A Beginner’s Guide to Underwater Photography

We’ll talk you through the basics for taking underwater photography, including best practices, techniques, and equipment. Let’s dive in! 

Underwater photography presents a whole new world of possibilities—beautiful movements in the waves, stunning marine life and coral formations, and gracefully swimming subjects.

Not only does it open up a new perspective, but it also encourages you to tap into a different set of skills and techniques behind the lens. 

Dive into our best tips and techniques for shooting breathtaking underwater photography.

Underwater cave in a red sea reef with an underwater photographer diver
Underwater photography requires additional knowledge, skills, and equipment in order to make the best possible photographs. Image via Subphoto.com.

The Gear  

Most people starting out use a cell phone in a plastic pouch, a GoPro, or a compact camera to shoot underwater photography. These are all solid options for beginners, as they’re items you either already own or make for affordable, lightweight, low-maintenance travel companions.

That said, they do have some limitations. The image quality, shutter lag, and interchangeable lenses are generally inferior to that of a DSLR or mirrorless camera. 

It’s essential to determine which camera is best for your needs. You can save lots of money by opting for a GoPro, but keep in mind a GoPro is a wide-angle camera and not necessarily best for wildlife or macro photography. Sure, it’ll get the job done in many cases, but it’s worthwhile considering your needs before taking the plunge financially. 

Whether you’re leaning towards using a compact, DSLR, or mirrorless camera, you’ll need to invest in housing for your camera—unless, of course, the camera itself is waterproof. Otherwise, housing is a watertight case that holds your camera and protects it from water damage. 

Surf housing is made for surf photography—or any photography shot closer to the surface. It’s important to note that surf housing typically doesn’t have much button functionality, meaning you can’t change the settings underwater.

Brands include AquaTech, SPL, Liquid Eye, and Outex. 

Images via Dudarev Mikhail, Image Source Trading Ltd, blue-sea.cz, and Craig Lambert Photography.

Diving housing is made for diving photography—or any underwater photography that ventures deeper under the surface. It also happens to be bulkier, heavier, and much more expensive, especially when you consider all the additional accessories, including extensions, ports, and strobes.

Brands such as Nauticam and Ikelite are popular diving housing, but they come with a hefty price tag.  

Images via chonlasub woravichan, f28 Production, Damsea, Kichigin, and Mike Bauer.

That said, it’s worth noting that housing for compact cameras is generally smaller, less expensive, and less bulky.

Lastly, a strobe light is sometimes essential in underwater photography. While not always necessary, strobe lights can greatly help illuminate your shot and bring out the true colors of your subject. 

Underwater lighting on a school of fish
Image via Raiik Mozart.

Finding the Right Shutter Speed

Finding the right shutter speed is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of underwater photography. A slower shutter speed means you obtain more light, but often results in out-of-focus images.

Meanwhile, a faster shutter speed means you’ll likely have an in-focus photo, but you’ll have to contend with less light.

A workaround to this issue is setting a high ISO (increasing your camera’s sensitivity to light). Combined with a powerful strobe and medium shutter speed, you’ll be able to capture enough light without blurring the subject.

Half underwater shot of surfer surfing a reef break wave in Indonesia
Increasing your camera’s ISO and setting your shutter speed to medium will ensure you have enough light without producing an out-of-focus shot. Image via freie kreation.
Closeup of seals in shallow ocean water
Image via wildestanimal.

Start in Shallower Waters 

When starting out, it’s best to stay in shallower waters where you have more light to play with. Here, the colors are vibrant and more true-to-life.

Meanwhile, the deeper you go, the darker it gets, making it more challenging to capture beautiful scenes behind the lens. 

If you don’t have a strobe light, shallow waters are the best place to start to get in some practice, working with different compositions and using your camera’s settings to herald the best results.

Once you’ve conquered shallower waters, you’ll be ready to shoot in deeper waters with a strobe light to mimic sunlight.

Shallower waters are a good starting point for beginners. Images via Rostislav Stefanek, Damsea, Dudarev Mikhail, Drew McArthur, Rostislav Stefanek, and Ethan Daniels.

Shoot When the Sun Is Directly Overhead

Light refracts off the water’s surface when it hits at an angle, meaning only part of the sun’s light penetrates the water. For brighter, more colorful photos, shoot when the sun is directly overhead.

This happens each day around noon local time. Of course, you’re still going to need a light strobe if you’re deeper than the surface. 

Without strobes, everything below 30-40 feet is entirely void of reds, oranges, and purples, resulting in images that are flat and completely blue-green in color. 

Rays of sunlight onto an underwater cave
Shoot underwater when the sun is beaming directly overhead for brighter, colorful photos. Image via divedog.

Images via Vojce, David Tadevosian, and Vojce.

Shoot Subjects Up Close

Have you ever wondered why your subject looks blue underwater? Water is 800 times denser than air, making it an ideal environment for light to reflect off the water between you and your subject. Blue and green wavelengths interfere with the clarity of your shot.

To capture sharper, more detailed photos of your subject, move as close as your lens and subject will allow.

Look for clear and calmer waters to reduce the risk of camera noise. Images via iamjorge and Shane Myers Photography.

Scout the Best Places to Shoot 

It’s important to consider when and where to shoot. If the weather is particularly windy, or there’s a big swell on the way, this will likely disturb the water and churn up the sand and particles that will interfere with your shot.

Murky water is difficult to shoot, so seeking out calmer, clearer waters when possible is preferable. 

As always: Stay safe and have fun!

Cover image via oneinchpunch.

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