A Beginner’s Guide to Underwater Photography
Back in the day when photography was hard, underwater photography was considered to be like other photographic disciplines, but with an extra zero on the price tag. It was expensive and it was dangerous for camera gear, heart conditions and bank balances.
You could only use Nikon cameras (because housings weren’t made for other makes) and the O-rings keeping the water out would sometimes fail and the water would end up inside the housing and destroy a camera and lens. Plus we used film so had a maximum of 36 shots (that’s not a typo for anyone who hasn’t used film) and couldn’t see the result instantly. Exposure was a nightmare at times and you had to balance flash light with ambient light and hope (because there was no intelligent exposure system) that you’d worked it all out correctly.
If you were on an overseas trip there was no way to tell how successful you’d been until you were back home sometimes weeks later. This is how I started my professional underwater photographic career and boy am I glad those days are over, although I do miss Fuji Velvia.
Some things in underwater photography haven’t changed, others have. It is still one of the most challenging photographic disciplines, but it is infinitely easier with the array of camera systems available. Hell, you can even do it on your phone these days.
For the purposes of this article I am going to ignore phones, mainly because I have no desire to take my iphone underwater.
The DSLR option is still available, but so expensive is the gear – a camera housing costs more than a camera body – that it really is the realm of the professional or someone extremely serious. There are though underwater housings available for mirrorless cameras, compact cameras and, of course, there’s the action camera route.
Scuba diving does help immensely though. This shoal of caplin off a beach in Newfoundland was there to spawn and I wouldn’t have got this shot, even though it is in about a metre of water, had I not been on scuba.
The same is true of this turtle. I could have snorkelled down to take this shot, but being able to observe the green turtle for a long time meant I was in the right place when it started to surface for air.
However, whichever camera system you buy, the fundamentals are generally the same. You need a housing to stop the camera getting wet. Housings though still generally follow the tried and tested construction techniques. Some are made of machined aluminium; others are made of moulded Perspex or another kind of plastic. The majority use rods and levers to move the camera buttons and switches. Ever since cameras were controlled electronically, I had thought housing manufacturers would develop a system where the camera could be controlled electronically through the housing, but that’s not happened. A few makers tried, but it has yet to catch on. This is a shame because you could make housings for several cameras and you just need to change the socket and or the software.
Sadly for us consumers each housing is made for a particular camera. When the camera maker changes the model they rearrange the buttons so any underwater photographer looking to change up their camera also has to change their housing. That’s one reason why it is so expensive.
One of the key features of any underwater set up is the lens. Personally I prefer a wide angle lens, but some photographers love the unusual tiny critters you find underwater and opt for a macro lens. Whichever you choose (and both are available), you need to get the right sort of port to go onto the housing. Wide angle lenses require a dome port and macro lenses require a flat port. More expensive housings allow you to change ports so you can swap photographic disciplines between dives or snorkels.
One thing I haven’t touched on yet is light. Underwater light is a problem. The light spectrum fades unequally with reds disappearing first followed by yellows and then greens. Before you get too far underwater all you are left with is blue and images look very murky and uninteresting. Filters can remove the blue and, therefore, allow the remnants of other colours to come through, which is good for underwater landscapes of shipwrecks, but no use in areas of shadow. However, underwater strobes (as the flashguns are called) are expensive, difficult to use and can and do flood. But they are invaluable pieces of kit and can be used to great effect to highlight subjects and create a mood and look particular to individual photographers.
“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” said the war photographer Robert Capa and he was right and doubly right when underwater. The best tip I can give for taking underwater pictures is to have it look like the subject is too big in the frame, then it’ll be just right.
The aim for a good underwater picture is to be as close to your subject as possible. Water holds particles, plankton, silt and sand. The more distance between the subject and your camera, the more of those particles get in the way reducing clarity and colour and create a phenomenon known as backscatter. To do that effectively means you need a wide angle lens. Many DSLR users opt for fisheye lenses so they can get close and still see a huge amount in the frame. You don’t need to be that severe, but anything above a 20mm on a full frame camera is not wide enough.
When shooting macro, look at true macro lenses (those than can produce 1:1 ration images.
Nudibranchs, small sea slugs, are incredibly colourful and are found in vitutally every sea around the world. There are whole groups of underwater photographers who do nothing else except search for these tiny creatures. These two are about 2cm long.
I could write a book about underwater photography so don’t have space here to give you every bit of detail, but I hope I’ve sparked your interest to find out more. Underwater photography, like other forms is so much easier now, so there’s no excuse for not giving it a try.