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Underwater Photography Tips

Submitted by admin on 2009-10-23 | Last Modified on 2010-08-26

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First thing is first, the equipment- When you plan to take photographs underwater you need to make sure you have a camera which has a reliable housing. Too many times do people rush into the purchase of underwater photography equipment and then end up regretting it. Research the options you have and try find user reviews, as with most purchases now days this will help you make an educated decision and not be the unlucky one to have their $700 camera ruined when a less than standard housing compartment doesn't behave.

Should you be lucky enough to be shooting with a housed DSLR camera you are likely to be in search for high quality underwater photographs which will shine above the rest, in which case the next thing you have to think of is your glass- meaning your lens. What kind of photographs are you going to be primarily taking? Are you heading down for macro shots, close up images of sharks or are you looking for a nice wide view of a reefscape?

When it comes to lenses most of you are probably well aware of what lens does what, but for those who don't here is a basic guide on what lens you will use depending on the situation.

STANDARD: Standard lenses are the lens you are most likely to get free with the camera, on most DSLR cameras now days a standard lens will generally be an 18-55mm focal length lens. These stock lenses are designed to allow for 'the best of both worlds', when set to 18mm the lens will allow a wide angle view and 55mm will allow for slight zoom. But it is important to note that you can get a lot wider than 18mm and zoom a lot further than 55mm on specialized lenses, as can be read below.

MACRO: Macro lenses are perfect for those ultra close up shots of small marine life such as nudibranchs, gobbies and then of course those abstract looking coral shots you see, they also work great for anemone and of course other small fish. The typical mm macro lens range for underwater shots is between 90-105mm giving the most comfortable focal length.

ZOOM: These lenses are not used very much in underwater photography due to the lack of visibility, in most cases you will run out of visibility before you run out of focal length. In normal above water photography it is not uncommon to see 300mm lenses used for wild life shots, and can even extend as far as 500mm. In underwater photography it is recommended you don't go above 120mm, as this will suit you just fine.

ULTRA-WIDE & FISHEYE: My favourite lenses, the ultra wide angle lens offers a large pan view of an area, it is best for landscape or in this case reef scape photographs or for large schools of fish.

One is able to create dramatic photographs using wide angle lenses, especially in the vast blues of the underwater world. I'd recommend using a wide angle lens if you are diving a high visibility coral rich reef. Now to get to the focal lengths of wide angle lenses, 10-20 is the most common focal length for an ultra wide angle lens, though you will come across lenses with ranges of between 12-24mm and 12-20mm, near the ends of these focal lengths (18mm-20mm) you will be entering the same kind of focal length that a standard lens offers. The downside to ultra wide lenses is the price, which can often cost more than the camera itself.

Fisheye lenses are ultra wide angle lenses on steroids, there was even a fish eye lens with a 4.5mm focal length developed by Sigma, offering a 180 degree field of view. Generally fisheye lenses range between 7mm and 17mm. These fixed focal length lenses cannot zoom in and out and instead are designed for the sole purpose of that extreme wide angle view. Again it is important to decide on what fisheye lens will suit you best. You also get circular fisheye lenses which create an image which resembles the reflection on a steel ball. Only a circular image is visible, personally I am not a fan of circular fisheyes and prefer the normal fisheye lens with a focal length of about 10mm. As with the ultra wide angle lenses, you can expect fisheye lenses to dent your wallet a bit- though completely worth it.

Photo by Dany Weinberg

A photo displaying great lighting, with the natural light in the background creating a silhouette while the foreground is well lit with dramatic shadows.


Lighting is always important in underwater photography, whether you are shooting with a disposable underwater camera or a high level DSLR. For those of you who are taking photographs with a point and shoot or disposable camera there aren't many options, and a flash is generally needed when in deeper waters. Though when in shallower waters with sufficient light you could be able to get away with taking photos without the use of a flash and may in many cases actually result in a better result.

For the more advanced underwater photographers as I'm sure you know, finding the balance between strobes and the natural lighting. You want to find a balance where you still benefit from the lighting of the strobes without relying on it for the primary source of light, infact the strobes should be used to rather enhance the lighting rather than replace it. Natural lighting is always better than artificial lighting, and with lots of practice you will get to know exactly what each situation calls for. This is an area that varies so much from each photographic subject that clear rules other than what has been stated above can't really be given, it's all about practice.

Photo by Dany Weinberg

This photograph shows symmetry used to enhance the feel and appearance of a photographic subject, or in this case two subjects.


Just a basic lesson in general photography which applies equally in underwater photography.

You can have all the right equipment, and you may know how to handle it but there if you don't understand the importance of composition it will be the thing that separates your good photographs from great photographs.

The general rule in photography is to avoid completely centering the subject, though there are exceptions and there are times depending on the surroundings when it can work great. An example of this would be there you have two similar objects on either side of the primary focus, this allows for a display of symmetry, though in general you will be better off using the negative space to your advantage.

But while on the subject of symmetry, a very useful element in underwater photography is symmetry and I have seen some amazing underwater photographs which had symmetry as it's primary means of composition, the subject doesn't have to be amazing but even macro coral photos which use symmetry come out on top of other photographs.

Composition is also something that you begin to learn, after trying to use negative space in your photographs you will begin to see which types of occasions look better with different negative and positive space usage. Typically when one is said to be naturally talented in photography it will be because they have a natural ability to determine the best usage for negative space.

Post Processing

A vital stage of any photography now days, there are sadly still people out there who think of post-processing as 'cheating' or 'not photography', they couldn't be more wrong. If you think that post-processing didn't occur in dark rooms back in the day you are sorely mistaken. Dark room techniques go back years and years and even the omission of people or objects were done through photo manipulation, just without software. Pretty much every image you see in a magazine now days has gone through some post-processing.

Luckily now days we live in a world where Adobe Photoshop has come to the rescue and made post-processing a lot easier than it was in the darkroom days.

There is a lot that photoshop and other post-processing software can do, but I'll keep the information down to the essentials.

Original photograph by oHoTos

This image shows how minor adjustments in the colour and contrast of an image can help to bring the photograph to it's full potential.

Firstly, I would like to state that I have come through numerous photographs online by beginnner underwater photographs and noticed that they actually had a fairly decent photograph taken but due to the fact that they never post-processed it they didn't bring out all of it's potential. One of the problems is the fact that due to the conditions underwater, you will not get to see the real colours that were visible at the time of the shot and the picture will appear as dull. This can often be fixed by using photoshops auto-adjustment features, using auto-adjustment on the colour, level or contrast can all help bring out better results in the image. One can play around with these adjustments to find what works best for their photographs. The image above was corrected using these auto-adjustment settings in Adobe Photoshop.

For the more advanced underwater photographers you probably already know everything there is to know about post-processing. But for those that don't... Your camera will likely handle the photographs well enough for only minimal post-processing so you will likely be only using a few features.

Brightness and Contrast - This will allow you to change the brightness and the contrast of the actual image, perhaps the strobes never illuminated the atmosphere enough or over-exposed the photograph. Subtle mistakes in these areas can easily be compensated for with this feature.

Cropping - A vital part of post-processing is the cropping. This involves either removing unwanted objects from the edges of a photograph or the removing of unwanted negative space. Think of the cropping tool as a pair of scissors with the inability to cut skew.

Curves - A slightly more advanced tool though still easily understandable, this tool allows you to edit certain constrast and brightness settings on various parts of the image depending on the colour and original brightness.

Colour Adjustments - A tool that can be very handy, or can be abused... Sometimes a photo looks better when you get it back to the colours that were visible at the time of taking the photo. Again, it should be used wisely and not abused.

Hue and Saturation - Another tool that can be great when used carefully. Hue and saturation in photoshop can be adjusted on images that appear too dull or too saturated. Lowering the saturation will take the colour out of the image and increasing saturation will increase the colours of your image. Highering the saturation too much often results in a fake looking photograph.


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