Duxy’s Underwater Photography Blog: Available Light, Part 2


Why so blue?

In part one of our series on Available Light, I looked at why wide angle lenses are such a deal breaker when trying to get great available light in underwater pictures.

Wide angle lenses are only part of the solution though, and a two pronged assault on the flat, blue problem pictures is what is needed.

We’ve established how you need to get much closer to your subject hence the wide angle lens, but we also need to address the lack of colour that will blight a lot of underwater shots.

We see a multicoloured vibrant reef, resplendent with hard and soft corals, populated by a variety of fish in a myriad of hues. Yet why do our pictures end up as just fifty shades of blue?

Our perception of what we are seeing is one of the main issues in available light underwater photography. So using Custom White Balance allows us to take back control of the situation.

What’s going on?

It helps if we understand a little of what is happening. As we descend the colours are filtered out progressively more as we leave the surface, with the reds and oranges disappearing first followed by the yellows then greens as we approach the relatively modest depths of 15 to 20 metres.

In our minds eyes though, especially nearer to the surface, we “experience” these colours because our brains are tricking us a little. Our cameras though see things as they really are, which is why folk are often disappointed with their first foray into underwater photography.

Pre-digital cameras, we had little alternative than to use strobes or flashguns to replace the colours in our shots.

With the advent of digital though came a new option to control the colour temperature in our pictures, and for each and every shot if we wished.

This opened the door to a whole load of exciting new possibilities for us underwater photographers, and this was called Custom or Manual White Balance.

Setting the right balance

Most digital cameras these days have an option to control the colours of their end results. This is accessed using the menu controls, and is normally a bunch of symbols under the heading of white balance. It’s very difficult to be specific here, as each brand, and even individual models of camera, are often different in this respect. If you’re not sure with your camera, or are thinking of buying a suitable camera once again, get in touch at duxy@scubatravel.com and I will advise you on the current choices.

With beginners this is the single most popular thing I start folk off with on our photo workshops.

When you find the White Balance menu on your particular camera you need to find the symbol in the middle. After accessing it your camera will tell you what to do onscreen. I can’t be more specific because it differs widely from camera to camera.

It’s usually the turning point when they realise that they are able to get great colourful underwater pictures. Here’s a selection of white balanced photos and videos that I shot with compact cameras from across the years:

OK, hopefully that’s shown you that this is a valid technique for putting some colours back in your pictures.

How to do this is the big question though.

As I mentioned, most cameras are very specific with their means to correctly White Balance, but generally speaking the procedure requires you to show the camera a reference “white”. This can actually be a neutral mid grey tone too – a slate is one solution.

Or I tend to just use my hand (see below). You don’t need to fill the whole frame with your hand; better still to hold it at around the distance your foreground interest will be.

This is the usual distance and size in the frame of my hand when taking a white balance reading. I try and replicate the angle and depth at which I am shooting as accurately as possible too.

Follow and read your instruction book

And then you nearly always follow some onscreen instructions to take the reading.

What is clever here is that the camera will try and bring back the neutral mid grey or white back to what it should be, and hopefully then any colour cast, i.e. the blue of the water, will stop affecting the colours in your shots.

As you go deeper you need to take further readings, as the depth that you are at effects the white balance quite markedly.

Distance from subject is also an issue, so it helps to factor in this when you take the reading.

OK – if you follow this procedure in an ideal world and with the conditions in your favour, you’ll get great colourful pictures. Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world, and Custom White Balance doesn’t always provide such a simple solution.
So in the next instalment of this four part series we’ll look at some of the pitfalls to Custom White Balance, and in what circumstances it works best, and more importantly what circumstances it doesn’t work too well with.

Scuba Travel new logoDuxy is the in house photo-pro for UK-based dive tour operator Scuba Travel. To find out about availability on Scuba Travel’s underwater photography workshops hosted by Duxy click here.



Duxy has worked for nearly 20yrs in the dive industry, starting at the pointy end of dive tourism in Sharm as a guide and videographer, transitioning into a fixture back home in the U.K. helping and advising on all things underwater photographic, and as a popular speaker at shows and dive clubs delivering talks. He now works as the in house photo-pro for ScubaTravel and has conducted nearly 40 overseas workshops for them, helping all flavours of underwater photographer with everything from GoPro's to DSLR's to improve their shots. He speaks fluent Geek but his motto is that what really counts at the end of the day is 'pictures not pixels'.

scroll to top