Underwater Photography: Getting Started

I was talking to a friend the other day, a very experienced diver, and he told me that he really wants to improve his photography and asked for some advice, which of course I offered. I also pointed out that there were numerous people writing about the subject both on-line and in print. He said that he always gave up reading articles as he disliked the way in which they were written; either too geeky or too much me, me, me. So although not the first time this has been done, I thought I’d write a very straightforward piece about getting started in underwater photography.

I started out as a regular photographer, wildlife was my thing and I was fortunate enough to work alongside some pretty serious photographers, and I learnt a great deal. So when I started diving in the late 90’s my first thoughts were how I couldn’t wait to get my camera into the water. You can’t imagine my disappointment when I repeatedly produced rubbish, rubbish and more rubbish. All the stuff I’d learnt about photography over the years all of a sudden accounted for…nothing. You see underwater photography is more about diving skills and know how than it is about traditional photo technique. It is in fact, surprisingly, all about the water. On land you can plant your feet firmly on the ground, accurately compose your image and shoot. In the constantly moving underwater world this is not so easy. Additionally you’re shooting through one big murky filter – the water itself, which presents the biggest obstacles of all… and that is exactly what we’re going to discuss in this feature.

Diving Skills

First things first; before you even take a camera underwater you need to have a reasonable level of control over yourself in the water. It is very hard to compose an image if you’re drifting about all over the place, banging into the reef and your fellow divers. Many underwater photographic workshops even insist that you have a minimum number of dives before you can enrol on the course. Even the most experienced diver will experience difficulties when diving with a camera for the first time, especially larger cameras.

To help with this most dive clubs and shops offer courses to improve your buoyancy control. PADI, which is the largest of the diving organisations, offer a course called the PPB, which stands for Peak Performance Buoyancy. This tuition helps you maintain your position in the water and will massively help your photography and make you a better diver.

Of course there is no substitute for experience so practice, practice and more practice is the best route to better photos.

Basics

There are two key elements to underwater photography that make the difference between mediocrity and wow, look at that photo.

The first is wide angle lenses, and I don’t mean 28mm, I’m talking super wide. The second is colour correction; anybody who has taken a blue washed out underwater photo will know exactly what I mean. These are two cornerstones of UW photography and we’ll be looking at them in depth (forgiving the pun) later on, but it’s important to pick the right camera in the first place as many excellent cameras topside are limited down under.

The majority of compact cameras nowadays have much longer zoom lenses than before. This is great for general use but for underwater work it presents a problem. Longer zooms are physically bigger than shorter ones, and that means that the housing to encompass them must also be that much bigger and more specifically wider so the camera does not see the edge of the housing around the lens and cause vigneting. This makes fitting an accessory wide angle lens very difficult, if not impossible. We’ll talk about this more in a while.

The other major consideration when choosing a camera for UW use is custom or manual white balance. This is little used in general photography, most people opting for the AWB (auto white balance) setting, but for a diver, manual white balance is a godsend. It enables you very easily to add back in the colour lost underwater – and without further ado, let’s discuss that in more detail.

Manual White Balance

Daylight is a mixture of different coloured light. Cameras ‘see’ light differently to the way we do. We don’t tend to notice the way light appears differently indoors to out, or how different a fluorescent tube looks to an old fashioned light bulb; but the colour of their light varies, and it’s called colour temperature. Take a shot indoors without flash and the picture will look warm. Using a flash, which is essentially the same colour as daylight, corrects this tint. Thankfully digital cameras have onboard firmware that corrects these different colour temperatures. This feature is called AWB – auto white balance, and it’s the default setting on pretty much all cameras nowadays. OK, OK, I’m getting there, honest – what has this got to do with UW photography? As you submerge deeper and deeper underwater, red light is progressively absorbed, and photos look bluer and bluer. Enter manual white balance. This camera function is a godsend for divers. It enables us to add back in the red light lost at depth, and it does it very accurately. Additionally, as you manually set it, it is accurate for the depth you are at. Most cameras capable of being housed have an underwater mode; why not just use this? This mode only adds back in a set amount of red, which only correctly works at one specific depth, normally around ten metres. Above this depth it is adding too much red and below not enough. The manual or custom mode lets you set the white balance for your precise depth ensuring your pictures always look colourful.

Wide Angle Lenses.

The other cornerstone of UW photography that we talked about right at the beginning is the use of wide lenses. As I mentioned previously, it’s the water itself that is the biggest problem we encounter. Whatever camera you use whilst underwater you still have to take photos through the water, and the less water you shoot through the sharper and clearer the end result will be. For this reason it is very important when choosing a camera to accompany you on your sub-sea adventures that you pick one that will enable an accessory lens to be fitted, so check availability of accessories before you commit to purchase.

Depending on the camera’s lens – 24, 28 or 35mm on the back end – a typical add on lens will convert this to around about 16mm. Accessory lenses for UW use are normally measured in terms of field of view and measured loosely in degrees. For example, Inon’s UWL-H100 lens has a field of view of about 100°. What this means in real terms is that with a suitable compact camera, even a large subject (a wreck for example) can be photographed in its entirety from only a few metres away as opposed to tens of metres away without the add on lens, and therefore shooting through much less water, which makes for a cleaner, sharper and more colourful image. This also applies for smaller subjects, but this is where your buoyancy control comes in; you need fine control to manoeuvre very close to a small fast moving subject like an anemone fish.

Combine the use of wide angle lenses with custom white balance and you’ve got a very good basic understanding of underwater photography.

Of course this is only really rippling the surface of this field; we haven’t talked about macro, strobes, filters, locations and a wealth of other topics. We’ll talk about some of these another time.

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