When learned properly, underwater photography is a skill that can produce some of the most epic images found in any photographer’s portfolio. Even if you consider yourself a professional photographer topside, underwater photography comes with its own unique set of challenges and considerations. Below, we explore everything you need to know to get started.
A Few Prerequisites to Consider Before you Begin Underwater Photography
Learning to shoot underwater is challenging, and that challenge is furthered by not having mastered your basic diving skills, most notably – buoyancy. By perfecting your buoyancy, you can focus on the task at hand without putting yourself at unnecessary risk or harming the natural environment around you. Every dive agency offers buoyancy courses, but you have the opportunity to practice and perfect the skill every time you dive. Try new breathing techniques, experiment with your weights, and learn to move through the water column with your breathing rather than your BCD and inflator.
While some of us are experienced divers who feel more than comfortable with skills such as mask removal, regulator retrieval, and hand signaling, we may not have much experience performing them single-handed. Make use out of your safety stops, and practice these skills with one hand. Many cameras for underwater photography are big and bulky, and solving a problem underwater without risking your safety or your expensive equipment is something you’ll want to be able to do confidently.
Understanding the Basics of Light
The biggest challenge of shooting in an underwater environment is light availability and the observed loss of color with depth. With the right understanding of light physics, you can utilize your camera settings and the natural environment to improve your underwater pictures.
Four factors reduce light above and below the surface:
Absorption is the most prominent of these factors. Approximately 50% of available light is absorbed in the first three feet of water. The deeper you go, the more light the water absorbs, and the loss of specific colors occurs. Particular colors of light are absorbed at different depths, starting with the red wavelengths. At approximately 16 feet, or five meters, red wavelengths are absorbed by the water. Orange wavelengths disappear around 32 feet (10m), yellow around 65 feet (20m), and green at approximately 98 feet (30m). When you lose the light from a specific wavelength, an object with that natural color appears dull. This gives an unattractive image that doesn’t correctly reflect the scene’s beauty.
The challenge here is to decide how to deal with the loss of light and color. There are a few ways to set yourself up to capture the natural scene:
- Color Correction and White Balance: are tools used during post-processing, which we discuss in a section ahead.
- Strobes: are an underwater flash system that mimic ambient light in deeper environments. If you have a poorly lit subject or scene, strobes can output enough light to allow color and exposure corrections during post-processing.
- Lens Filters: are an option when you know the specific depth at which you will be shooting. For example, if you know you will be shooting a subject between 16 and 32 feet (5-10m), a red lens filter will help capture an image that would not require significant color correction in post. However, color filters will slightly reduce the image’s quality, so if there is enough ambient light to color correct an image in post-processing, a filter is not ideal.
Here’s an example of an image taken at a depth of about 70 feet. It has not been post-processed and did not utilize strobes or color filters. The image appears hazy and blue, with no presence of red, orange, or yellows:
Deciding What Equipment you Need for your Underwater Photography Goals
The first and most important consideration when purchasing an underwater camera setup is the type of images you wish to capture. Naturally, professional work will require a professional setup, coming with a price tag to match. If you are simply trying to document your experiences and memories underwater, that purpose may not justify owning professional-quality equipment.
There are four types of cameras to consider for Underwater Photography:
Camera housings are all specific to each camera model, and there is no one size fits all option. You must take great care in choosing your housing for the compatible camera/lenses that you plan to use.
Action Cameras for Underwater Photography
Action cameras are generally waterproof, point-and-shoot cameras that utilize a wide-angle or fish-eye lens and do not require an underwater housing above a certain depth. GoPro makes the most popular version of these cameras, and every year they get better at taking pictures underwater. They can shoot in 4k, shoot in slow motion, and produce excellent underwater pictures for their price point. Because they use wide-angle and fish-eye lenses, they struggle in certain aspects of photography, such as macro or portraits. If you are simply looking to catch some underwater footage, action cameras are a fantastic, affordable option.
Underwater Housing: Diving past the camera’s waterproof limits will require a housing to prevent internal leaks.
Compact Cameras for Underwater Photography
Underwater compact cameras are an excellent option for those looking to get started in underwater photography. They are another version of a point-and-shoot camera, but with the potential to have a vast array of features not included with your typical action cameras. When buying a compact camera for underwater use, the ability to shoot in RAW rather than JPEG allows for more in-depth post-processing of your images.
The price can vary greatly depending on the features, style, and image quality you desire for a compact setup. You can find some extraordinarily capable underwater compact cameras for shooting below the waves – not just those limited to wide-angle photography. The Olympus TG-6 is one of the best waterproof underwater compact cameras on the market in its price range.
Check out this image taken with the TG-6 in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand:
Compact Camera Underwater Housing
Some compact cameras are designed for underwater use and are waterproof to a specific depth; however, this is usually not the case. Most compact cameras are meant for top-side shooting and will require housing for underwater work. While compact camera housings are not necessarily cheap, they are far more affordable than mirrorless or DSLR housings. Having the ability to manually control the settings underwater will optimize your flexibility to shoot in varied conditions. If possible, aim for a housing with the extra functionality.
Although compacts don’t use interchangeable lenses, there is an option for something called wet lenses. Wet lenses are add-ons for the housing that you can switch while still underwater. The biggest pro of using a compact camera is that you can be ready for different types of shooting during the same dive. There are two types of wet lenses to consider for your compact:
Compact Camera Wide-angle Wet Lenses
Best for documenting coral reefs, shipwrecks, or other subjects that require extra horizontal reach to fit in the frame. These lenses are perfect for getting close to your subject without overcrowding your field of view. Wide-angle wet lenses are also available as ultra-wide or fisheye lenses.
Compact Camera Macro Wet Lenses
Best for the small, microscopic critters such as nudibranchs, crabs, cleaner shrimp, or anything else that is too small to shoot with a wide-angle lens. While many people say this type of underwater photography is the most challenging, it can also be one of the most rewarding. Further, you have the opportunity to be creative with your shots, which will improve both your photography and diving skills.
Mounting wet lenses on an underwater housing is done in a few different ways and is generally determined by the type of mount that the housing offers.
Below, we discuss the three most popular mounting methods:
- Thread Mount: These mounts use a thread that connects the lens to the housing at the lens port. The most common thread sizes are 67mm and 52mm. If the thread size of the lens is different from the housing, use “step up” or “step down” ring adapter.
- Bayonet Mount: The bayonet mount is similar to the thread mount, except it doesn’t require as much manual effort. This attachment uses a “press and twist” motion that locks the lens to the housing and was adopted underwater for simplicity. The downfall to this method is that different manufacturers are not always compatible with one another, so it is best to stick with one brand when using bayonet mount equipment.
- Swing Mount: This method uses the thread mount in conjunction with a swinging mechanism. It allows the lens to quickly switch from the standard lens to change the field of view. Swing mounts are most commonly used when shooting macro subjects but can also be used for wide-angle photography. These adapters can be quite expensive, and you may have trouble with the unintentional swinging of the lens while underwater. Otherwise, it’s a valuable tool for many.
Mirrorless Cameras for Underwater Photography
Mirrorless cameras are emerging as the most popular type of camera for professional underwater work or an advanced hobby. They give you the potential for professional underwater pictures without the size, weight, and housing costs of DSLR setups. Don’t be fooled, though. While generally not expensive as an equivalent DSLR setup, mirrorless cameras can cost a small fortune. The sensor, optics, and interchangeable lenses on mirrorless cameras give you nearly unlimited capabilities to switch your style. You can change the aim of your underwater photography as you progress and ensure that your money is well spent.
Another huge selling point for mirrorless and DSLR setups is their ability to perform well in low-light situations. Simply put, ISO sensitivity is an in-camera setting that directly impacts the brightness or darkness of a photo. In older cameras, high ISO settings cause “noise,” which is a grainy texture in an image that reduces its quality. Newer and higher-end mirrorless and DSLR cameras have the ability to increase the ISO without drastically impacting image quality, making them perfect for underwater shooting.
Mirrorless Camera Underwater Housing
All mirrorless cameras – like DSLRs – will require an underwater housing specific to the camera and the lenses used. While there’s no “one size fits all,” some housings are compatible with several camera models, and the lens ports may be compatible with several lenses.
Mirrorless housings are very expensive. Frequently, you’ll spend as much or more on the housing as you do for the camera body. For example, a Sony a7III mirrorless camera body costs approximately $1800 new. With a Sony Zeiss 16-35mm wide-angle lens, that price increases to around $3000. A mid-range housing for the Sony a7III, the Ikelite 200DL, costs about $1800 – nearly the camera body’s cost alone. If you include a lens port, strobes, and the dome port used for wide-angle photography, costs increase to around $3000.
Prices for a housing specific to that camera and lens range anywhere from $600 to $4500, and cheaper housings often lack important safety features. One of these features is a vacuum port, which allows you to pressure test the housing before taking it underwater. If you opt for the most affordable option, make sure the gear you’re putting inside is insured. A bad seal or faulty component can easily flood the housing.
*Note: If you use a flat port instead of a dome port, images will magnify underwater. Even when using a full-frame camera with a full-frame lens, underwater pictures appear more like they would on a crop sensor.
DSLR Cameras for Underwater Photography
People have been taking their DSLR cameras underwater for years. A good DSLR setup gives you outstanding image quality and fantastic performance in almost any underwater condition. The time between pressing the shutter button and capturing the image is nearly negligible in a DSLR system. Their ability to perform well in low-light conditions has been unmatched until the rise of mirrorless cameras in recent years. Another advantage of using a DSLR as opposed to a mirrorless camera is the extended battery life. Mirrorless cameras are entirely digital and utilize an LCD screen – quickly draining the battery. Keep in mind, though, the battery life on mirrorless cameras will vary widely depending on the make and model. There are options available that will give you more than enough time to shoot your daily dives without a recharge.
So why are mirrorless cameras taking stage as the top choice for many professional underwater photographers and videographers?
DSLR cameras, accessories, and housing are very large and heavy in comparison to mirrorless setups. While they are top of the line in image quality and performance, the gap between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras is shrinking quickly. It’s simply becoming more practical to use a mirrorless setup. Keep in mind that underwater photographers are already hauling around what seems like a literal ton of gear, and adding another massive configuration to that collection doesn’t excite most people – not to mention the traveling expenses. Mirrorless cameras can also shoot more frames per second than an equivalent DSLR, as these days, electronic shutters perform faster than mechanical shutters. Having those extra frames per second might get you a shot you would have missed with a slower DSLR, especially when shooting fast-moving subjects.
DSLR Camera Underwater Housing
While DSLR housings may be a bit bigger, they are similar in size to mirrorless housings. Just as with mirrorless, DSLR housings are specific to individual camera bodies and lenses. They are large, costly, and require sufficient maintenance. See the mirrorless housing section above for more detail.
*Pro Underwater Photography Tip: Mirrorless and DSLR cameras do not guarantee you good underwater pictures. We recommend starting with a cheaper and simpler underwater camera to learn the basics. When your skills have improved, spend the money on a more capable setup. Taking great underwater photos takes practice, and the best way to learn is through trial and error.
Interchangeable Lenses for Underwater Photography
If you decide on a mirrorless or DSLR setup, you’ll need to determine which lenses you want to use. Choose your lenses based on the type of shooting you wish to do. Try to pair up your lens kit so that you can shoot in a variety of styles.
The main reason to use interchangeable lenses on more capable camera bodies is for better image quality potential, which is present for various reasons. First, the sensors on a mirrorless or DSLR camera are much larger and generally have much better focusing capabilities. Having a larger sensor allows for more light to be captured – perfect for an underwater setting. As stated earlier, the first three feet of water remove nearly 50% of all available light.
For moving subjects, the ability to auto-focus at a fast rate will come in clutch. Some marine life can move incredibly fast, but with the right underwater camera and lenses, you should be able to catch some fantastic shots.
Lastly, pair the low-light, high-ISO capabilities with the larger aperture that interchangeable lenses can have, and you have yourself set up to capture underwater photos unrivaled by a compact setup.
The main drawback of using interchangeable lenses with a mirrorless or DSLR camera underwater is the inability to switch lenses after you’ve started a dive. For example: if you put on your 105mm macro lens to shoot some close up portraits of tiny critters and a Whale shark appears from the deep, you don’t have the option of converting to another lens better suited for large subjects. You can only hope the Whale shark will stick around for your next dive. Even then, the process to completely take apart your housing, remove the camera, replace the lens, and re-test the seal will prove painful. You do have the option, however, to use zoom lenses, which we discuss further below.
There are a few considerations to make when choosing your interchangeable lenses for underwater photography:
- Rectilinear Wide-Angle
Underwater Rectilinear wide-angle lenses (or ultrawide-angle lenses)
Wide-angle lenses are a top choice for many underwater photographers trying to capture a whole scene or big subjects. Portraits of divers, fish, or macro marine life are best shot with other lenses. Wide-angle lenses work best with full-frame camera bodies, but some work on smaller crop sensors as well.
The drawback of using a wide-angle lens with a crop sensor is that the field of view is reduced. The crop sensor forces the wide-angle focal length to appear as though it has zoomed to approximately 1.6 times. Using a wide or ultrawide-angle lens on a full-frame camera body will give you vast, rectilinear underwater pictures (no curvature) that can capture a whole scene without having the effect that comes with a fisheye lens. They are most often used behind a dome port on the housing. A dome port allows underwater pictures to appear straight and without significant additional magnification. Larger dome ports will also allow you to capture the under/over shots at the surface – a favorite of many.
Underwater Macro lenses
These are the lenses used for capturing tiny critters up close or for slightly bigger subjects that are too skittish to get close to. Macro lenses give us the ability to capture microscopic animals and make them appear larger than life. They are used behind a flat port, which further magnifies the field of view by approximately 25%. Flat ports allow the photographer to fill the entire frame with their subject.
For most underwater macro photography, subjects are situated on the sea bed or in a coral reef. In shallow waters, you might find that the natural ambient light is sufficient for shooting your subject. In most cases, however, you’ll need to use artificial light to capture an attractive image. While reducing the amount of water between the lens and the subject allows for less light to be lost, it still may help to use strobes. For macro photography, you’ll want to get as close to the subject as possible so that you can fill the frame, making this the perfect example of why it is so important to have your buoyancy skills mastered. Managing your buoyancy while slowly approaching a subject over a reef can be challenging, especially when the currents are strong.
Underwater Fisheye lenses
Fisheye lenses are a type of ultrawide-angle lens that allows a photographer to get very close to their subject to achieve sharp, dramatic-looking underwater photos or enable the capture of an entire scene such as a shipwreck. Minimizing the space between the lens and the subject underwater reduces backscatter and light loss, which allows for optimal sharpness of an image. Further, a fisheye lens enables you to get closer to something massive like a shipwreck while still fitting its entirety in the frame. Since they are usually smaller than their interchangeable lens counterparts, they’re a great companion for frequent travelers.
So, where’s the downside in using a fisheye lens? Distortion. When using a fisheye lens, it’s essential to keep your subject as close to the center of the frame as possible. A subject captured near the edges of the frame will appear unnatural, as curvature distorts natural lines. Fisheye lenses are ideal for natural scenes rather than man-made, straight-lined objects.
Underwater Zoom lenses
Zoom lenses can be either wide-angle or macro lenses, depending on their focal lengths. We discussed earlier one of the drawbacks to using interchangeable lenses: the inability to switch them like wet lenses while underwater. There is somewhat of a workaround for that by using zoom lenses. High-capability zoom lenses are available for mirrorless and DSLR setups, although quality zoom lenses come with a higher price tag than quality prime lenses. The benefit of using something like a 24-105mm zoom lens is that you can be solely focusing on macro subjects but can zoom out and capture larger subjects if they appear unexpectedly. While zoom lenses have extremely capable apertures, they will not have as wide of apertures as prime lenses. Nevertheless, zoom lenses are a favorite of professionals and enthusiasts for taking underwater photos.
Underwater Prime lenses
Prime lenses are remarkable for their ability to capture extremely sharp underwater pictures, having apertures that can get as large as f1.4, and capturing light that is unavailable with even the best zoom lenses. The obvious drawback here is that you’re fixed to the lens’s only focal length. The photographer will need to reposition themselves rather than merely zooming to reframe a subject. Prime lenses are best for portrait photography of divers or marine life.
Camera Settings for Underwater Photography
Depending on the type of underwater camera setup you’ve opted for, you can adjust various settings to capture better underwater images. The settings that have the most impact on underwater photos are:
- Image Format
- ISO Maximum and Minimum
- Shutter Speed
- White Balance
- Focus Mode
There are two standard image formats for modern cameras: JPEG and RAW. If your camera can shoot in RAW, this is always the setting you’ll want to use when shooting underwater. Almost all cameras will be able to shoot in RAW, although some of the older compacts or action cameras won’t. Shooting in RAW lets the camera capture more data in the image than it would in JPEG. This allows for deeper, more significant post-processing. Color, exposure, and white balance adjustments can be made with ease during post when shooting in RAW.
ISO: Shutter Speed: Aperture – Relationship
The relationship between ISO, shutter speed and aperture is the most important aspect of understanding photography – especially underwater. By understanding the relationship between these three components, you’ll be able to use your camera’s manual settings to control a photo’s overall exposure. True, newer cameras have an excellent capability to assume these settings for changing scenes automatically. Underwater, though, things get a bit tricky.
As explained briefly earlier, ISO is the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor, which affects the brightness or darkness in your photos underwater and on land. Each camera will have different ISO controls and capabilities, and the best way to learn them is through practice in various conditions. There is never one ISO setting that will work for every situation, so it’s beneficial to set it manually underwater. The higher the ISO setting, the more “noise” you’ll get in your image. The lower the ISO setting, the less light will be captured by the camera’s sensor.
If you shoot in aperture mode, set your ISO minimum and maximum boundaries to control how much variance occurs. For instance, if you begin a dive while the sun is shining, but clouds roll in and reduce available light during your dive, the camera might pump up the ISO to compensate. By setting an ISO maximum that stays within your camera’s abilities, you avoid capturing an overly noisy image.
Shutter Speed is another setting that has a direct impact on the overall exposure of an image. However, shutter speed is vital for a few other reasons as well. The sharpness of an image, especially for moving subjects, will depend mainly on your shutter speed settings. The shutter speed is how fast the camera’s front-curtain shutter moves up and down to capture the image. Slower shutter speeds keep the shutter open longer, allowing the capture of more detail and light. For faster shutter speeds, the shutter is open for a shorter time, capturing less light and detail. Here, you can start to see the relationship between ISO and shutter speed.
Our recommended shutter speeds for shooting different subjects:
- Use 1/30 of a second for still subjects such as hard coral or shipwrecks.
- Go for 1/60 of a second for slow-moving subjects such as seagrass or scuba divers.
- Use 1/125 of a second for fast-moving subjects such as fish or rays.
The faster the shutter speed, the more you will need to compensate for light lost with aperture and ISO settings.
Aperture is the opening of a lens that controls the depth of field in an image and the light that passes into the camera. Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and furthest objects in an image that appears completely focused. A large aperture (smaller f stop) will seemingly shrink the distance between the foreground and background, blurring everything other than the subject as the aperture increases. As the aperture decreases (higher f stop), the foreground and background begin to separate, focusing the whole image.
Aperture control is critical to expose your underwater photos correctly. Adjustments are made in accordance with ISO and shutter speed settings. Different lenses will have different aperture capabilities, with larger aperture lenses accompanied by a higher price tag. Many underwater photographers, both professional and hobbyists, are satisfied with using a lens with a maximum aperture of f4. However, using a lens with higher aperture capabilities is beneficial for exposing your image in darker conditions. Prime lenses can have the widest aperture capabilities, with an f stop value up to f1.4. The wider the aperture, the more light is allowed in, making prime lenses the best low-light companion underwater.
While still extremely capable, zoom lenses have smaller apertures, with the best zoom lenses sitting at values around f2.8. An aperture of f2.8 is generally great for underwater photography. It just gives less flexibility to adjust ISO and shutter speed settings for better exposure.
White balance is a camera setting that adjusts the rendering of colors in an image. A proper white balance will accurately display colors based on a white or off-white surface in the scene. Although you can adjust the white balance in post-processing as long as you shoot in RAW, it’s still best to correctly set your white balance (in-camera) before shooting. Seeing an image and making adjustments to the settings while underwater is crucial, so having an incorrect white balance from the beginning can affect every aspect of the way you shoot.
Auto white balance is a feature that almost all newer cameras possess, and they do quite a good job too. When using strobes to light a small subject or scene, auto white balance is the recommended setting. The camera will read the scene’s color temperature and choose a pre-programmed setting to white balance.
A manual white balance is needed to achieve accurate color rendering for larger scenes or when shooting in ambient light. Every camera body will have a different process to set the white balance manually. Study your user manual and practice manually setting the white balance on land while the camera is in the housing. To manually set the white balance, you’ll need a white or off-white surface for your camera to balance off. Some people use fins, a dive buddy’s tank, or even the sand to set the white balance in ambient light.
As available color spectrums change with depth, you’ll want to wait until you’ve reached your desired depth before performing your manual white balance. During the dive, reset the white balance manually every time your depth changes by approximately 30 feet (10m).
Focus mode is an essential feature for underwater photography for a variety of reasons. First, the water between the camera and the subject contains floating particles, absorbing and refracting colors and light. Because of this, focusing can be a challenge without a top-notch focusing system in your camera body and its lens, although even the best focusing systems can struggle in dark or murky conditions.
You have two main focusing options, both above and below the water:
- Manual focus.
Manual-focus, while less common, can be a benefit for capturing images in underwater macro photography or videography. Manual focus is not nearly as beneficial in wide-angle photography. For mirrorless or DSLR setups, you’ll need to have a housing that allows for manual focus that includes a focusing gear on the lens port. This specialized gear, again, comes at a greater cost. With compact cameras, manual focusing is controlled by the buttons on the back of the camera – eliminating the need for specialized lens ports and focusing knobs.
Auto-focus is the most common focusing mode, and cameras are becoming more capable every year. Auto-focus modes will vary depending on your camera model, but the most common shooting modes are “continuous” and “single-shot” auto-focus.
Continuous auto-focus will track a moving subject without losing focus. Pair this with a high burst speed, and you can take a ton of images as the subject moves through the frame – making it the perfect mode for shooting subjects like sharks or other fast-moving pelagics. The downside to using continuous auto-focus is heavy battery usage as the camera tracks a subject.
Single-shot auto-focus will lock on a subject when the shutter button is pressed down halfway and resets after the camera captures an image. This mode might be the preferred auto-focus setting for slower-moving subjects or still-scenes as the battery life won’t drain as rapidly.
Generally speaking, three auto-focus area modes are useful for underwater photography:
- Single-point auto-focus area
- Dynamic auto-focus area
- Auto auto-focus area
Single point auto-focus area will use a single point on the camera’s sensor to lock focus, selected by the camera’s control dial. Single-point area is the preferred auto-focus mode for capturing the tiny details of smaller subjects in underwater macro photography.
Dynamic auto-focus area will still use a single point on the camera’s sensor to focus, but this mode will use additional focus points around the prioritized point to track a subject in a small area. Some cameras can even utilize several priority points to create a larger area in the frame to track a subject. Dynamic-area mode will be best for wide-angle underwater photography, as there is a lot more going on within a scene.
Auto auto-focus area will select a focus point based on movement in a scene. Newer cameras are becoming increasingly accurate with choosing the correct subjects to track. Still, in low-light or low-visibility situations, they can struggle to achieve and maintain focus on the desired subject. Use auto-area when you’re in a scenario with fast-moving, unpredictable subjects such as sharks or rays.
Underwater Photography Tips and Tricks
Nothing will teach a new underwater photographer better than personal experience. Nevertheless, here are some of our top underwater photography tips for beginners:
- Get close to the subject, and then get closer. The closer the subject is to the lens, the less chance for diffraction and backscatter.
- Move slowly so that you don’t startle your subject and keep your buoyancy as level as possible. The closer the subject is to the lens, the more dramatic the shot will turn out, especially for the small stuff.
- Shoot the subject from the same level or slightly below, if possible. Underwater pictures taken from above often appear flat and without structure.
- Fill the frame with the subject as opposed to centering the subject in a scene. Filling the frame leaves no room for the viewer to get distracted.
- Practice often on land with your camera in its housing. If you have pool access, practice in the pool while trying to maintain neutral buoyancy. Being able to change your settings quickly for underwater photos will ensure that you won’t miss out on unexpected action.
- When shooting portraits, or if latitudinal lines are present in a scene, shoot with your camera in a vertical position.
- Correctly expose an image in-camera, rather than relying on post-processing. Every correction made in post-production will alter the true potential of an image, even if minimally.
- When focusing on a subject, try to gain focus of the eyes. With a sharp eye, the subject comes to life.
Learning from your mistakes is just as important as learning well in the first place. This guide to underwater photography tips gives excellent, first-hand advice for underwater photographers of all skill levels.
Caring for your underwater housing is a must if you want to avoid the potential disasters resulting from negligence. Below, we discuss how to maintain your equipment in three stages.
- Pre Dive Maintenance
- Between Dives
- Post Dive Maintenance
In addition to the following, make sure you send the housing to the manufacturer for service based on their guidelines.
Underwater Housing Maintenance: Before the Dive
- Remove the main o-ring from the camera housing door using a blunt object such as a credit card to avoid damage. Once you remove the o-ring, clean the groove with a microfiber cloth. When finished, inspect the groove closely under a light for sand, dust, etc.
- Once the groove is clear of all debris, carefully clean the o-ring using a tissue between your index finger and thumb. Make sure you do not stretch the o-ring.
- After the o-ring is clean, apply a small amount of silicone grease around its entire length. Do not over-apply the silicone grease. Its purpose is simply to keep the o-ring in good condition and make a proper seal inside the housing.
- Replace the o-ring, making sure that the silicone doesn’t pick up any debris along the way.
- Carefully place the camera inside the housing.
- Usually, there is a small gap between the bottom of the camera body and the floor of the housing. Neatly fold a napkin square and place it in that gap so that if a small leak forms during a dive, holding the housing in an upright position will allow for the droplets to be absorbed by the napkin rather than moving freely near your camera.
- For added protection, you can also use a silicone pack to soak up any atmospheric moisture that enters the housing. Be extremely cautious that the silicone pack does not get caught between the o-ring and the door.
- Carefully close the door of the camera housing, making sure the o-ring does not get caught in the groove. If the back of the housing is transparent, you can inspect the seal and the o-ring with the housing door shut.
- Or if your housing has a vacuum port, test for pressure leaks with your vacuum kit. If not, submerge the housing in water and check for bubbles or the formation of water droplets around the seals.
*Pro Underwater Photography Tip: For recently acquired new or used gear, always do your first dive with a napkin inside the housing rather than the camera to check for pressure leaks or faulty components.
Underwater Housing Maintenance: Between Dives
- After every dive, immediately rinse your camera housing with fresh water. Most dive boats will have a freshwater bucket located onboard. If not, bring water to rinse your equipment after dives. Try not to leave your equipment in the water bath for extended periods. Other equipment can scratch the lens port or damage buttons.
*Pro Underwater Photography Tip: Avoid letting the camera and housing sit in the sun between dives. The sunlight and heat will quickly evaporate the water, leaving dried salt that can accumulate between seals and around buttons.
Underwater Housing Maintenance: After the Dive
- After the final dive, soak or rinse the housing in fresh water to remove any salt.
- Towel or air-dry the exterior of the housing before opening it to remove your camera. Always inspect for salt crystals or water droplets along the grooves or near the buttons to ensure the housing is clear of saltwater.
- Arrange your camera housing on a flat surface with a clean towel or cloth underneath and carefully remove your camera from the housing. Be sure to immediately close the housing after removing the camera to avoid dust, water, or any other debris from entering the inner body or sticking to the o-ring.
- If you are not using the housing again soon, you should remove the o-ring and prepare it for storage. Repeat steps 1-3 of pre-dive maintenance, and then place the o-ring inside a new ziplock bag. Enclose the ziplock bag inside the housing so that it is not lost.
*Pro Underwater Photography Tip: As a general rule, insure your camera and lens if the cost of replacement exceeds yearly insurance payments. Housings will not offer a replacement for your equipment if the housing malfunctions and leaks during a dive. Divers Alert Network (DAN) offers adequate equipment insurance.
Underwater Photography: Post Processing
We talked earlier about the importance of shooting in RAW image format to correctly post-process our underwater images. Below, we discuss the process of editing your underwater photos. While this is not an in-depth guide, it will cover the essential steps and considerations in the following order:
- Choosing the Keepers and Weeding Out the Rest
- Keyword Assignments for Filing and Storage
- Cropping and Composition
- White Balance
- Noise and Backscatter Reduction
- Exposure and Contrast
- Saturation and Color Temperature
Choosing the Keepers and Weeding Out the Rest
There are plenty of reasons to keep underwater photos in storage. While storage space is becoming cheaper every year, there are still limited reasons to let out of focus or bland images take up space on your hard drive. Review each photo individually, and create a collection to focus on before making edits. Once you choose your keepers, delete the rest of the images or file them in storage under “discards, month/day.”
Keyword Assignment for Filing and Storage
Keywording is among the most effective ways of finding a photo in your library without knowing the date or location. When you import images into your home library, you will have the option to tag keywords to individual underwater photos. For example, suppose I am searching for a shot of a clownfish swimming through its anemone in Indonesia. In that case, I can simply type ”Indonesia,” “clownfish,” or “anemone” into the search bar in my library. Any underwater photos with those tags will then appear, and you save yourself the time of searching through your entire library trying to find it. Use any keywords that stand out in the photo, including location, subjects, and surroundings.
Cropping and Composition
Composition is crucial in creating an attractive image, and cropping is one of the best ways to adjust the overall composition. You should always aim for perfect composition in-camera, though, as cropping an image will lower the image resolution. Higher megapixel cameras will have more room to crop an image without impacting the quality. On a standard 18 MP compact camera, you will be more limited.
The rule of thirds can be a useful starting point for beginner photographers, although various factors will come into play. Determine the subject of the image and crop accordingly. For portraits, try to fill the frame with the subject; for wide-angle underwater photography, eliminate negative space such as sand or open ocean. Negative space is a term in photography that refers to the area surrounding the main subject, which is left unoccupied. The combination of negative space and positive space make up the overall composition of an image.
*Pro Underwater Photography Tip: As a beginner, try to keep the same aspect ratio you originally shot in when cropping an image. This rule will, of course, fade as you learn what works for your shots and what doesn’t
Whether you used your auto white balance or the manual white balance, you may still need to correct it in post. One reason is the change in depth between capturing an image and setting the white balance. Another common error is the camera adjusting the white balance off of the wrong surface. For example, if the camera sets the white balance using the reef rather than the white underbelly of a manta ray, it could cause the manta’s underside to have an off-white hue that makes the colors of an image appear inaccurate.
In your editing program, there will be a white balance selector tool. Use the tool to select a surface that should be naturally white or off-white. Choosing a sand patch to balance off of is a standard method when no white colors are present. The in-program changes will rarely give you perfect corrections right away, although it will almost always be closer than the original image. Once it has suggested its changes, use the temperature and tint sliders to get the image as close to its natural colors cast as possible.
*Pro Underwater Photography Tip: If you’ve been editing the same photo for an extended period, take a break and return with fresh eyes. Try to do this before all of your final adjustments to an image.
Noise and Backscatter Reduction
Noise and backscatter are two of the biggest struggles when capturing underwater images, partly because you may worsen one by managing the other. The “Noise” in an image is the fuzzy-looking static that appears when you shoot with a higher ISO setting to compensate for the lack of available light. Of course, using strobes or other artificial lights will fix this; however, floating particles such as phytoplankton can reflect the light and cause spots throughout an image. Luckily for us, most photo editing software is getting quite good at reducing the two.
Using the noise reduction tool in your editing software, simply drag the slider until the noise is negligible. As you adjust the slider, you will see that an overcorrection will make the image appear flat and synthetic, so be sure that you only eliminate what is needed. When using the sliders, always observe the changes while zoomed in to a 1:1 ratio. Additionally, you can use the noise reduction tool in smaller areas to avoid unwanted color changes in other areas of an image. Many times, noise is more visible on a dark background, making it unnecessary to edit the photo’s brighter areas. For social media uses or smaller prints, the finest details won’t make a huge difference. For larger prints or use on a 4k screen, editing the finer details will be useful.
Reducing backscatter in an image is more complicated and time-consuming than reducing noise, and for that reason, we will not dive too deep into the process in this guide. The prevention of backscatter through the proper setup and use of your lighting will be far more beneficial than removing it in post-production, as it can be time-consuming to edit out tiny details.
Adjusting an image’s sharpness is most useful if you plan to make large prints or view the image on a high-resolution screen. The process is quite simple; just use the sharpness slider to adjust the image. It is best to view a subject’s outline while zoomed to a 1:1 ratio to avoid over-sharpening the image and creating an unnatural look.
Exposure and Contrast
We discussed earlier how the relationship between ISO, shutter speed, and aperture affect an image’s exposure. If done correctly in camera, little or no adjustments will be necessary for post-production; however, this takes a lot of practice to achieve regularly. Exposure and contrast are controlled, again, by a slider tool in your editing software. Simply drag the slider until the image is correctly exposed, and then use the secondary sliders to adjust shadows, highlights, whites, and blacks. Play around with the tools and familiarize yourself with the process. Some people like to use the tone and curve slides to adjust the contrast rather than the contrast slider. Everyone has their preferences, and each image will need different edits.
Saturation and Color Temperature
Saturation and color adjustments can be made in post-production and are most beneficial when not using lens filters or artificial light. A photo will often appear dull and blue before processing, and specific colors such as reds, oranges, and yellows will appear dull or non-existent. In your editing software, pull up the HSL panel to present the sliders for hue, saturation, and luminance. Here, you can adjust each attribute individually to bring out the true colors of the image. Remember, if you increase one color, try to decrease another to avoid oversaturation of the image. Play around with the sliders until you have the desired color scheme.
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