking it with the bottom or a falling in the background. This allows to de-clutter the image and to put in values nudibranchs, hippocamps or branches of coral, for example. By playing on the exposure time and / or the opening, we can make this background take a dark hue, from black to dark blue.

5. Make several images of the same subject

Do not hesitate to "shoot" once, twice, ten times the same subject to get a good picture in the heap, even if it means erasing the less satisfying ones after having understood why they are missed... We learn from his mistakes.

  • Warning, one is sometimes deceived under water by the rendering of the digital screen You get the impression that the image is a success, and you are very disappointed when you discover afterwards, on the bigger screen of the computer, that it is blurred 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 dress of the nudi

Remember to select the largest possible image definition L for "Large" or S for "Super-fine", depending on the device... Afterwards, on the computer, it allows tighter cropping without too much loss in definition. 

An adorable Pygmy Seahorse Bargibanti .. (Sali Kecil, Halmahera, Indonesia, July 2018)
An adorable Pygmy Seahorse Bargibanti .. (Sali Kecil, Halmahera, Indonesia, July 2018)

6. Special compact cameras: beware of batteries and humidity

We must be careful also to always to 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.
  • If possible, leave the device + box in a water tank just before the divesThis will prevent condensation on the lens, which is very annoying. Never leave it in direct sunlight!
  • For compacts, do not hesitate to slip one or two small bags of Silicagel or equivalent in 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 batteries of the flashes being external.

It's worth having extra batteries in reserve on the boat. It is always when one is in drums of battery that one makes fabulous underwater encounters & #8230; 

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

  Between Two Journeys