Bring your underwater photos to life with five easy tips

by Cullen Welch

posted Thursday, June 5, 2014 at 4:35 PM EST


With the summer upon us, we'll be running a series of underwater photography tutorials, starting off with five quick tips from writer Cullen Welch. If you've spent any time photographing terrestrial subjects, these lessons will be emminently familiar.

Getting close, working with off-camera strobes and respecting your subject are all important lessons in terrestrial photography, but arguably become more important underwater. Watch for follow-up pieces investigating each of these elements in the coming weeks!

Tip #1: Get close to your subject, and when you think you’ve gotten close enough… get closer! 

An essential part of any type of photography is the ability to actively engage your audience by drawing them into your environment. This involves a great deal of patience and understanding, especially when it comes to marine wildlife that may feel threatened by your presence.

In addition to adding interest to the image, closeness to your subject will eliminate several common problems expressed by beginning underwater photographers. Water absorbs light rather quickly, and as a result many beginning underwater photographers complain of the dull blue-grey hues to their images. Getting close means adding color, sharpness, and clearness to your image.

Ocean water also contains tiny particles of sediment that may or may not be immediately visible while shooting. These particles, even more pronounced when working with a flash, are called “backscatter” by underwater photographers and are more avoidable with less distance between the camera and the subject.

"Get CLOSER," says the Lyretail anthias (Pseudanthias squamipinnis).

Tip #2: Shoot UP!

Shoot up to capture your subject against the light filtering down from the sun.

Because the reef is generally beneath us as we SCUBA dive, it is easy to point down and shoot down. However, you may find that images produced from this perspective often appear cluttered and uninteresting. The tops of fish and coral are not their most engaging sides! But fear not, this problem has a quick and easy remedy, if you’re willing to dive down and shoot up. From this upward perspective, you might capture a more appealing view of your subject and add open water to the background of the image, which will generally be more aesthetically pleasing than a busy reef surface.

Tip #3: Focus on your subject’s eye

"Focus on your subject's eyes," says the clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) and its symbiotic host anemones.

As humans, our eyes naturally gravitate toward the eyes of others, even with marine wildlife! Everything might be entirely perfect in an image, but if the focus is off, you’ll be out another shutter snap with nothing to show for it. Using the manual focus brackets of your camera, align the crosshairs on the eyes of your marine subjects to focus and you’ll find that the strength of the image increases dramatically.

Tip #4: Use a strobe and go manual

"Off-camera lighting and manual exposure control are paramount in underwater photography"
The potato bass (Epinephelus tukula).

A strobe may be an underwater photographer’s best investment! As you dive deeper, the color spectrum of visible light filtering down from the surface is significantly diminished. Strobes will help restore color, contrast, and clarity. In addition to using strobes, it is essential to begin working with manual controls, as auto settings can only take a photographer so far, especially in underwater environments where conditions are constantly changing.

Tip #5: Respect the environment

The Nudibranch (Nembrotha lineolata), with its leafy red gills and anterior rhinophores, reminds us that delicate reefs demand respect!

We are incredibly privileged to enjoy the underwater world. But remember, we are only guests! It is vital to have excellent SCUBA buoyancy and maneuverability skills, as this will protect the photographer, the subject, and the environment while shooting. A single fin kick to the reef may irreparably damage tiny marine life. Preserving these amazing ecosystems for future enjoyment and allowing our images to be the rewards of our experience should be a top priority.

Instructor Credit: Fiona Ayerst