The Definitive Guide To Underwater Photography

Underwater photography is dramatic, compelling and otherworldly. If you’ve ever wanted to give it a go, here are our tips on how to get the most out of it.

Decide on your preferred type of underwater photography

This is the biggest deciding factor in the equipment you’ll need and the techniques you’ll use.

You could be taking experimental shots with dye in water, underwater portraits, over/under shots, or capturing vast coral reefs, tropical fish and shipwrecks. Each type of shot has different demands in terms of experience, equipment and cost, so keep your goals in mind. 

What equipment do I need to shoot underwater photography?

A suitable camera

Some cameras are designed specifically for underwater use, but they tend to be lower spec and geared more towards casual use than professional photography. Think waterproof disposable cameras or dedicated waterproof compacts like the Kodak WPZ2 or the Nikon Coolpix W300. One exception to this is the SeaLife DC200, a high spec, self-contained diving camera.

Action cameras like the GoPro Hero8 are also a good option, as they usually come with waterproofing equipment included. If you already own or have access to an action camera, it’s well worth taking pictures with it to familiarise yourself with shooting underwater.

That said, action cameras aren’t sufficient for producing professional-grade underwater photography. They have a small sensor and wide field of view, meaning they pick up less light. Therefore, you’ll have to get quite close to your subject for it to fill the frame. You also can’t change lenses.

underwater photography

Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels

So, what’s left? Well, if you want to produce a crisp, clean image that’s comparable with those taken above water, you should take your regular camera underwater with you. This is made possible through underwater camera housing, which we’ll come onto.

There are options to house your DSLR, mirrorless, compact and even analogue camera. If you’re starting out, it’s a good idea to use a mid-range compact camera with dedicated underwater housing. If you stick to shallow water, you’ll strike the perfect balance between an affordable setup and high shot quality. After some experimentation, you could consider upgrading to DSLR housing.

Lenses

Due to the unique demands of underwater photography, dive photographers have their favourite lenses to bring out the most in their subjects.

Among these is the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens (£969.99). This lens ensures you get a detailed, up-close shot without disturbing your subject by getting too close. It also performs well in low light, making it ideal for the tough lighting conditions of underwater photography.

underwater photography

Photo by Francesco Ungaro

Another is the Tokina AF 10-17mm F/3. 5-4.5 AT-X 107 DX Fish Eye Lens (£447.97). Revered by dive photographers, this lens has an exceptional sharpness and ability to capture a wide field of view.

Before investing in new lenses, you should look up how the lenses you own already perform based on the type of underwater photography you intend to pursue.

To cover most bases, you’ll want some form of macro lens and fisheye lens that perform well in low light. You’ll also need to ensure your lenses are compatible with your choice of underwater housing. For more information, check out this handy guide.

Underwater camera housing

If you want to shoot underwater (as opposed to taking a few pictures on a waterproof instant camera), you’ll need to invest in underwater camera housing.

No matter how well tested or reviewed underwater housing might be, you’ll probably feel queasy when dunking your camera underwater. That’s why, whether you’re shooting in 1 metre of water or 100, quality and reliability are essential.

Whatever you do, don’t cut corners here – it’s not worth the risk. It pains us to even imagine sealing your beloved camera inside a waterproof case, only for it to spring a leak or buckle under the pressure of the water above. Whichever you choose, make sure you check the usable depth and its reputation.

Now, you’ll need to decide which type of underwater housing best suits your needs.

Soft underwater housing

Soft underwater housing is more portable and less expensive than hard underwater housing. However, there are often more limitations when it comes to usable depth and lenses.

With that in mind, a soft PVC case like the Ewa-marine U-B100 is ideal for snorkelling, shallow diving or underwater portrait. It’s safe to use up to a depth of 20 metres and designed for use with 77mm or 82mm lenses, plus a broad range of DSLR cameras. This is quite the perk, as most hard housing is made per model.

This means that if you get a new camera or own a few, there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to use the U-B100. If, by some miracle, your camera isn’t compatible with the U-B100, check out the rest of Ewa-marine’s underwater housing range and you’ll find a version that is.

The U-B100 retails at £227.59 on Amazon. This might seem expensive compared to other soft underwater photography housing, but Ewa-marine’s expertise, history and quality are unrivalled. If you want peace of mind, this is the most affordable price you can get it for.

Hard underwater housing

Some hard underwater housing is comparable to soft underwater housing in terms of functionality, so there isn’t always an inherent advantage of one over the other at lower price points.

You really start to see the difference once you get into mid-to high-range cases. These allow you to take your camera deeper than soft and lower end hard housing – typically between 60 and 100 metres, depending on the model. What’s more, most mid-range models and above have functionality for strobes and peripherals, which means they attach to and are controlled by buttons on the housing. This gives you everything you need at your fingertips, all in one.

In addition, Ikelite, Aquatech and Nauticam cases offer lens port peripherals. This gives you more of the traditional open air photography options underwater.

underwater photography

Photo by Marcus Lange

The disadvantage of hard underwater housing is that it can cost about as much as the camera you’re shooting with. Ikelite and Aquatech underwater housing typically costs $1,695 USD (roughly £1,270*), while housing from high-end brand Nauticam typically costs £2,216.

However, for professional photographers or hobbyists who are serious about dive photography, they afford a huge amount of possibilities.

Strobes

The reason the ocean appears blue is because water absorbs blue light the least. Colours at the other end of the spectrum, like red, are absorbed quickest by water. This takes effect even just a few metres beneath the surface. A few more metres and yellow, green and violet struggle as well, until we’re left with only blue. If we go deep enough, even blue light fades and no light penetrates at all.

If you’re snorkelling and only taking pictures in shallow water or around the surface, you won’t need strobes. But if you intend to go any deeper than a few metres, a strobe is essential. Imagine how frustrating it would be if you splashed out on the specialist equipment to shoot photography underwater only to find you couldn’t capture the vibrant orange of a clown fish or the subdued pink of a coral.

For this reason, a strobe – or flash as it's often called – is essential for taking underwater photography. It provides a burst of light close to your subject, which allows you to capture the true colour of flora and fauna beneath the water’s surface.

There are lots of strobes to choose from and you’ll need to check what’s compatible with the camera and underwater housing you intend to use.

Diving or snorkeling equipment

SCUBA gear isn’t exactly our specialty here at Ripe Photography. However, we thought it was worth mentioning that you’ll want a pair of goggles or snorkeling mask in order to see the viewfinder and your subject while taking photos underwater. It seems obvious but forgetting them is easily done and could write off an entire day’s shoot.

For a more detailed look at what type of diving equipment you’ll need, this is a fantastic resource.

Tips for underwater photography

Between the strange lighting conditions and navigating in three-dimensional space, shooting underwater photography can feel alien. Yes, even to a seasoned photographer. It’s an entirely new discipline, so it takes some getting used to. The points below should help you anticipate some of those challenges ahead of diving in.

underwater photography

Photo by Elianne Dipp

Avoiding backscatter

Strobes come with some unwanted side-effects – such as backscatter – which need to be mitigated to help you produce clean images.

Backscatter tends to occur when dirt or particles become illuminated by the strobe and appear visible in the resulting image. If you’re using a compact with flash turned on, backscatter will almost definitely occur.

If your strobe is adjustable, position it at an angle and away from the lens. This way, your subject will still be lit but any illuminated particles won’t be reflected in the lens’ direction and won’t be visible in the final image. If you’re using a compact with flash built in, try getting closer to your subject to minimise backscatter.

With more sophisticated underwater photography equipment, it’s not uncommon to see tendril-like arms with a strobe on each side. Weigh up how much money you’re willing to spend and what type of photographs you intend to take. You might also want to consider using more than one strobe, as this will give you more lighting options and more ways to reduce backscatter.

underwater photography

Photo by Tom Fisk

Achieving good composition

A mistake often made by inexperienced underwater photographers is to shoot downwards on their subjects. It’s easy to see why this might be the case, as it’s our point of approach from the surface. However, this can often result in subjects that look something like a specimen in a Petri dish.

Instead, you should give your subject context. Show the eyes of a creature and frame it within the larger scene. Try to get below your subject (or at least eye-level) and shoot it against something of contrast, like the pale blue of the water’s surface above. You’ll find the creature you’re capturing has much more life and character when shot this way.

underwater photography

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

On a related note, allow some space around your subject in the frame. Give them room to swim, if it’s a fish. At the same time, try not to crop part of your subject out of the frame. The perfect balance is to capture your subject fully, while leaving a gap slightly ahead. As a general rule, shots of a slightly-off centre subject result in more tasteful, natural looking underwater photos.

Using the right settings for underwater photography

underwater photography

Photo by Francesco Ungaro

Underwater photography isn’t an exact science. Experience is the surest way to adapt to lighting situations and get the most out of your shots. That said, the below are some useful places to start.

For macro shots on a DSLR

Put your camera in manual mode using ISO100 or 200. Set the aperture to F13 and the shutter speed to 1/200th with single-spot focus and centre-weighted metering. When using the strobe, there’s no need to fiddle with power settings. Just pick one and adjust the aperture setting depending on how far away you are from your subject. The further away you are, the wider it should be. It’s also worth experimenting with smaller apertures to take closer shots or shots of smaller subjects.

For wide angle shots on a DSLR

Again, set your camera to manual mode using ISO100 or 200. The aperture should be around F8 and the shutter speed 1/100th with matrix (Nikon) or evaluative (Canon) metering turned on. While using your strobe, experiment by making the shutter speed faster or slower to change the background exposure and colour.

For macro shots on a compact camera

Try putting your camera in macro mode with the aperture set to F8 and a shutter speed of 1/100th. Use ISO100 or lower and leave the lens zoomed out. You’ll want to set flash to on and the focus to spot focus. This should give you a good macro preset that you can tweak as you learn. To begin with, try shooting close to your subject, so pick ones that aren’t so easily startled. Coral, starfish or anemones are ideal.

For wide angle shots on a compact camera

For the best results, take shots in shallow water on a clear, sunny day. Turn macro mode and flash off, with evaluative/matrix metering on. Start at ISO100 and shoot in AV mode or program mode at F2.8 and adjust the shutter speed to get the desired background colour.

One final tip

Make sure you’re shooting in RAW and not JPEG. The lighting conditions of underwater photography are challenging, so you’ll want to retain as much information in your photos as possible. This will afford you the most control over editing it later.

Specialist camera insurance from Ripe Photography

If you’re planning on getting into underwater photography, you’re going to need a lot of new and expensive equipment, so it’s important that you protect it.

At Ripe Photography, we offer specialist camera insurance that you can tailor to fit your exact requirements.

We cover your camera and accessories (including mobile phones and laptops) for accidental damage and theft. We even offer European and Worldwide cover.

Get an instant online quote and see what we can do for you.

*Conversion rates correct as of September 2020

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