Applied basics of Underwater Photography

Taking wide angle pictures at Blue Corner, Palau
Barracudas at Blue Corner, Palau

One of the reasons why underwater photography increases in popularity among divers, is the fairly low level of necessary skill and investment that’s required to get started. This trend is further strengthened by an increasing number of low cost cameras with sometimes surprisingly good image quality. Then how come that some people take amazing shots, while others with the same camera exit the water with crap? If you are one of the latter, this article is for you!

The scope of this article

This article aims to help beginners in underwater photography; divers with compact cameras in underwater housing or readily submersible cameras that do not require a housing. This article covers the use of built-in front flashes, not external strobes, as well as only rudimentary aspects on composition and lighting, as well as other aspects of underwater photography. The aim is to improve image quality within the limited technical scope of the afore mentioned cameras. Tips and tricks for external lights/strobes, composition and lighting, better cameras and many other topics, will be covered in separate articles. Just check back in every Saturday.

This picture was taken with a compact camera and its internal front flash

Tip #1: Stay within the limits of your camera

Staying within the technical limits of your camera, is possibly the best piece of advise I can give to any aspiring underwater photographer. Trying to exceed these limits usually results in poor image quality, or heavily relies on favourable natural conditions to overcome these limits.

The main limiting factor in underwater photography is light. Next to the natural limit of available light, there are technical limits, which depend entirely on your camera: its maximum and minimum aperture, the length of its lens and the strength of its flash. Another important point in underwater photography is your camera’s minimum focus distance.

Opposite to the prevailing natural conditions and their consequential limitations, the technical limits can be overcome with better equipment. But as usual, better equipment comes at increasingly higher costs. Therefore, this article is also limited to compact cameras with their built-in strobes.

But let’s cover these points step by step.

Also this picture was taken with a compact camera with its internal flash, but additionally it relies on the ambient light to fill the background

Tip #2: Stay within 0,5m (2ft) of your subject

Underwater, there are principally two sources of light: natural light and artificial light. The availability of light however, is massively influenced by the water’s turbidity (that is suspended particles in the water column), or to put it in diver lingo, visibility. Furthermore, and even more important, is the water’s ability to absorb (“swallow”) light and thereby colours. This results in the first limiting factor for underwater photography, the distance between camera and your subject.

The further away your subject, the less light, and thus colour, will enter the camera.

This can be directly translated into an average maximum distance to your subject, which is roughly 1,5 metres (5 feet).
The colour that is eliminated first, is red. Red light, depending on turbidity, travels no further than anything between 0,5m to 4,5m (1ft – 9ft), which translates into an average of around 3m (9ft). However, this distance must be halved, because we must not only consider our distance to the subject, but also the distance of the light source to the subject. If you use an internal flash, the light travels from your camera to the subject and back. If you rely on natural light, it travels from the surface to the subject and then to the camera. Hence we can conclude:

The better the visibility, the greater the distance to your subject can be.

Unfortunately however, this does not mean you can take all your pictures with a distance of 1,5m (5ft) between you and your subject. Unless you only snorkel and take your pictures at a depth not greater than around 2 to 3m (6ft – 9ft), you are limited by the power of your artificial light. In compact cameras with internal flashes, considering residual ambient light and suspended particles (turbidity), this distance is is usually no greater then half a metre (2ft). This results in a very basic rule of thumb:

If you use a compact camera with its internal flash underwater, stay within a distance of no more than 0,5m (2ft) to your subject. In turn this also means that, if you can not get that close, turn off the flash!

Turning the flash off, is mainly done to avoid backscatter, but this is explained a little further down.

Even this picture was taken with a compact camera but at maximum distance to still get the light of the flash on the Sweetlips

Tip #3: Let your subject fill the frame – Get close!

Most beginners in underwater photography just point and shot at the fishes and corals that surround them. Back on land, they sometimes don’t even know why they took a picture, because they cannot find the actual subject.
As simple and obvious as this might sound, it is surprising how many people keep making this mistake, when it is so easy to avoid at the same time. The solution is to “Get close!”

The smaller the subject, the closer the camera can and/or should be!

This is limited by your camera’s minimum focus distance, which is simply the minimal distance your camera needs to be away from the subject to still create sharp images. Counsel your camera’s manual for your particular model. Generally said, in compact cameras, this distance is somewhere between 5-10cm (2-4in).

Once you’ve gotten close enough, which is a bit of science of its own, use your display! I know this sounds silly, but with regard to the pictures that were presented to me… well, seems they looked at the fish instead.
Now anyhow, once you’ve come in range of your subject (roughly 0,5m), let it fill out the available space, but be sure to not cut a fin, or other important parts of your subject. In case the subject is too big, consider to consciously cut of a part, e.g. taking a picture of the head only. In the opposite case, try to get even closer.

The sea urchin fills the entire frame, even goes beyond the limits and thus produces drama and the feeling of proximity

 Tip #4: Use your flash, but be aware of backscatter.

This is a very simple rule. Any subject that is within 0,5m (2ft) should be photographed with a flash, especially at depths greater than 5m.
Accordingly, you should always switch your flash off, if you take picture beyond this distance. In case you keep your flash on, your picture will be full of backscatter. Therefore, it is much more favourable to take a bluish photo than to photograph a blue sandstorm.

This is again limited by your camera, namely your camera’s lens. The wider the lens (small mm-values) the closer you can get to your subject and still use the internal flash. Compact cameras usually start somewhere around 20-28mm and end around 50-70mm. The upper end however is of limited interest for underwater photography. Buy your underwater camera accordingly!

About Backscatter

Backscatter is created of any suspended material between your camera and your subject. It can be sand particles, plankton, dead or alive, and anything else that reflects the light of your flash back to your camera. Built-in front flashes, as almost every compact camera has, are particular prone to this phenomenon, because they shot the light directly at those particles and just as directly back at your camera. This usually results in so called “sandstorm pictures” that feature loads of white dots in your photo but successfully hide the actual subject. External strobes and video lights are the solution to this dilemma, but they are beyond the scope of this article and hence covered elsewhere.

The backscatter in this picture is mainly composed of living plankton attracted by a video torch right above

Tip #5: Don’t zoom!

99% of my pictures are not zoomed. Zooming is an absolute no-no in underwater photography. It decreases the amount of light that enters the camera (limits the available information to your camera of which it creates the actual picture) and increases the amount of suspended particles between you and your subject (greater distance, more water, more particles).
The solution is again simple, instead of using your zoom, get close to your subject.

However, there is one exception to this rule, zooming in underwater macro photography. In this particular field of underwater photography, you can sometimes get too close to your subject. Very often the internal flash of your camera is too strong and overexposes your photos, which results in large bright, sometimes even entirely white areas in your picture. Try to avoid them where ever you can.
Another problem with getting too close while using your internal front flash at the same time, is the lens port of your camera, the part of the housing that holds your lens. In almost all compact cameras the flash is right above the lens and hence above the port. This can result in a large shadow that covers your subject, if you are too close.

The solution is again fairly simple, hold the camera a little further away to eliminate the shadow and zoom back in onto your subject. Unfortunately, this only works, if your camera supports macro zoom. Cameras that do not support macro zoom, will not be able to focus correctly.
Anyhow, if they do support this function, you can achieve two things at the same time. First, by getting a little further away you will disperse your flash much more evenly, which creates a softer light, free of disturbing highlights. And second, you avoid the afore mentioned shadow.
If your camera does not support macro zoom, step back anyway and crop your subject in post production. It’s your only option with an internal flash.

In this picture zooming in onto the subject did not only help to evenly distribute the flash light, but also to not scare the tube worm

Tip #6: Macro photography is your friend

Just to clarify this from the start, I’m not talking about actual macro photography in its physically correct sense with reproduction scales of 1:1, or even greater. In this article, I use this term as it is used in colloquial diving lingo for taking pictures of small subjects, such as nudibranches and shrimps. Actual macro photography employs specialised lenses, which are beyond the scope of this article.

Nevertheless, starting your underwater photography career with taking pictures of small subjects, even with a compact camera, is very rewarding and thus motivating. One of the main reasons is that small subjects usually hold relatively still, which makes it easy to take good and even great pictures of them. And if you’ve read the paragraphs above, you will already know many of the other reasons, e.g avoiding problems with light and the internal flash.

Especially nudibranches are very thankful subjects to take pictures - they don't move and feature spectacular colours and shapes

Tip #7: Shot from an upward angle and minding the background

This is yet another great piece of advise. Getting on eye level with your subject or even below, usually results in much more interesting pictures. Pictures from above are often disrespectfully referred to as “bomber pictures” and for a good reason. Bomber pictures are simply boring!
The reason is simple, bomber pictures show a perspective that is seen even by swimmers and snorkellers on a daily basis. They lack pretty much everything that constitutes a good underwater picture.

Another reason why they are boring is their background. Pictures from above usually feature the surrounding reef as background. This in turn, often makes it very difficult to even identify the purpose of the picture; to admire your subject.
Underwater however, this problem is solved easily. The solution is to take your picture not only from below or on eye level, but also against the open, blue water. I like to refer to this technique as “setting the subject free against the background”. The result is a clearly identifiable subject that will always draw the attention.

Nothing tops a stable position if you want to take sharp pictures

Tip #8: Take sharp pictures

Now this is the point at which the wheat separates from the chaff. Taking sharp images is definitively difficult, especially underwater.
However, even for this problem there is a fairly simple solution, hold on to DEAD(!!!) coral, rocks, sand, etc. And please don’t get me wrong here, I absolutely hate disrespectful divers that do anything to get their picture. On the other hand, I have great respect for those divers that admit their poor buoyancy and rather hold on to some DEAD(!!!) part of the reef.
This technique has the additional advantage to put you in a position from where you can return to the open water in a controlled manner. Pushing yourself away from the reef and only then resuming fin kicking, is favourable over turning on the spot and running your fins into the reef.

One way of doing this, is to cross your arms. As a right hander, I hold on to a dead spot with my left hand that goes crosswise under my right wrist. Therefore, the spot to hold on to, should be somewhere below and slightly to the right of your subject. In this way, you can rest your camera hand on the support hand. Less movement, equals sharper pictures.
Please also consider pre-focussing, which is described in Tip #9.

Dead coral

Dead coral can usually be identified fairly easy by the algae that’s growing on them, as well as their somewhat “dirty” appearance. In case of doubt, please make sure to ask the divemaster or instructor or marine biologist of your choice to point out the difference for you. No picture in the world is worth killing a coral, or something else for that matter!

Tip #9: Issues with shutter lag and how do solve it

Shutter lag is a problem that is frequently encountered in compact cameras, on land as well as in the water. Underwater, this might get even worse because of focusing problems due to reduced ambient light. However, this is usually no issue during the day, but mainly with night dives.

Nevertheless, the problem remains and can really only be solved by buying a better camera (Sony’s RX100 series is awesome!). Don’t worry though, there are ways to at least improve the situation massively and it wont cost you a penny. The simple solution is something referred to as “pre-focussing”. Pre-focussing is the simple act of pressing your shutter button only half way, instead of fully, before to take the actual picture. Basically, you save the time that your camera needs to focus on your desired subject. Thereafter, and once your subject is in the right position (and sharp!!) you press the shutter all the way down. Bingo, here’s your well composed and sharp picture.

This technique can be used in many different situations and will almost always improve your picture. This is especially true when it comes to fish that move in a confined space and somewhat predictable manner, e.g. Anemone fish. If you look at the picture of the Anemone fish at the beginning of this article, you’ll recognise a little “window” in the tentacles on the right side of the anemone. As I observed the fish before to take this picture, I realised that it would always return in its circles to this “window” and stay there for a brief moment. Basically, I pre-focussed on one of the tentacles in this window and pressed the shutter in the moment the fish stopped. Btw. the pic was taken with an Olympus XZ-1 and its internal flash, a good, but still classic compact camera.

Now another trick you might be able to apply, not everywhere though, is to pre-focus on your hand before to swing in on your actual subject. The only thing you need to mind is that your hand must be in exactly the same distance as your subject. Try it!

That’s it for now, but don’t worry. This is only the beginning of an entire series that will eventually cover all aspects of underwater photography. Just make sure to check back in every Saturday, when we publish our articles here on Life&Dive.

Furthermore, please feel free to add any point that you think is missing in this article to the comments, or points that you would like us to talk about. And if you like this article and can think of others that might also like it, please consider sharing it via your social media channels. It helps this blog a lot.

2 Comments

  • Stuart Halliday says:

    Hi

    Thanks for the article, I found it really useful! I definitely fall into the category of people who get back on the boat with crap, so hopefully these tips will really help. As a complete beginner to underwater photography, one of the things I’m still confused about is manual v automatic White balance and the use of under water settings on compact cameras (I’ve got a Sealife camera). Some advice on these aspects would be really helpful.

    Cheers
    Stuart

    • Liko says:

      Hi Stuart,
      thanks for your comment. I’m always happy when my work finds the right guy. Please consider sharing the article with people that might also find it helpful.
      Concerning your question about manual vs. automatic white balance:
      I’ll definitely cover this topic a little more extensively in another article, but generally speaking it very much depends on the situation. If you use your internal flash, artificial light in fact, leave the WB to the camera (in automatic). In case, you want to shoot a picture that covers distances beyond the physical limits of light (roughly 3-5 metres), you might opt for manual white balance, e.g. large wrecks during good to great visibility.
      Personally, I don’t like manual white balance, especially on close distances, as it tends to produce weird and unnaturally looking colours. The same accounts for underwater settings. Leave them be. Generally, you fare a lot better in fully automatic (P), NOT intelligent automatic(!!), and leave everything to auto WB and the camera.

      Well, I hope I could further help your career as an uw-photographer. Cheers and take care/pictures,
      Liko

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