Are you a photographer who is looking to take their photography to a completely new level? Or, maybe you’re a scuba diver who wants to share the incredible sights of the underwater world with everyone on land? Perhaps you’re a fashion photographer who wants to shoot models in artistic compositions with water. Whatever the case may be, welcome to the wonderful world of underwater photography!
This guide will take a deep dive into underwater photography — what gear you need; the camera settings; editing your images; plus, tips to get you started as an underwater photographer.
Table of contents
- What is underwater photography?
- History of underwater photography
- Do you have to be a scuba diver to be an underwater photographer?
- Challenges of shooting underwater
- Types of underwater photography
- What’s the best camera for underwater photography?
- What is the best lens for underwater photography?
- Other underwater photography gear
- Camera settings for underwater photography
- 7 Tips for underwater photographers
- Editing underwater photos
- Final thoughts
What is underwater photography?
Just like the name implies, underwater photography is any photo taken underwater. That can include vast seascapes of coral and sand, wildlife that lives in oceans and lakes, or even a fashion or artistic photoshoot in a swimming pool. All are underwater photography, so long as your gear and subject are at least partially submerged in water.
History of underwater photography
The first-ever underwater photo was taken by William Thompson in 1856 in Weymouth bay, southwest of England. He had taken great interest in marine life, which inspired him to make a metal housing for a camera to try and photograph it. He activated the shutter on the camera by attaching a line and pulling it from the surface.
The first known underwater portrait ever taken was shot in 1899. This photo of Emil Racovitza, a Romanian oceanographer was taken by Louis Boutan. It took 30 minutes of exposure time to capture this image at 164 feet of depth!
Do you have to be a scuba diver to be an underwater photographer?
While it’s possible to shoot underwater photography while snorkeling or diving or standing in a pool, most professional underwater photographers are also certified scuba divers. Scuba diving teaches buoyancy, breath control, air consumption, and respecting the underwater environment. It allows you to take your time and set up the perfect shot.
If you’re serious about becoming a professional underwater photographer, it’s imperative that you first become completely comfortable with scuba diving. When diving becomes as “second nature” to you as walking on land, you’ll be ready to bring all your photo gear underwater with you.
Challenges of shooting underwater
Besides the obvious challenge of the photographer not being able to breathe as they would on land, shooting through water is difficult for a other reasons:
As a photographer, you know that light is everything. There is a lot less light below the surface of the water. And, the deeper you go, the less light there is. If you plan to shoot at any depth below just under the surface, you’ll probably want to bring extra light.
The loss of contrast is pretty noticeable, even to the naked eye, but luckily it’s very easy to add back in post-processing.
Loss of color
Our brains are pretty good at compensating for this in real time, so we may not notice it right away, but the deeper you go underwater, the more color is lost. The first color to go is red — even at shallow depths of about ten feet. Next, orange and yellow begin to fade, followed by greens. Unless you add artificial light, you won’t be able to photograph color the way you would expect.
The water itself can cause problems with clarity in your images. If there’s any particulate in the water, it will show up in your photos. If you’re using strobe lights, that can make the problem even worse. For this reason, be sure your flash is always off-camera and pointed away from your subject.
Water refracts light differently than air, which confuses many camera’s autofocus, auto-white balance, and auto-exposure settings. For this reason, it’s best to shoot in RAW and set your exposure and white balance manually.
A delicate ecosystem
Last, but certainly not least, the underwater world is full of delicate flora and fauna, many that can be damaged by the slightest touch or an accidental kick from a diver’s fin. Always work to minimize your impact on the underwater environment.
Types of underwater photography
Let’s explore the many different types of photos you can take underwater:
Probably the most common, this includes wide shots of schools of fish, seascapes of coral reefs, shipwrecks, and other underwater environments.
These unique shots are easily recognizable because part the shot is above the water and the other part is under. They’re usually taken by fitting a large dome over a wide angle or fisheye lens.
This includes photos of fish to whales and everything in between. For many people, photos of aquatic wildlife are the only chance they’ll ever get to see most of these animals.
Just like macro on land, underwater macro images are extreme close-up photos that capture all the tiny details of micro marine life. Macro underwater photography requires a lot of control and precision.
This subset of underwater photography has taken off in recent years, gaining popularity on Instagram. More often than not, the model is wearing a flowy dress and the image is focused on artistic composition.
Many paid underwater photography jobs will be for more technical or scientific purposes. Surveys, studies, underwater construction jobs, and educational programs all rely on photography for public outreach and data collection.
What’s the best camera for underwater photography?
Professional underwater photo equipment includes a DSLR or mirrorless camera in underwater housing. You need to be able to manually adjust your exposure settings. Here are a few other features to look for:
- It’s impossible to look through a viewfinder while wearing a dive mask, so your DSLR must have a bright back display with live view. Mirrorless cameras already have this technology.
- Look for a camera with a reputation for good low-light capabilities.
- Make sure there’s an underwater housing made specifically for your camera’s make and model.
- Underwater gear can get very expensive. The waterproof housing can often cost as much as the camera! Look for older models or used gear to save a few bucks when you’re just getting started.
What is the best lens for underwater photography?
The lens you choose largely depends on the type of underwater photography you plan to shoot.
- For wide-angle shots taken with a crop sensor camera, the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye is a wonderful option because you can focus extremely close and still have an amazing depth of field. If you’re shooting with a full-frame, go with a 16-35mm.
- When shooting macro, a 60mm macro lens is a good choice because it allows you to get up close to your subject, while still filling your frame.
- Remember, light is at a minimum underwater, so look for lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or lower so you can capture as much light as possible.
Other underwater photography gear
Underwater photography is one of the most gear-intensive genres of photography. Besides your camera and lens, there’s a lot of other gear you’ll need in order to take photos underwater:
- Underwater housing: arguably the most important piece of equipment you’ll buy next to your camera. Don’t skimp when it comes to buying your underwater housing. There are many manufacturers, but Ikelite and Nauticam are the big players in the industry. Make sure you buy the exact housing that fits your camera, not a generic, one-size-fits-all housing.
- Lights: Depending on the conditions where you’re shooting, your lights might be handy or absolutely essential. Either way, lights improve underwater photography by boosting color and contrast. Underwater strobes are recommended over your camera’s onboard flash. And, two strobes are better than one. Never aim the lights directly at your subject.
- Red filter: If you forego using strobes, get a red filter for your camera. Otherwise, all of the colors in your images will be off.
- Desiccant: These are the little packets of gel that prevent moisture from forming in shipping. Start saving them whenever you find them. They’ll keep your underwater housing from fogging up.
Camera settings for underwater photography
It’s tempting to set your camera on auto and hope for the best, but cameras were programmed for shooting on land, and their automatic settings wil result in dark, blurry images under the surface of the water. It’s best to turn your dial to manual and keep the following in mind:
- Shutter speed: Everything under the water is moving — even the water itself! Set your shutter speed to at least 1/125th of a second, and even higher if you’ve got the light.
- Aperture: This is where you’ve got some flexibility. Start with a mid-range aperture, like f/7.1, and open it up if you need more light. This way, you’ll have a good depth of field.
- ISO: Keep your ISO as low as possible. Know ahead of time how far you can push your camera’s ISO before you start introducing noise into your images.
7 Tips for underwater photographers
- Have a dedicated camera for underwater photography – This is critically important if you rely on your camera for a photography business. Underwater housing failures can and do happen. All it takes is one crack or damaged gasket and all of your gear is ruined.
- Master scuba diving first – When diving becomes second nature, that frees your mind up to think about composition, exposure settings, equipment, lights, and more.
- Practice on land – Underwater gear can be complicated. Learn your equipment forward and backwards before you ever take it underwater. The more you use it, the easier it will be.
- Get close – Zoom with yourself, not your camera. Remember, shooting through water is difficult, so the less water between you and your subject, the better.
- Shoot up at, or level with wildlife – This is just a rule of thumb (and rules are meant to be broken), but aquatic animals generally look better when photographed from below or level than when shot from above.
- Shoot in RAW – You’ll appreciate the extra data when it comes to post-processing.
- Insure your gear – We mentioned above, accidents can happen. DAN dive insurance can cover your underwater photography gear.
Editing underwater photos
As we mentioned, underwater photos by nature are lacking in color and contrast. Luckily, this is easy to fix in post-processing. You can also use photo editing software to remove a certain amount of noise caused by backscatter — the reflections of particulates in the water.
To adjust the color, first adjust the white balance of your image. Then, improve the contrast by boosting the darks and lights as needed. Then, try increasing the saturation of your image to bring out more color.
Finally, remove any unwanted backscatter and imperfections by using your preferred spot removal tool.
Taking photographs underwater is a lot more involved than shooting photos on land. But, for those who wish to share the aquatic world with the rest of us, it’s worth all the extra gear, expense, and effort.
If you’re a photographer who loves the water, this just might be the perfect combination for you. As Jacques Cousteau said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”