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 of an article originally written in French. I apologise for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have resulted. If you read French, click on the French flag below to access the original, correct text: 

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

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

My evolution, from compact camera to SLR

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" my hand (and eye) with a modest compact, the small Canon Powershot A95from 2005 to 2009. I learned a lot about underwater photography with this "basic" camera, quite sufficient when you are a beginner. This knowledge was very precious for me to progress with my "big" SLR camera (the Canon Eos 7D).

After a while, I got tired of the compact's possibilities and this camera finally gave up the ghost... So, I switched to an SLR in early 2010 (Canon Eos 7DIkelite housing). Over the 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 a continuous 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 obviously, it is not the camera that makes the picture (that misses or succeeds), but the person who presses the shutter button... 😉

I've seen some people make splendid 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, at the risk of injuring yourself and damaging 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 are overwhelmed by the photo to take. You pay attention to all the usual things (current, depth, air consumption, deco). And then you keep an eye on your buddy and your group so as not to lose them (and you will have warned them before the dive that you might "drag" a bit because of the pictures).

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

It sounds simple, but before getting into the water with your camera inside a waterproof housing, it is better to thoroughly know all the buttons, settings and functions of said apparatus.

  • The best way is to training, dry, to handle it in its box to find easily the buttons that one needs.
  • Better to favor a device model offering the Manual (M) modeYou need a well-designed housing, allowing access to all the settings. It is necessary to be able to adjust the speed (or exposure time), the aperture and the sensitivity (ISO), in order 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 its Ikelite housing, macro configuration (with a single flash at the time).

3. Conduct field trials

For the photographic technique itself: the best is to start practicing and trying different settings underwaterYou will learn to use the three parameters (sensitivity, speed, aperture) according to the conditions...

Experiment, make it a game, have fun! Understand that there is no single setting that will work in all situations, it doesn't exist...

  • 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 the hang of subjects that are almost immobile. It is necessary to use the flash, whose white light will bring out the colors, and to learn how to adjust the amount of light that you send on 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 ambient photography: if you only have an internal flash on a compact camera, you should deactivate it, because it will light up the particles suspended in the water, which will then look like snow on the image! If you have one or more external flashes, you can use them to illuminate a foreground, otherwise you should also deactivate them: remember that their light does not go beyond one or two meters.
  • What about the "underwater" mode? Some compact cameras offer this mode, recognizable by a small fish logo... Not all are equal. Test to see the result. But it is sometimes really bad. Avoid it if you don't get any good image 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 to act on the amount of light that is allowed to enter the "darkroom" of the camera.
In manual mode (unlike 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 the underwater environment and choose aberrant settings, whereas the human being will learn with experience to choose what is appropriate.

How do I learn to use 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 the 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 notions 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 colors. The deeper you go, the more blue 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 back the warm colors. 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 if you can get interesting images, it is much more difficult to get a satisfactory result and you really have to take the time to play with the settings of your camera.

It should also be remembered that flashes, whether integrated or external, can only illuminate close subjects (one to two meters away). So I repeat what I said above: for distant subjects, do not use them, the particles in the water will make white spots 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, by moving away or getting closer to the subject, to avoid having a "burnt" or too dark photo.
  • Adjust the dose of light that you send on your subject: depending on what your equipment allows, you can adjust the power of the flashes, vary the exposure time and/or the aperture.

Try to make your subject stand out against the blue background of the waterrather than taking it with the bottom or a drop-off in the background. This allows to clear the image and to highlight nudibranchs, seahorses or coral branches, for example. By adjusting the exposure time and/or aperture, you can make this background take on a darker tone, from black to dark blue.

5. Make several images of the same subject

You should not hesitate to "shoot" the same subject once, twice, ten times to get a good picture in the bunch, even if it means deleting the less satisfactory ones afterwards, once you have understood why they failed... 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 the point of view, to multiply the different framings. Avoid photographing the subject from above, but always try to get to the eye level of the fish, or the dress of the nudi

Remember to select the highest possible image resolution L for "Large" or S for "Super-fine", depending on the camera... 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: attention to 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 + housing in a water tank just before the divesThis will prevent condensation on the lens, which is very annoying. Never leave it in the sun !
  • For compacts, do not hesitate to slip one or two small bags of Silicagel or equivalent in the housing to absorb humidity, always to prevent condensation, favored by the batteries which heat up. I didn't have this problem with my SLR, the flash batteries being external.

It's worth it to have extra batteries on the boat. It's always when we are out of battery that we make fabulous underwater meetings... 

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

  Between Two Journeys