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Understanding Underwater Photography

The world’s oceans are full of intriguing life forms and natural beauty, but photographing underwater may seem daunting due to the need for specialised waterproof equipment and safety concerns. We wrote this guide to navigate you through these topics, as well as throwing in some essential shooting techniques to get you started.

Gear Up

Admittedly, an underwater housing unit can cost quite a lot upfront if you are eyeing a high quality one for your DSLR or mirrorless camera, but it is likely to last for a long time. Just a reminder that these housings are custom-made to each camera model, down to every single button, so it is unlikely that a housing unit can be used on an undedicated camera. So, do take that into account and pick your favourite camera before taking the plunge.

Dive In

Photographing underwater is a craft unto itself, and there is a lot to consider compared to shooting on land. Water absorbs lights of longer wavelength, i.e. warmer colours, so your photos taken from a distance underwater would inevitably look blue.

This is why the first and most important technique to remember is to get close and use a flash. It is recommended to be at most 1 metre away from the subject, ideally even closer, to reduce the distance that light has to travel through water. Turning on flash is almost mandatory to give the subject much-needed colour richness, unless you are in shallow waters where daylight permeates.

Another related tip is to bring an external strobe light. The convenient internal flash can sit too close to the lens, causing reflection from water particles, often tarnishing the picture with white specks, an effect known as backscattering. This can be minimised by positioning the strobe light away from the camera.

In general, you will want to have your ISO as low as possible (since you would be using a light source) and shoot on eye level, of or from below the subject, to make a nice spatial composition. Remember, these are just some rules of thumb for when you are starting out, so don’t be afraid to experiment, get creative and go with the flow!

Safety Underwater

With all that being said, before the actual dive, one needs to be aware of the inherent safety issues of underwater activities, of which a diving course should get you covered well. One vital rule we like to highlight is to keep breathing. While this does not sound like a particularly daunting task, some photographers have the habit of holding their breath when taking pictures. Whether this is done on purpose to stabilise yourself to take a picture, or unintentionally as a tic, unreleased air within our lungs while descending or ascending would succumb to changing pressure, and can cause decompression sickness, or worse, lung overexpansion injuries. Please keep breathing!

Aside from this, practice in a swimming pool and rest well prior to the trip, listen to your divemaster, take your time at the safety stops, and most importantly, know your limits. Many diving trips await to expand your aquatic photo collection.