Hints for Underwater Photographers

Hints for photographersMost digital cameras come with a manual comprising a large number of pages which detail the cameras various operating modes and functions. Learning to operate the camera given the various modes available is best perfected on land before contemplating taking the camera underwater. It is important to follow the step by step instructions in the manual to fully understand the layout of the controls and the functions of each available mode of operation.

Experiment with the different settings and view the results, noting how changes to sharpness and depth of field occur. Experiment also with wide-angle and macro shots, paying attention to the distance between the camera lens and the subject when taking very close macro.

The next step is to practice taking some images and changing settings with the camera in the housing. Ensure you have a mental ‘map’ that allows you to visualise the camera functions/menus each of the buttons/knobs on the camera housing will allow you to control. After all, you don’t want to find yourself in a position underwater when that once in a lifetime shot becomes a lost opportunity because you weren’t able to remember which setting to use or button to push. Practice, practice, practice!

Prior to your first dive take all care to prepare your camera and housing. Make certain that the camera and any strobe batteries are charged and that a formatted memory card has been inserted into the camera. Put aside some time when assembling the camera, housing and strobe/s so as not to rush the process. Some housing manufacturers recommend the main housing body ‘O” rings be removed after each dive, others suggest they stay in place, needing only a wipe to remove foreign material prior to closing the housing rear cover. Read the manual that came with your housing and follow their instructions.

Check that the ‘O’ rings are free of grit, hair or other materials that may cause a leak during a dive. If needed use a plastic credit card or the end of a plastic cable tie to remove the ‘O’ ring and inspect it for cuts or tears. Even a small cut in the ‘O’ ring can allow water under pressure to flood the housing so it is important not to use anything hard and sharp that may damage it or the surface of the groove it sits in.  Refit the ‘O’ ring with a light application of grease if required ensuring it fits snugly into position.

Make sure your housing lens is clean and clear of dust and marks. Use silica gel packs in your camera housing to absorb any condensation – fogging of the camera lens and glass port can be a problem in warmer humid climates.

When fitting the camera into the housing it is important to ensure all the controls are in the correct position. This applies particularly to levers rather than push buttons and it is important to operate the camera in the housing prior to diving to make sure all the controls operate properly. If you have separate strobe/s fitted, make sure the electrical or fibre optic controls are fitted correctly and operating by taking a test shot and viewing the result. Carry the assembled camera equipment in a protective container of some sort - a small, sturdy esky is often a useful container. It is advisable to carry a few spare parts if going on a dive holiday. Spare ‘O’ rings, batteries, grease and memory cards will sometimes be helpful.

Remember – practice makes perfect.

Boat trips to dive sites are often a bumpy experience and your camera should be placed where it won’t be bounced about – this is often at the rear of the boat.

When entering the water it is best done without your camera, asking someone to pass it to you when you are in the water. If you do not have a boat-sitter to do so, lower the camera into the water clipped to a well-secured short line and retrieve the camera after entering the water.

Don’t leave your camera in the sun if it can be avoided, even covering with a towel is preferable. After the dive, it is preferable to put the camera in a bucket or tank of water if one is available. Many boats have these now, and they help to reduce condensation, allow the housing to equalize in temperature with the water, and help to prevent salt crystals building up around the housing controls.

Be careful of other camera systems in the bucket that may scratch your housing port. Use the manufacturer’s provided port cover to prevent any damage – or fashion something suitable using an old thick sock or a cut-off neoprene stubby holder if not provided.

Shore diving with a camera housing presents its own problems entering and exiting the water and is certainly best done with a helpful buddy or two.

Camera settings differ from camera to camera and what works for one brand may not produce similar results for another, nor will the same results be produced by different models of camera from the same maker. Compact digital cameras have very different attributes to digital SLRs.

If supported by your camera shoot in RAW mode. Images captured in this mode contain more information and can be tweaked using post processing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom to a greater extent than images captured as JPEGs.

ISOs of between 100 and 200 are typically used underwater although you may want to experiment with a higher ISO setting if taking wide-angle photos in lower light conditions.

Learn to shoot in Manual (M) mode, if supported by your camera. Otherwise, most of your shots can be taken using Aperture Priority (AV) and Shutter Priority (TV).

When taking macro shots use Centre Weighted Average metering mode or Spot Metering, which give greater weight to the exposure metering about the centre area of the screen. Evaluative Metering mode does not deal well with shadows and areas of high contrast underwater, but it is suitable for scenic or wide-angle shots.

Macro photography is probably the easiest to learn and good results can be achieved fairly quickly. Experiment with shutter speed, 1/60th of a second may be fine for a stationary nudibranch while 1/125 or 1/160 may be necessary to capture something moving slightly in the swell, or a moving subject such as a crab.

If using an external strobe or strobes learn how the angle of the light from the strobes can hit the subject, even if the strobe is not pointing directly at the subject. This can reduce or eliminate back scatter in reduced visibility and is the main advantage of external strobes compared to using the flash in the camera itself.

Many cameras have the capacity to adjust exposure through an Exposure Compensation dial – experiment by taking images of the same subject and keeping all other settings constant - use both positive and negative exposure compensation gradations. The ability to review an image after capturing it is a real bonus on digital cameras.

Similarly, the exposure can be controlled with strobe settings: there is usually a TTL function which is controlled via the cameras internal metering system. Depending on the subject it may sometimes under or over expose and it is worth experimenting with manual strobe settings to get the desired result.


Good buoyancy is an important element in an underwater photographer’s skill set. When taking a photo or capturing video footage try to keep steady mid-water. The more you zoom out, the more noticeable any movement will be.

Note the direction of the light -

  • Ideally, you want the sun at your back to light a subject and enhance a camera’s capacity to focus.
    When swimming along a wall searching for opportunities to capture an image and the sun is on the other side of the wall, everything will appear dark and contrasty to your camera.
    Swimming into the sun, the light will be falling behind you. Thus, it is well worthwhile turning about occasionally to check out the view for possible subjects to photograph with the best colour and lighting.
    When the visibility is low, try looking for macro or video subjects. Macro and video tend to be less susceptible to low visibility conditions.
    Dive at shallower depths. Not only will light intensities be higher but, for example, more luxuriant growths of coral are found in the top 18m of the water column, or many fish and turtles are habitually observed around the top of a reef or drop-off.

Take your time diving. The slower you move and the more relaxed you are, the more subjects you will find.

Get low to the subject so you are shooting up, and not shooting down.

Get close to the subject. If you think you are close get closer.

Focus on the animal’s head, particularly the eye. Viewers are drawn to this area of a photograph, so it is critical that it is in focus. If photographing for identification purposes, try to take the photo showing the critical features of the animal so a positive identification can be made.

Learn and observe as much as you can about marine life. The more you learn, the more you will get a feel for how close you can get without causing stress or harm to the animal or yourself. Additionally, you may be able to predict what behaviours the subject will exhibit under different conditions and thus be prepared to capture a specific behaviour.

The undersea realm is a three-dimensional environment so take the opportunity to take photographs from unusual angles.

Make sure to thoroughly rinse your equipment in fresh, cold water. While the housing is submerged in the freshwater, turn the knobs and press each of the buttons several times to ensure no salt build-ups will occur. Remove the housing from the water and pat dry with a cloth. Place it in a location out of the sun to dry. Check there is no sand or hair on the O-ring. If diving on sand or in very silty conditions be aware fine grains will adhere to the main body ‘O’ rings and to those in the battery compartment of the strobe/s.

Perhaps the best and quickest way to improve your skill, other than ‘shooting’ lots of images, is to review the images on the day they were captured. This is typically done by downloading the images onto a computer. Alternatively, images can be reviewed on a TV using an AV cable, or if neither of these are available, on the LCD screen on the rear of the camera.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask, ask, ask! Most photographers are passionate about their pastime and are more than willing to help you improve your skills in taking those images you aspire to capture. The World Wide Web allows you access to numerous forums on underwater photography, where you can post questions related to not only underwater photography in general, but also to the specific settings that are appropriate for different situations which are related to the make and model of your camera and housing.

Time spent examining online underwater photo images, or browsing through dive magazines, is time well spent. Just how did that award-winning shot get taken? Often the ISO, aperture and shutter settings used by a photographer accompany an image. How did the photographer compose the shot?  Knowledge is a powerful weapon in your quest to take better than average images – read all you can from whatever sources you have available. Talk to other photographers, especially during the surface interval between dives. They may well have suggestions as to how to improve on the images you have obtained that you can put into immediate practice. Watch other photographers operate underwater. How do they approach a cautious fish? How do they position their strobe/s to not only illuminate a subject but prevent backscatter? Are they practising good buoyancy skills?