How Underwater Photography Works

By: Elizabeth Sprouse
Image Gallery: Cool Camera Stuff Some point-and-shoot cameras, like the one featured above, are built to protect your film from water damage. See more pictures of cool camera stuff.
Peter Cade/Getty Images

Words like gobies, jawfish, ribbon eels and ghost pipefish might sound like creatures out of fantasy fiction. However, what may sound like beasts from the land of make-believe are actually real critters from perhaps the last fully unexplored territory on Earth -- the ocean.

About 70 percent of the Earth is ocean, and, for adventurers, this represents the chance to seek out rarities and get close to coral reefs, sharks and other water wonders. And for those same adventurers who like to return to land with treasure, underwater photography is the means to claiming their booty in the form of photos.


Besides the challenges of learning photography and the need to focus on water safety, shooting in the water can be very difficult. First, water pressure, which gets stronger the deeper you go, "pushes" on your equipment and will most likely ruin it if it's not properly protected. Secondly, water creates optical challenges, such as distortion from magnification, as well as the loss of color and contrast that comes from a lack of sunlight. In fact, the deeper you are, the less natural light is available, which means warm colors -- reds and yellows -- begin to fade. You're often left with only blues and greens.

But if it were easy, everyone would do it, and the good news is that you can learn to overcome these challenges, arm yourself with waterproof equipment and get some prizewinning shots. You'll end up an explorer in your own right, and you can join other adventurers in plotting out this unknown underwater world.

In this article, you'll learn the basics of underwater photography, such as the gear you'll need, helpful tips and tricks, maintenance, and how to work with your photos. Dive into the next page to learn about whether film or digital is best for underwater photography.


Film or Digital for Underwater Photography?

film or digital for underwater photography
Wide shot underwater view of father and daughter using action camera while snorkeling together in tropical ocean during vacation Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Capturing images under water requires certain equipment. We'll start this discussion with your camera choices.

Your first camera decision is the much-debated topic of whether you should choose film or digital. Photographers using a film camera have two main choices: print film and slide film. Print film produce negatives, which are transferred into prints. Slide film, on the other hand, either can be turned into prints or shown through a slide projector. Slides, despite requiring more precise exposure settings, show the brilliant color of the ocean with a projector and have traditionally been what most publishers use for their work. Negative film allows photographers to be more lenient in setting the exposure, but it's more difficult to catalog than slides [source: Frink].


Digital cameras, however, are becoming increasingly popular with underwater photographers. Digital provides instant feedback and the ability to delete images on the spot, which means you probably won't run out of film when the perfect shot swims by. They also have a large depth of field (the part of a photo's subject that's in sharp focus), great zoom range and compact size. However, digital cameras tend to experience shutter delay, take a while to turn on and produce prints that are limited in size [source: White].

Now that you're thinking about whether film or digital is the way to go, you also need to think about how much you're willing to invest. Inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras that you can pick up at the drugstore won't get you top results, but they're ideal for people on a budget. If you're looking for more than a quick experiment, but still need to watch your budget, mid-range digital cameras are a good place to start. For anyone getting really serious about underwater photography, a single-lens reflex (SLR) or digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera will give you manual control of your photos and the ability to manipulate your outcomes with different lenses and flash options [source: Dawson].

With your first major equipment decision out of the way, you can now start thinking about protecting your investment from the water. Do a quick underwater kick to the next section to learn about the rest of your basic equipment needs.


Getting Your Underwater Photography Gear Together

A photographer usually needs more than just a camera to get going. Aside from snorkeling or SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) equipment, you'll likely need a way to waterproof your camera, lenses and lighting assistance. We'll go over all three pieces of equipment here.

First, let's talk about protecting your camera from the obvious -- the ocean itself. If your camera is already waterproof, check to see to at which depth it's rated. This will tell you how far underwater you can go. If your camera isn't waterproof, take care of this yourself. You can do this in two ways:


  • Plastic bags -- Although it may sound strange and a little too simple, there are plastic bags available for waterproofing. Of course, these bags are specially made. One brand, for instance, is manufactured by German company ewa-marine. The verdict is out on these bags -- they may keep water out, but they also seem to get in the way of camera operation. [source: Greenspun]
  • Housings -- Housings are just what they sound like -- protective "houses." They're made of polycarbonate, aluminum or a combination of the two, and they're built to protect cameras in deep water. Housings are built to work with a certain type of camera, so make sure you select the right one. Often, your housing comes with a flash diffuser, or it may be built in. This goes in front of your internal flash in order to soften the light.

If you have an SLR or DSLR camera, the second thing to consider in your equipment planning is your lens. As you'll learn later in this article, it's best to get as close as possible to your subject, which means that you want to choose a lens that allows you to get in close and still be able to focus. This is where a wide-angle lens helps, as it lets you sneak up close while still capturing a clear image. A macro lens, which is designed to take extremely close images, is another option, one that will reveal the tiny, colorful details common in marine life.

Finally, if you have an SLR or DSLR, you may want to consider additional lighting through an external flash or strobe. In conjunction with an external flash or a strobe, you may want a diffuser to soften and spread out the light.

For the time being, you're done shopping and ready to start planning your photography adventure. Read on to learn what you need to consider before you even leave the shore.


Preparing for Underwater Photography

It's true that to take photos underwater, you could "house" yourself in a submarine, head on down and take photos. However, what photographers usually mean when they refer to underwater photography is either taking photos while snorkeling close to the surface with flippers, a mask and a snorkel, or heading deeper while SCUBA diving. Snorkeling is a good starting point for beginners, but it can be limiting to serious underwater photographers since you have to stay close to the surface. [source: Dawson]

Whether you're snorkeling or SCUBA diving, preparation is important to success. A little prep work can go a long way in helping you fetch some great shots while keeping you safe. Consider the following:


  • Do your research -- Ask around. What have other people found at your site? What lessons did they learn? Can you find out anything about the behavior of the marine life there, such as its habits and hiding places?
  • Create a shot list -- Before you get in the water, develop a mental list of some desired shots.
  • Find out the conditions -- Research the water conditions to make sure they'll be safe and ideal. Is anything taking place that might hinder your photos, such as an accumulation of plankton -- something that can happen on a regular basis in certain areas? Will it be a cloudy day? If so, you might want to bring an extra source of light, since the sun will have an even harder time reaching your subjects.
  • Connect with a good guide -- Your guide's expertise can come in handy when looking for marine life. Go over your preliminary research with him or her. Also, try to connect with a group that has no more than three divers to one guide.
  • Seek out your subjects -- Your research may provide you with some little-known hiding spots for marine life in the area, and your guide can also help. Some additional spots to check are near food sources, under ledges or shipwrecks, at the tops or bottoms of walls, and in sand and shallow water. In addition, although it can get deep, the area where a reef ends can be another hiding spot [source: Gietler].

Now that you're all prepped and ready for your shoot, see the next section for some helpful tips and tricks of underwater photography.


Underwater Photography Tips

In the introduction to this article, we discussed some of the built-in challenges that come with shooting under water, such as distortion and lack of light. Additionally, you're often dealing with living and moving creatures. However, with some practice and a few handy tricks, you can overcome these problems. Here are a few to get you going:

  • Get as close as possible to your subject -- By getting as close as possible, you'll have more clarity and color in your photos. With more than just a few feet between you and your subject, you'll start losing colors. This is why a wide-angle or macro lens is helpful, because you can get close without losing focus.
  • Work on composition -- Fill the entire frame of your camera in order to cut down on unwanted details.
  • Shoot in the right direction -- Shoot up at your subjects, which is easier in SCUBA diving than snorkeling. This will really separate your subject in the frame from everything around it.
  • Use your flash or strobe wisely -- The deeper you go, the less light you'll have, which means that your photos will have a blue cast if you don't use your lighting appropriately. Especially for beginners, you may want to set your camera to forced flash and manual white balance modes for all photos less than three or four feet away from your subject. This will help you get the colors you are seeking in your end photos. As you progress, you can start working with different levels of lighting and white balance.
  • Approach with care -- Approach your subjects from underneath so you avoid surprising them. Go slowly, and try cutting down on exhale noises by holding your breath. Don't change depths quickly, either, as this can have a negative effect on your safety if you experience a pressure change). Spend as much time as possible with your subjects to create opportunities for getting an interesting shot.

So you've bought your equipment and done your research, and now you've actually gone on your photo adventure. What's next? Now you get to reap the rewards of your hard work and store away your gear for another day. Read on to learn about equipment maintenance and working with your photos.


After the Shoot: Underwater Photography Equipment Maintenance

Most professional underwater photographers house their cameras to protect them from damage.
Photodisc/Getty Images

When you return home from your shoot, the first thing you might want to do is start planning your next underwater expedition. However, to make sure you keep track of your fantastic images and ensure you have equipment for the next trip, you'll want to do some administrative work first.

Regular equipment maintenance after your shoot is imperative. Here are some pointers to protect your equipment investment:


  • Take care of the waterproof seals on your equipment. Each seal will have a rubbery O-ring that ensures waterproof protection. You'll need to use silicon grease from your camera manufacturer or dive shop to lubricate the O-ring; however, don't over-grease or stretch them. Simply rub them one at a time lightly between your fingertips with the grease.
  • Rinse your equipment with warm water.
  • Dry your equipment thoroughly. Then, leave it open with the camera back face down to ensure it dries completely.
  • Never leave your equipment in full sun.
  • Have your equipment serviced regularly.
  • Always check your waterproof connections to make sure they're properly sealed.
  • Carry a toolkit with extra supplies, such as grease and screwdrivers.
  • Remove your batteries when the equipment isn't in use.
  • Test your equipment in a controlled environment before use.
  • Consider camera insurance.

[source: Perina]

Now that you've taken care of your maintenance chores, also take the time to organize and work with your photos. If you're using a digital camera, your basic steps are:

  1. Copy your photos to your computer.
  2. Back up your photos elsewhere, such as on a disk or USB drive.
  3. Name your files appropriately for cataloging.
  4. If you've set your digital camera to take raw images instead of .jpegs, use a raw photo editor to crop and adjust colors.
  5. After you've worked with your raw photos, or if you are shooting .jpegs instead of raw images, use a photo editing program to work with your color levels and other image qualities.
  6. Save your files in a high-resolution format to get the best print outcome as possible. Print and store your photos.

[source: Gietler]

With your treasure tucked away in its computer or hanging on your wall for all to see, you can now direct your attention back to the call of the ocean. Within that deep blue water, there are miles and miles to explore and endless marine gems to uncover. Happy exploring!


Lots More Information

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  • Dawson, Andrew. "Getting Started in Underwater Photography." Nature Photographers Online Magazine. (Nov.16, 2009)
  • Frink, Stephen. "2nd Annual Underwater Film Shootout." Stephen Frink Photographic. (Nov. 20, 2009)
  • Georgia Tech Campus Recreation. "Frequently Asked Questions About G.I.T. Fit." (Nov. 20, 2009)
  • Gietler, Scott. "Dive Site Research and Planning for Photography." Underwater Photography Guide. (Nov. 17, 2009)
  • Gietler, Scott. "Photo Workflow -- Organizing, Processing, Printing Your Underwater Photos." Underwater Photography Guide. (Nov. 17, 2009)
  • Gietler, Scott. "Strobe Lighting Underwater." Underwater Photography Guide. (Nov.22, 2009)
  • Gietler, Scott. "Underwater Photography for Beginners." Underwater Photography Guide. (Nov. 16, 2009)
  • Greenspun, Philip. "Underwater Photography Primer." (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • Perina, George. "Guide to Underwater Photography." Life in the Seas. (Nov. 17, 2009)
  • National Geographic. "Milestones in Underwater Photography. (Nov.17, 2009)
  • Noreen. "Scuba Certification Agencies -- PADI, NAUI, BSAC, CMAS and more." September 9, 2009. (Nov. 24, 2009)
  • Riker, Budd. "An Underwater Shooting Primer." Outdoor Photographer. Sept. 1, 2008. (Nov., 16, 2009)
  • Thomas, Richard. "Waterproof Protection for Taking a Camera Under Water." (Nov.18, 2009)
  • White, Berkley. "Film VS. Digital." Backscatter Underwater Video and Photo. (Nov. 16, 2009)