There are few things I love more in this life than being underwater with a camera in hand.
Just being there is great, and I’m appreciative of every second I get to spend on a coral reef, but I have to admit that I always regret those dives or snorkeling trips where I either decide to leave my camera on shore or, even more disappointing, it runs out of batteries.
I regret them for different reasons. The first is that, with my luck, I’m bound to see something Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award-worthy when I decide not to take my camera. Some miraculous, once-in-a-lifetime mating or predation event.
The second is that I like taking photos when I’m underwater. I like the act of capturing moments of natural history for its own sake, and more and more, I feel compelled to do so.
You can read my guide to and breakdown of the Olympus TG-6 here if you are interested. This is the underwater camera that was used to take all of the photos in the following article (the ones that are clearly mind, of course).
I try not to be an environmental pessimist or catastrophizer when it’s unwarranted, but it just seems like the population growth-consumption dynamic that characterizes the current era, and that seems likely to continue to define the rest of my time on earth, is only going to continue to do massive damage to marine ecosystems.
Even when there is seemingly good news about the health of coral reefs, there is very often a catch-22.
In short, I feel compelled to take a camera with me much of the time because I want to document for posterity what I see, both the good and the bad.
I think underwater photography, like any other photography, is not only a worthwhile and fulfilling hobby for its own sake, but because it creates a record of what once was and, at some point (likely within our lifetime), will no longer be.
Even what I feel privileged to have witnessed in my own lifetime is a shadow of what would have been just a hundred or so years ago.
Nonetheless, I think taking a camera underwater is both good fun and necessary. With that in mind, below are some underwater photography tips for beginners.
- Tip: Understand how water affects light
- Tip: Know Which Camera Settings Are Best for Different Directions
- Tip: Keep track of the direction of the sun
- Tip: Avoid your camera’s flash
- Tip: Get up close with your subject
- Tip: Work on your buoyancy
- Tip: Get as low as possible
- Underwater photography tip: Don’t chase marine life
- Tip: Don’t force a photo
- Tip: Use cleaning stations to your advantage
- Tip: Understand symbiosis
- Tip: Have your subjects in mind before descending
- Tip: Understand fish behaviour and niches
Tip: Understand how water affects light
The way light travels through water is much different than the way light travels through air. This has multiple implications for lighting and shooting.
What to know
The first thing you need to account for underwater is the fact that the deeper you go, the more blue things appear.
Blue light penetrates water the best, followed by green, then yellow, followed by orange and finally red.
The reason so many deep ocean creatures are red is that red light effectively doesn’t reach that deep. At 100m, red is almost impossible to see.
Think giant squid:
The colours we see are a result of the reflection of different wavelengths of visible light. When light containing all the different colours of the spectrum (white light) hits an object (a fish or a tree), certain wavelengths are absorbed and those that are not are reflected back to our eyes.
Our eyes and brain then perceive this as colour.
How to account for it
Below 2-3 metres and above around 20, a red filter is your best bet when it comes to compensating for the dearth of red light.
There are red light filters for pretty much any type of underwater camera–from phones to GoPros.
Some of them screw onto the lens inside of the camera housing (threaded filters). These can’t be changed while underwater so there a better option if you’re trying to shoot something specific.
There are also red filters that fit over the lens port (push-on filters). Depending on your camera and the specific push-on filter, you may or may not be able to remove it while snorkeling/diving.
(image of redlight filter)
(images of photos taken with a red light filter)
There are also flip-down red light filters that let you flip the lens on and off (using a lever) inside you camera housing.
If you have a GoPro, you can actually get a red light filter adapter kit that allows you to switch back and forth between filters (including orange and red).
Tip: Know Which Camera Settings Are Best for Different Directions
One of the major issues with exposing images while shooting underwater is that because of the way light disperse, shooting downwards, upwards, or horizontally requires different exposure settings.
The same settings you use to shoot downwards might completely wash out something shot from underneath while the settings you’d use to shoot upwards will seriously underexpose your image.
How to account for it
If you’re just shooting with natural light, I would recommend using aperture priority mode so that your camera auto-corrects based on the ambient light.
Most of the photos in this article were shot on my Olympus TG-6 in aperture priority mode–the best camera for snorkeling IMO.
Auto ISO settings
I like going to the Auto ISO menu and setting a minimum acceptable shutter speed (e.g., 1/200) and then letting the camera adjust it upward or downward as required.
If you use aperture priority mode in conjunction with Auto ISO it’s a good natural light configuration that still lets you control the aperture and minimum shutter speed.
Tip: Keep track of the direction of the sun
It can be hard to know where, exactly, your sunlight is coming from while underwater, but the angle of the sunlight is as important underwater as it is above when it comes to light and shadow on your subject.
If you shoot into the sun, you’re going to get a bunch of backscatter depending on the amount of particulate matter in the water (plankton, silt, coral spawn etc.). Even if you’re shooting horizontally with the sun seemingly right overhead, slightly angling your camera towards the sun can produce this same issue.
How to account for it
I always try to take shots with the sun at my back when shooting with natural light underwater. This is, generally, how you get the best exposure.
If you’re looking for more stylized, atmospheric shots (which I really like), then trying to incorporate some of those silhouettes and backscatter (i.e., shooting toward the sun) is fun.
There are always going to be exceptions and way to bend the rules to create cool effects, but you still need to know how the direction of the sun affects exposure if you want to experiment.
Tip: Avoid your camera’s flash
Aesthetically, using flash is definitely a good way to compensate for lost reds and oranges. But it can also reflect particles, add bright spots and create backscatter–especially if water clarity isn’t great.
How to account for it
The best way to minimize backscatter is add distance between your lightsource and the camera. This stops particles from reflecting light straight back into your sensor, reducing their prominence in the shot.
You can only accomplish this with an underwater strobe that has separate arms coming off the camera. It’s almost always a good idea to avoid using the camera’s built in flash unless everything in the photo is super close to your lens.
Strobes are usually attached by mounting your camera housing to a tray table which is then connected to a flexible arm that then attaches to a strobe. The strobe is triggered by a fibreoptics cable that attaches to the camera housing just in front of the flash.
Strobes are great for illuminating shadows, meaning you can shoot sunrays while still ensuring your subject is properly exposed.
To get this effect, you will need to know how to fine tune the strobe position, settings and strength so that the sunlight isn’t overexposed at your subject is still well lit. Additionally, you can minimize backscatter by controlling your strobe’s flash brightness.
Of course, all of these add-ons aren’t cheap–but if you want to shoot the best quality images possible underwater, these are the pieces of gear used by professional underwater photographers (usually two strobes).
Tip: Get up close with your subject
You need to get on your subject’s level when shooting underwater. Straight-down surface shots are almost always boring–you get much less contrast, and shots at eye level or from below are almost always going to be more powerful.
Diving down lets to capture more contrast and background, which is a much better way to show off the beauty of the underwater world.
You will usually want to get as close as possible to whatever you’re shooting because of how light disperses underwater. This is why most underwater photographers use an ultra-wide lens and fisheyes.
Tip: Work on your buoyancy
The foundation of good underwater photographs and photography skills is buoyancy control. Buoyancy control keeps you and the marine life around you safe.
I would recommend honing your buoyancy skills before taking a camera underwater with you. This applies more to scuba, but also to snorkeling and free diving.
All of my photos in this article, for example, were shot while snorkeling.
If you don’t have good control over your body in the water, it’s going to be hard to get good shots and you could put yourself and the sealife you’re photographing in harm’s way.
You might inadvertently touch something sharp (or potentially venomous) and either injure yourself on the spot or panic and inhale water. When it comes to protecting marine life, even a small knock or bump can seriously injure fragile corals and anemones.
If you’re snorkeling or freediving with a camera and find that you’re flailing around too much (to capture decent images and for your safety), consider investing in a weight belt. An extra 5-6 pounds makes a lot of difference.
Tip: Get as low as possible
This is a generally applicable wildlife photography composition tip and something that I covered in a review article I put together on the best cameras for safari if you are interested in checking that out.
In the ocean, however, it’s even more important because the higher up in the water column you are, the more of a threat you appear to marine life.
Sharks and other large predatory pelagic fish that patrol the reef edges very often attack from above using their countershading to blend into the background for a surprise attack.
The lower you get, the less of a threat you appear (you’re still huge compared to most fish, so of course you will always be a threat).
The Splendid Dottyback above was noticeably less alarmed by my presence the closer I got to its level.
Tip: Don’t chase marine life
Sometimes you simply have to let a subject “get away.” Certain species are wonderfully curious and will spend quite some time observing you as you observe them.
Others want nothing to do with you and will only give you fleeting glimpses of them before darting off into a hole or moving away at a pace that your clumsy human limbs are incapable of keeping up with.
Small angelfish species and many crevice dwellers like gobies and blennies are often like this.
An animal that is trying to get away from you is afraid of you, and the ethical thing to do is to let it go about its business undisturbed.
The work around
I’ve found that the best way to get shots of skittish marine life is to a) be patient and b) avoid eye contact.
If you move slowly, deliberately, and methodically through a marine ecosystem, while your awkward terrestriial body will never look natural in one, you will convince marine animals that it’s ok for them to go about their business in your presence.
Rapid, jerky body language is a universal red flag in the animal kingdom.
Avoiding eye contact
Part b is to avoid direct eye contact (especially with bigger species like sharks, large parrot fish, groupers etc.).
All vertebrate social animals (and the sea is a very social place, especially a coral reef) recognize and respond to eye contact, and eye contact is very often taken as a sign of intent or aggression.
Some fish can even recognize different human faces.
You often get a much different reaction out of a big angelfish, for example, if you pretend as though you don’t notice it picking algae off a rock a couple of metres from you than you do when you look directly into its eyes.
Some fish don’t really mind–many moray eel species aren’t going to change their behaviour regardless of whether you make prolonged eye contact or not–or their curiosity overrides their fear.
But many will not stick around for a photograph if they notice you’re fixating on them like a hungry predator.
Tip: Don’t force a photo
What I mean when I say “don’t force the photo” is don’t manipulate the scene. The beauty of a candid underwater shot is that it is what the photographer was seeing at that moment.
They were lucky, as well as canny enough to witness the piece of natural history, take the shot and share it with the world.
Never touch marine life or try to make an animal react to get a “better” shot. Nor should you use food or any other objects to try and provoke a reaction from an animal.
This is unethical and likely to earn you scorn and contempt from your fellow underwater photographers.
Always consider both your own and an animal’s well-being before the photo.
Tip: Use cleaning stations to your advantage
Fish very rarely stay still for long, which means you tend to take a lot of out-of-focus shots underwater, even when your camera has good autofocus and image stabilization capabilities.
You can compensate for this by using a higher shutter speed, but you can also use the ecosystem to your advantage.
Cleaning stations are great places to snapshots of marine life because the animals there are very often relatively still and preoccupied.
Not only are your subjects less erratic, but you also have a chance to observe and capture interesting behaviour.
It’s fun to watch a coral shrimp or a cleaner wrasse picking through the teeth of a grouper that, if it weren’t for the dental service, might otherwise snatch them up in an instant.
Tip: Understand symbiosis
Another great way you can use an ecosystem for photo opportunities is to understand the symbiotic relationships in it.
Whether it’s anemonefish and anemones
Or Pistol Shrimp and Shrimp Gobies
Knowing which organisms trade services with one another in an ecosystem means you know where to spot photo ops.
Tip: have your subjects in mind before descending
If you’re serious about taking great underwater photos, then it’s always a good idea to know which species or scenes you’re targeting before descending.
This applies to both snorkelling and diving.
It means knowing where you are likely to find your subjects once you descend (so that you can keep an eye out for them) and so that you don’t become overwhelmed by the sheer number of photo opportunities underwater.
Tip: understand fish behaviour and niches
The first time I ever saw a tropical reef was when I was 12 years old.
My parents took our family to the island of Kauai and that first time putting my head underwater at Poipu Beach is definitely among the top ten best experiences of my life.
I’d been enthralled by marine life for a long time at that point–through documentaries, many visits to the fantastic Vancouver Aquarium, as well as by the local tidepool and tidal flat creatures I’d find along the west coast of Canada–but I’d never been in a tropical marine ecosystem.
Since then, I’ve had the privilege to explore marine environments much farther afield, from the Red Sea to the Coral Triangle, and in that time, I’ve learned a lot more about how these ecosystems work at both the macro and micro levels.
Not only is it more enjoyable and interesting to spend time underwater when you know what you’re looking at, but you find much better photo opportunities as well.
Get a comprehensive field guide
I think some of my best education so far has been from the book Reef Fish Identification – Tropical Pacific by Gerald Allen et al. (which is now available on Kindle).
Not only is it full of beautiful photography, but the book is broken down by family and niche, with wonderfully detailed descriptions of the functions of different types of fish on the reef–from groupers to gobies to parrot fish.
I read this book and bring it with me every time I travel, and I’ve found that my ability to find and photograph fish has greatly improved because of it. Highly recommended.
Incorporate these basic underwater photography tips and greatly improve your wildlife photography
It has always amazed me how a little bit of photography knowledge–about light, composition, and animal behaviour–can dramatically improve the quality of your images.
I love growing and learning as a photographer, and I love when a small adjustment produces a big change in what I’m able to capture.
Apply some of the above underwater photography tips the next time you head into the water with your camera and don’t be afraid to share a link to your Instagram in the comments (if you’re a wildlife/nature photographer!) after you come back.