How To: Photograph Underwater

By: steve

August 2, 2011

Bizarrely, your biggest problem when shooting underwater isn’t keeping your camera dry. That’s the easy part and just takes a bit of research and money. There are a lot of options for taking your precious camera underwater, but these essentially fall into two categories: generic and specific to your camera model.

Housings that are specific to your camera model offer the best access to controls, but tend to be more expensive. They also have the drawback that if you change or upgrade you may find yourself back at square one. The generic housings tend to be soft bag types. While they don’t give particularly good access to controls, they do also pack down well for travel – many of the bespoke types are hard and heavy.


Getting blue

Light is a different problem. Without getting too technical, water absorbs light, especially the red wavelengths. This means that underwater colours are distinctly blue. The human eye compensates for this to some extent but your camera doesn’t. If you go down more than a few metres, this light absorption is quite profound.



Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique

Underwater in Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique. Don’t just look for fish and coral, photograph other people as well.


To get around this you can use flash, but direct on-camera flash will often light up tiny air bubbles and floating bits in the water, causing bright speckles in the picture. This is called backscatter. Keen dive photographers use flashes mounted on long arms to avoid this, but these are expensive and unwieldy.


Shallow shooting

Your best bet, if you don’t want to have to invest in expensive equipment, is to shoot in the top few metres of water. Sometimes this will give you a pleasing sun-dappled effect, especially if you shoot in the middle of the day when the sun is directly overhead. This also means that you can photograph while snorkelling as well as diving, making taking pictures underwater a little more accessible.



Ray, French Polynesia. By Steve Davey

Ray, French Polynesia. Photographing in shallow water allows you to snorkel rather than dive.


You’ll still get a colour cast, but this will be less intense and can be reduced using the white balance facility and also at the post-processing stage. If you’re shooting in the JPG format then select the ‘shade’ white balance setting; this will warm up the picture as much as possible. Your best option though is to shoot in the more versatile RAW format and adjust the white balance manually on a computer. This will help to bring colour back into the image.

The distortion effect inherent in shooting underwater means that you’ll probably need a wider angle lens than usual. You should also try to get up close to your subject and fill the frame. Also set a relatively high ISO to allow a faster shutter speed to combat camera shake.


Reef Sharks, French Polynesia. By Steve Davey

Reef Sharks, French Polynesia. Shoot RAW and adjust colours afterwards for a better effect



Going compact

There are a lot of advantages to shooting with a good compact camera under water. Firstly, even a top-of-the-range compact can be a few hundred pounds, far less than a good DSLR, meaning fewer worries if anything does go wrong. Using a compact also means you can buy a bespoke housing with better access to controls for a relatively small amount compared to a DSLR. This in itself will be smaller and lighter.



Fish in French Polynesia. By Steve Davey

French Polynesia. Get in close to your subject for a more engaging picture.


It’s worth buying a more sophisticated compact that will shoot RAW. If you want to take your dive photography more seriously you can even use the tiny built-in flash of a compact camera as a trigger for a separate underwater flash unit.

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