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Underwater Photography Essentials: Part 2



Tips, ideas and advice for budding underwater photographers

by Nick Robertson-Brown FRPS

Part 2: Getting to grips with your camera settings – Shutter Speed

Fig 01.7

On a digital SLR, the shutter is a mechanical device that blocks the light to the sensor of the camera, but can be opened to allow light onto the sensor when the release button is pressed. Whilst Micro 4/3 and compact cameras may not have a mechanical device for controlling the amount of light that hits the sensor, the action of the shutter is mimicked electronically. Whether it be mechanical or electronic, the speed of the shutter is the second item of the light triangle and the higher the shutter speed, the less time there is for light to get through to the sensor. As stated in part one, the aperture restricts the amount of light entering the camera too, but as discussed, the more light we allow through the aperture, then the smaller the depth of field will be. This leaves us with a trade-off in how we allow the light onto the sensor. If you are photographing moving objects, such as fish, the shutter speed becomes the dominant factor in deciding the level of light. If your shutter speed is not fast enough moving objects may look blurred and out of focus. This is called motion blur and you can use it to great effect if you get it right, as it will give the impression of speed and motion as it moves through the water.


Working within a range of shutter speeds, with and without strobes, in order to freeze fast the moving action and make it pin sharp, use settings of 1/125 to 1/250 (or higher if your camera will synch with the strobes). But remember, as the shutter will not be open for long, not much light will make it onto the sensor. For slow moving subjects, or to achieve some motion blur, work with 1/40 to 1/125 and you will also get more light on your image.

For the cameras that do not have a mechanical shutter, the light is allowed through to the sensor all the time it is switched on. It is, however, only when the release button is pressed that the pixels in the sensor, which are already charged with light, start reading it and then pass the digital image through to the sensor. It is this moment that is recorded by the camera and the balance between the shutter speed and the f-stop will determine how your image looks.

smileblennyThe shutter speed is also important for defining the background colour of the water, particularly if you are using flash or strobe. In this instance, the flash will freeze the action close to the camera, but as light will only travel a few metres underwater, the light from the background will be presented at the sensor according to the aperture or the shutter speed. This will be covered in greater depth when we get to the part of this series on artificial light, but put simply, the aperture should be set to expose for the subject when the flash fires and the shutter speed can be adjusted, within a small range, so that the background will lighten as you increase the time the shutter is open. Conversely, as you close the shutter, the background colour will become darker. This interplay of aperture and shutter speed will give a light value that will vary in a similar way to how it does in air. It is when you introduce artificial light that the options become greater.

For a black background shot, start out with settings similar to f8 (or above), 1/200, ISO 100 and a low strobe power setting and then make changes in the shutter speed and watch the background colour change.

The shutter speed settings on the camera are not merely random numbers that the manufacturer has come up with. When changing the aperture, the f-stop scale is a mathematical constant. Each stop doubles or halves the amount of light getting through to the sensor. The shutter speed is also scaled in this way; each stop (or setting) will double or halve the amount of light getting through to the sensor. This means that if you wish to maintain the same exposure value on your image, if you open the aperture by one stop, you must double the speed of the shutter by one stop.


Nick bookDo you want to learn more? You can pick up a copy of Nick’s book “Underwater Photography Art & Techniques” by clicking here.

Underwater Photography Courses

Contact Nick for information on the Frogfish Photography Complete Underwater Photography Award, designed for 1:1 and small group sessions to improve your underwater photography at your pace.underwater photography

           |  | +44 (0)161 9177101

Nick and Caroline (Frogfish Photography) are a married couple of conservation driven underwater photo-journalists and authors. Both have honours degrees from Manchester University, in Environmental Biology and Biology respectively, with Nick being a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a former high school science teacher with a DipEd in Teaching Studies. Caroline has an MSc in Animal Behaviour specializing in Caribbean Ecology. They are multiple award-winning photographers and along with 4 published books, feature regularly in the diving, wildlife and international press They are the Underwater Photography and Deputy Editors at Scubaverse and Dive Travel Adventures. Winners of the Caribbean Tourism Organization Photo-journalist of the Year for a feature on Shark Diving in The Bahamas, and they have been placed in every year they have entered. Nick and Caroline regularly use their free time to visit schools, both in the UK and on their travels, to discuss the important issues of marine conservation, sharks and plastic pollution. They are ambassadors for Sharks4Kids and founders of SeaStraw. They are supported by Mares, Paralenz, Nauticam and Olympus. To find out more visit


BSAC launch #DiscoverUKdiving video competition



BSAC is launching a new video competition which aims to get the diving community sharing and discussing the highlights of UK diving to inspire others to give it a try and discover it for themselves.

They are inviting you to share short UK diving or snorkelling videos – tagged #DiscoverUKdiving or #DiscoverUKsnorkelling – to be in with a chance of winning a Fourth Element Hydra Neoprene Drysuit worth £999 (or an alternative non-diving suit if a snorkeller wins). There are other prizes up for grabs too, with a Fourth Element duffel bag going to second place and a year’s BSAC membership for third.

The #DiscoverUKdiving video competition aims to get the diving community talking about the highlights of UK diving and/or BSAC club life by sharing short videos to surprise and inspire others to discover it for themselves.

BSAC is looking for videos that show an exciting moment, unique insight or anything that exemplifies why diving in the UK is so much fun and can encourage others to take up UK diving. People will be invited to vote for the entries they find most inspiring on the competition gallery website.

BSAC CEO Mary Tetley said: “We want to show others who haven’t experienced UK diving why we love it so much, and we need your help! Use your phone, GoPro or pretty much anything to share a short video that encapsulates why you love diving in the UK. Ideally, showing off UK diving the BSAC way!”

The competition will be open for entries until midnight on Monday 30 November.

The videos can be either be above water (e.g. a RIB ride out to a dive site), below water (e.g. exploring a wreck with your buddy) or a combination of both. Each video should be short (no longer than 15 seconds) and you can enter up to three videos. The winner will be the entry that receives the most votes. Voting will remain open for a further week and close on Monday 7 December. The winners will be announced the week of 14 December, good luck!

Full terms and conditions, including how to enter as well as how to vote on your favourite video can be found here.

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Henley Spiers: Black & White Photography at the September NUPG meeting (Watch Video)



The September NUPG meeting saw Henley Spiers take to the virtual stage. Henley decided to divide the evening into two topic areas for discussion: Black and White Photography and Pelagic Encounters – his two biggest passions in underwater photography at the moment.  Henley showed off his stunning black and white images to the NUPG audience, talking about why he selected each image to convert to monochrome and was generous enough to share the photoshop techniques with the group too. He then went on to wow the group with images from the deep blue sea, with some simply stunning pelagic encounters. 

As always, the NUPG members also had a chance to show off some of their images in the monthly competition. This month’s theme was “Invertebrates” and it saw a range of ideas and images from the group.

The winning shot of a sea lion was taken by Maggie Russell

The runner-up was by John Spencer

Third place was taken by Justin Beevor

The next meeting was held on Monday 12th October, a talk from Simon Rogerson: Difficulties with Sharks. Check back soon for the video!

For more information about the NUPG please visit the website by clicking here.

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