10 Basic Principles Of Underwater Photography

"Still of hand will never make up for emptiness of heart"


It’s one thing to take a picture, but another to take a photograph. The basic rules photography come into play weather your shooting above or below the water line. Photographing marine life requires a varied and diverse skill set. Cramming a ton of tequnical information in your head can compound this already challenging world. These basic principles will aid you in creating a more interesting and eye catching image.


The first step to understanding any kind of photography is familizing yourself with the camera. If this is your first camera or your first Digital SLR camera, take the time to read the camera’s manual.

1. Hmmm, what do I want?

One your first underwater camera adventure most people blindly click away at everyone and everything. However once you review your images they may not be up to your expectations. Choose your subject wisely, start by shooting with one specific species or scene underwater. Once you select the species that you want to shoot, educate yourself on the subjects behavior, general habitat and best time to see the subject. Talk to locals, surf the internet read books, these resorceses will aid you in producing better images.

2. Wait for it...Wait for it...

Have patience and always be parpared. Remember Rome was not build in a day. Underwater photography is challenging. To be success as an underwater photographer, you need to have lot of patience. You should not be discouraged, as there are times when you cannot even shoot a good picture; have patience and wait for the correct time to come. While shooting subjects underwater, you should be always alert and prepared for the unexpected. There are no retakes or reposing a subject in underwater photography. The best shot is always one and you cannot get the shot again.

3. Closer, closer closer...

The first and most important principle of underwater photography is to get as close to your subject as possible. Once you think your close enough then move even closer. This concept is important for a number of reasons; first the human eye needs air to focus, which is what your mask provides. However even though your eye can focus, you still have some optical effects due to light travelling at different speeds in both water and air. When the light changes speed travelling from air to water, it shifts course and creates refraction. Refraction magnifies everything approximatly 33%. This makes the marine enviroment around you look larger and closer. Water absorbs light very quickly, and as you decend light and colours disapate rapidly. This is because light refects off of the surface, scatters off particles in the water and the water absorbs it directly. Unfortuatly for underwater photographers this process doesn't happen uniformly which causes images to be filled with backscatter or have a dull colouration to them. Reducing the amount of water between the camera and the subject by moving closer will help produce a sharper, and more colorful image. Additionally, limiting the distance between you and your subject will help reduce amount of particls in the water hence reducing the amount of backscatter. This is even more important when shooting in the low visability waters of the Pacifc Northwest.

4. Shoot Up

Shooting at an upward angle in underwater photography usually can create a better image more eye catching image. Getting below the subject and shooting at an upward angle will put open water or a more colourful section of the reef in the background, which is almost always better. Creating good contrast between your subject and the background is much more appealing than a cluttered reef shot. Downward angles can be more difficult to expose, and tend to have less aesthetic impact. Shooting up creates a more appealing view of your subject, and can create much needed contrast between the foreground subject and the background of your images.

5. Shoot, Review, Adjust

In school as a kid I learned "Write, recite, review," in underwater photography and with the spawn of the digital camera revolution I learned "Shoot, review, adjust." The way that technology has revolutionized the world and shortened the learning curve for digital photography allows divers to insatanly review every image. To an extent, having a LCD screen on your camera may be its most important feature. This feature and the time you take to review your images as you shoot creates instant eduction alowing you to make the desired adjustments to the images so that the final outcome is exactly what is desired. If you dn't like an image either delete it as you go or keep shooting with your desired adjustments.

6. Add a little light to the subject

Once your camera is set up and you've chosen a suitable subject adding a strobe or two to your systems is emensly important. Since water absorbs light and sucks the color out of underwater images, the use of underwater strobes to restore color, create contrast and help retain image sharpness is key to creating striking images. 

7. Take the controls

Shooting in auto mode on your camera is the easiest way to produce a picture. But the auto settings only allow you to get to a certain level in underwater photography. To really produce stritiking images having the ablility to control the sutter speed, exposure, ISO other features of your camera will help you create better images.

8. Maintain Your Equipment

At that crucial moment when you find yourself eye to eye with an octopus, it's nice to know that your camera system won't let you down. But to be that confident, you have to work at it. Water, particularly salt water, is a hostile environment for all underwater photography equipment. Camera housings and strobes are designed to operate under these harsh conditions, but they will go on doing so only with regular maintenance. Water and electronics do not mix. Establish good basic procedures for every-dive maintenance, backed up by regular servicing, precautions in transit and on-site, and your system should last a lifetime.

9. Keeping Yourself Focus

Someone once said to me "How do you make a good diver bad? Hand them a camera!" Diving with a camera and diving without a camera are two totally different disaplans. Taking the a camera out for the first time is a very unique and somethimes stressfull actiivty similar to that of diving in a drysuit for the first time.  One of the unfortunate side effects of diving with a camera is developing tunnel vision. Divers with cameras can loss track of their buddies, air consumbption, position in hte water and be oblivious to the environment arond them because they are so focused on their subject. Remember to always look up from time to time and check in with your buddies Its better to be safe than sorry.

10. Respecting the Environment

Remember, we are priveledged guests in the underwater world. Respecting the environment and its inhabitants should be one of your top priorities. Before you start taking your camera underwater it is important to have excellent bouyancy skills, this will help protect both yourself and the environment around you. Keep all of your gear streamlined as to minimize the potential of a gauge or hose getting entangled or damaging the reef. Never harrass or touch marine life. You may not realize the damage inflicted from even minor touching. Be patient and let your images be the reward from your interactions.