I began diving in the waters surrounding India 20 years ago. Immediately awed by the incredible beauty of the ocean and coral reefs, I wanted to share my experience with my friends and family back home, so I started shooting photographs and videos. Though I began as an amateur, I spent the next few years training to be a scuba instructor while honing my underwater photography skills, eventually making it my primary profession.
Underwater photography can be one of the most rewarding hobbies or professions, but to be able to fully enjoy it at any level there are a few things that one must keep in mind. I’ve put together a few tips to help you better understand the process, and I hope it inspires you to enjoy underwater photography for many years to come.
An underwater camera in the hands of a new diver is a bit like a digital SLR manned by a toddler. The ocean current makes it difficult for a diver to stay still and frame a quality image while managing their dive equipment, air, and body position. Therefore, the first step to becoming a good underwater photographer is becoming a good diver. Before even picking up a camera, complete a PADI Open Water Course (or equivalent), and follow it up with an Advanced Open Water course, choosing certain specialties like Peak Performance Buoyancy. If you haven’t dived in a while, dive a few times for practice before taking your camera with you. Above all, remember that safety comes first. Do not become oblivious to your air consumption, your buddy, or the reef beneath you because you’re too engrossed in taking pictures.
The second major challenge of underwater photography is that water – particularly sea water – is a difficult medium to work in. It cuts the light, reduces sharpness and contrast, and dulls color so that you’re left with washed out, bluish images that don’t come close to representing what you experienced while diving. Overcome these issues by reducing the column of water between yourself and your subject as much as possible. Try to get as close as two to three feet from your subject, and invest in an additional strobe light for your underwater kit. These are fairly inexpensive and compatible with most set-ups, and will go a long way in adding extra luster to your images.
The digital revolution in photography, along with the sudden growth in the scuba community, has made underwater photography extremely accessible. Almost every camera in existence, from compact point-and-shoots to professional digital SLRs, has compatible underwater housings and strobes available. These vary in price depending on the manufacturer. I use a Seacam housing for my Canon 5D Mark II. Ikelte, Nauticam, and Sea&Sea also offer housings for a wide range of cameras.
Wide Angle vs. Macro
Wide-angle images are taken with lenses ranging in focal length from 12-35 mm. In the same way landscape photography depicts canyons and mountains, wide-angles are great for capturing the spirit of the ocean. They allow you to reveal vast seascapes, eerie shipwrecks, large pelagics such as sharks, whales, or schooling fish, split shots, and reefscapes. Wide-angle photos capture what one would see with the naked eye and, if you are diving in clear waters with streaks of the tropical sun, can be absolutely stunning. I started with wide-angle photography, and it remains my preferred choice.
It took me awhile to get into macro photography, but I love it more and more each time. Macro photography uses lenses from 60mm to 100mm. It’s great for when you’re not diving in the clearest waters, and introduces you to a world invisible to the naked eye. Similar to portraiture on land, macro allows you to understand the personalities of the sea. The expressions of a fish, the detailing in its fins, the texture of its scales, the minute creatures like shrimp and crabs that are less than a few millimeters long — all come to life when you put that macro lens on your camera.
Practicing macro photography changes the quality of your dives too, making them almost meditative in their stillness and focus. It reveals the hidden secrets and idiosyncrasies of ocean life.
Choosing your subject matter
Whatever subject you choose, try to bring yourself to its eye level or below and shoot upward so you can compose your image against a background of blue water or sky. If you shoot down at your subject, you may lose it in the camouflage of the rock or reef.
The importance of getting close to your subject cannot be overstated if you wish to get sharp, colorful, contrast-heavy images. Most marine life will let you get quite close as long as you remain calm, take soft breaths, maintain eye contact, and avoid jerky movements. If you’re struggling to keep still, choose static subjects such as coral, starfish, scorpion fish, or anemones with clownfish.
Always wait for the peak of the action. Rather than taking a lot of images and hoping one will turn out okay, try to choose a moment when your subject looks its best or is doing something interesting. Watch it for awhile and try to capture its essence. You may be tempted by the massive memory cards in your digital camera, but staying disciplined is incredibly important when it comes to developing your skills as a photographer.
Underwater photography is a great hobby and powerful tool for discovering the ocean. However, as you photograph this highly fragile and threatened environment, it is important to take care of yourself and your surroundings. Inadvertently placing a careless hand here or there while steadying yourself could result in painful sea urchin barbs, potentially fatal stonefish stings, or damage to the coral and marine life. Try to use your images to inspire positive change and become an ambassador of the ocean, the voiceless fish, and the troubled reefs. I hope you enjoy your foray into this exciting and highly rewarding form of photography as much as I have.