Underwater Photography: getting started Part I

Introduction

underwater photography You may have seen them before dives meticulously cleaning and preparing O-rings for their cameras; you may even have seen them on dives, holding everyone up as they hover over a small pinnacle taking a photo of a tiny critter. You can’t help but wonder, is all the hassle worth it? But when you see the results and spectacular photos they take, you can’t help but think “I would like to take some pictures underwater too”.
Underwater photography is one of the best way to capture everlasting memories of your dives, as well as giving you some serious bragging rights on social media with the great photos you take. The question remains, how to get started in underwater photography? If you start researching the topic, you will find tons of information available – although this can be somewhat overwhelming, especially if you are not already a land photographer.

Camera choices

type of underwater camera The first decision you need to make is what type of camera you’re going to take underwater. Unless you’re already an accomplished land photographer, there is really only one route in front of you, that is the compact or point and shoot cameras.
You may wonder why not to go for an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera straight away, since these are the best, and are the ones used by elite professional underwater photographers. The answer is quite simple; yes, they will produce amazing images in the right hands – however, in inexperienced hands, they can be an absolute nightmare due to their complexity. In fact, they can be so difficult to produce correct images with that they might put you off photography altogether. Think of this like learning to fly; you would never learn to fly on an Airbus A380, it’s just too complicated for a novice.
Although you are learning, do not think a compact is a second rate camera. Today’s compact cameras are nearly as good as SLR’s; in fact, some professional photographers use them, since they are far more versatile, cheaper and easier to learn from than SLR’s. To give you an idea on how good the pictures can be using a compact with the right setup, just google “Shaun the sheep Nudibranch”. This amazingly beautiful critter is tiny, only reaching a maximum length of 5 mm, and when you see it with the naked eye, you can’t see most of the colors you see in the pictures – and quite a few of those pictures where taken with a compact.

Camera choices and scalability

The choice of camera and housing can be quite daunting. Normally, you would assume that you start researching cameras and then try and find a housing for it. This can lead to a lot of wasted time and effort, since not all cameras have decent underwater housings made for them. The best way to start is to find a range of cameras and housings. Then do the research on each individual camera, and choose a camera that suits your needs and fits to your budget. When choosing a camera, think about scalability and settings. Don’t be fooled by a camera that only offers “underwater mode” and no other manual settings – aperture, shutter speed, manual mode, manual white balance and ISO are ESSENTIAL settings to take great pictures in the long run, even if you don’t use them at first.
Choosing a housing can be complicated, since most cameras will have several models of housings available. Don’t be tempted to go for the cheapest. Never has the saying “you get what you pay for” been more true than when buying a camera housing – remember a leaky housing will kill your camera.
When buying a housing, you need to not just think about its quality, but also how scalable is it to your photo and diving evolution. Generally, look for a housing with the deepest rating possible, this will allow it to grow with your diving, since taking a housing rated to 40 meters to its maximum operating depth is not always the best of ideas.
Secondly, you need to think about upscaling your equipment as your photography develops. In the long run, you will want to add a tray, strobes, different lenses, and even a snoot to your rig. It is worthwhile investing in a housing that has the largest number of accessories available, otherwise you may find yourself having to sell your entire rig to upgrade.

Walk before running

Underwater photography is complex, and the easiest way to develop and get better at it, is to practice by taking small steps at a time. You need to start by learning the camera and all its settings, then you need to develop an understanding of light, and how it is affected by depth, and its impact on colors. Finally, you need to work on composition, editing, and overall technique. Biting off small pieces is definitely the way forward – as a general rule, trying to run before you walk with underwater photography will only lead to hours of frustration, and will end up costing you more money in the long term.
In part two, we will talk about techniques, light, and other tips and tricks.

Can you recommend any specific camera models?

Basically, there are two cameras currently on the market that are years ahead of everything else. Either the Canon G16 or the Sony Rx 100 mk3. Both of these are superb cameras and will give you awesome results. The Canon is slightly better at taking macro (small items, ex: nudibranchs) and the Sony is better at wide angle (big stuff, ex: big rays and sharks) shots due to its slightly larger sensor.
Underwater Photography

Is it worth doing a course?

Yes, BUT. Underwater photography is a highly specialised subject, so to ensure you get a great quality course, you really need to source the instructor very well. Choose an instructor who is an established photographer, with a demonstrable portfolio of high quality work. Check our our Underwater Photography Course.
Underwater Photography Guide

Shall I buy a package with everything I will ever need all at once?

This is generally not the best idea, since even if you resist the temptation to jump in the water with everything at the get go, as you develop your skills and needs, you will probably end up wanting different accessories to the ones you have already invested a significant amount of money in.
Underwater Photography Tips

Underwater Photography: Getting Started Part II

Introduction

Today, we carry on our series about getting started in underwater photography. Following on from the purchase of a camera and housing, it’s time to talk about the other basics.

On land

Although this may seem pretty obvious to most people, you would be surprised how many divers will ask instructors for help with the camera settings, and other technicalities. This is simply because they haven’t read the manual. Underwater photography is a skill, and like all skills, it requires theoretical knowledge and practice, and a little bit of technical knowhow. The best way to get some of the basics about what you can do with your camera, is to read the manual!!
Once you are familiar with all the buttons and settings on your camera, it’s time for some on land practice. Go out, take your camera and take plenty of pictures; big landscapes are probably not your best choices right now, so choose closer objects and small animals. Change settings between pictures to get a feel for how various settings interact and the type of pictures they produce. If you have a garden, pictures of water droplets on a leaf are a good practice. You need to make sure you are comfortable with all the buttons and menus of your camera before taking it diving.

In the water

So now, it’s time to take your camera diving. Before you run and stick it in the housing, it’s always a good idea to take the housing for a test first. Read the housing manual, and close it up as indicated with no camera inside it. Instead, fill it with some rolled toilet paper, to absorb the moisture in case of a leak. Firstly, test the basic seal in a bucket of water. Fully submerge the housing in a bucket and pay very close attention for any escaping bubbles; if you see any quickly remove it, dry the housing and try and find the source of the leak. Once the camera housing has passed the test, it’s time to take the empty housing for a test dive. At the end of a normal dive, inspect the housing for any leaks, especially on the inside when you open it up after the dive, checking if the toilet paper or tissue is moist.
It’s now time to take your camera for a dive, so charge your batteries, make sure your memory card has plenty of space and seal the camera in the housing, before repeating the bucket test. At this point, you are trying to established a set routine on how you prepare your camera every time you go for a dive, from charging batteries to applying silicon grease to the O-rings, to testing it in a fresh water. The more of a routine you have established, the less likely you are to forget something and damage the camera and housing.

Breathing and buoyancy

Once you are in the water, it’s time to have some fun and start snapping away. However, there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind. Firstly, buoyancy; one of the biggest bug bears divers have with underwater photographers is that sometimes, in their excitement and focus on getting a shot, they completely forget about buoyancy and the position of their fins. Watch where you put your fins – taking pictures of any subject no matter how beautiful is no excuse to be careless and destroy coral with your fins. Always be aware where your fins are and if they are touching anything.
Good technique when it comes to taking photos under water is vital, although most good cameras have excellent image stabilization technology, you still need to keep the camera as steady as possible to keep the image in focus and sharp. To this end, snapping pictures needs slow regular relaxed breathing and a steady hand, optimally you need to take the photo at the end of the inhalation cycle, in the fraction of a second before you start exhaling. You need to be very careful and not hold your breath while taking pictures.
Finally, as a new underwater photographer, choose easy dive sites, with easy conditions, so that you can spend more time practicing photography, rather than coping with difficult dive conditions.

White balance

light loss underwater If you remember this information from your open water course, as you dive deeper, the water absorbs different wave lengths of light, starting with red,. What this means is if you don’t compensate for this loss of light, all your pictures taken below 4 or 5 meters in clear water will start to have a blueish color to them. This blueness gets more intense the deeper you go. Some people compensate for this by using a red filter on their camera, but a much better way is by using manual white balance adjustment, since it is perfect for every depth. To do this, you access the camera menu and go to manual white balance setting, and take a snap of a white slate underwater. This calibrates the camera optics to recognise that that what it is taking a picture of is white. The camera can then adjust the rest of the color spectrum to put the red tones back in.
white balance underwater

Composition

Picture composition is important, unless you are taking pictures of fish for an identification guide, avoid taking pictures of animal’s side on, always try and get the subject’s face head on or slightly to one side. This gives the pictures much more life, energy and action. It is generally always better to photograph most creature head on.
Finally, photography, like most hobbies, should be fun! Go out and take plenty of pictures and enjoy. Don’t worry too much about taking amazing pictures, worry more about having a great time with your camera.

How often should I calibrate the white balance on my camera when diving?

Generally you should do this whenever you want to take a new set of pictures at a given depth. You don’t always need to use a white slate; some photographers use the palm of their hands or sand as a white slate. This is often close enough to give sufficient colors that can be further adjusted in post-production.
UW Photography

When should I start using strobes, lenses, and other accessories?

You will know innately when you are ready – you should consider expanding your capabilities once you have reached a level where you can’t take the pictures you want of a subject, due to a technical limitation. It’s at this point, where you are fully familiar with one set up, that you can add one item and start to learn again.
diving and Photography

Do I add strobes first or lenses?

It is generally better to add lenses before strobes, since this gives you a better chance to learn and adapt your photography according to the characteristics of your lens. It also lets you experiment with composition and various settings. Strobes fundamentally eliminate the need to white balance and bring out the colors in your subject.
Photography editing

Should I edit my pictures in post-production?

Yes, most photographers do some editing to enhance the pictures they have taken, it is well worth getting familiar with Photoshop or Lightroom.
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