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 1/60th or 1/90th 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

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  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 pictures, I already have an Olympus Mju with housing, but I would like to switch to the Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ7 with housing... 💡 with orange filter, for less blue pictures in the blue of the Ocean????
    It's true that for macros, the flash is sometimes too powerful, I'll 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 macro photography as you do "ambiance photography": do you have two lenses? With this dilemma before diving to put a macro lens and pray that the nubi are well on the date, and not a beautiful manta not planned 😉

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

    1. Thank you very much, Corinne !!!
      I feel very stupid to have looked at your whole site and to have missed this very 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 worries... 😉 No, I choose the lens according to my desires and what I'm told about the site. For example, right now, I'm in Bali, in Tulamben. I'm doing dives on the famous Liberty wreck, where, what interests me is the atmosphere: so I take the fisheye Tokina. But other divers go there with their macro lens, because the wreck is full of a whole bunch of fascinating little beasts. After the Liberty, this morning, I'm about to go diving again, and we go to the Seraya Secret site, on a sandy bottom, which is not interesting for the fisheye, but which is exciting for the macro. So I just changed my lens and put my 60mm macro Canon instead of the Tokina 10-17... If we meet a turtle, well, too bad, I'll just admire it with my eyes... 🙄

    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 trip to Bali 🙂 and thank you bcp to share your dives with us !!! Caroline

  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
    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: In my humble opinion, 25 dives is really not much experience to properly manage your buoyancy when you have to get close to your subject... But I don't know you as a diver, so if you're really comfortable underwater and the desire to go underwater photography tickles you, you might as well give it a try! That's the best way to find out. Before you go shopping, rent or borrow a camera to see how it goes... 😉

  10. Thank you Corinne for your answer! Unfortunately, I did not see your answer coming in my e-mails and so I cracked for my Sony and a torch ... My trip to Egypt was very stressful when it came to transporting the material by plane and also for the phases of assembly and test then! 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)? ❤️
    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

    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!

  13. Unfortunately for a beginner that I am, in this kind of article, only generalities, never precisions.
    I have a TG6, with a 10000 lumens headlight, I would just like to:iso? aperture?underwater mode or not?

    1. @Sylvain: Yes, it is general advice, but it is still valid for all levels. There are no precise settings for a camera model, many ISO / Aperture / Exposure Time combinations are possible, depending on what you want to achieve and the general conditions (sun or not, close to the surface or not, etc.).Moreover, I don't have any experience of taking pictures with a lighthouse, it's more difficult than with one or more flashes... Finally, I don't know the specificities of the TG6, I can only advise you to read the user manual and to do some tests, in a dry place, to see what works... 😉

      As a last resort, you can ask questions on the Forum of the photo sub, there are many users of TG6, some will surely be able to direct you :