Underwater Shooting Tips

There is an enormous amount of written material on how to shoot underwater pictures. I know, because I’ve purchased almost all of it and actually read most of it. Some, like Jim Church’s Nikonos System and his book on composition, I studied like a textbook. In others, I picked out pictures I liked and studied the camera settings to try and duplicate the shots (usually unsuccessfully).

Straightforward tips like “Don’t light the water in front of the subject” and “Get close and then when you think you are close enough, get closer” are a couple of the obvious biggies. Another one is shoot a lot of images… no, I mean really a lot. This is how you learn. Early on, I was ecstatic if I got one shot on an entire roll in focus and reasonably well lit. You would shoot a roll, come home and then wait a few days until you got the slides back. The anticipation would turn to disappointment when you realized you had made the same mistake on all 36 shots. You would think back to what you did wrong and then store that little piece of information in your memory bank and try not to make that same mistake again.

If I was really organized (only occasionally), I would write down the camera settings I used and then on the next dive, make the necessary adjustments. One of the things I did early on and something I still see novice photographers do is find a really cool subject and take only one shot and then move on. They’re frustrated when they find that once in a lifetime subject is completely dark, or out of focus, or suffers from any number of other misfortunes that can befall an image. Every photo pro out there will tell you to bracket, bracket, bracket. This is the act of shooting multiple images of the same subject and altering the camera settings and strobe placement for each shot. This will increase your odds of getting one good shot out of the whole bunch. I have often spent an entire roll or half of a 1 gig card shooting one subject. The whole trial and error process takes some effort but hey, you’re in the water and taking pictures. Honestly, how much work can that be?

I found that photo oriented, live-aboard dive trips that offer photo processing to be invaluable. After every dive, they process your film and you get almost instant feedback. Another helpful aspect to these types of trips is you get to dive with experts. Like almost any other sport or activity, if you do it with someone more skilled than you, you learn much more quickly. Things like watching how the pros place their strobes and getting feedback and suggestions on your images really speeds up the learning process.

One of the things I have discovered is how the placement of your strobes influences the look of the picture. Whether you use one strobe or two, varying the intensity and placement can dramatically change the personality of the image. I try and use them almost like paint brushes, adding color, creating shadows or creating translucency in an opaque subject. Using just one strobe can also increase the dramatic impact of an image by creating shadows and depth.

One of the things I think is extremely important is the personality of the image. Is it just a picture or does it convey a feeling? You can shoot a top view of a nudibranch and it will be easily identifiable as a nudibranch. It might be perfectly exposed and tack sharp but it won’t convey anything about the animal. Now shoot the same animal from down low, shooting a quarter angle upward, trying to fill the frame with its head and Rhinophores. Even if the entire animal is not in focus, you can convey movement and personality from this kind of shot. Think of the wide angle shots that made an impression. Was the photographer shooting down on a subject from several feet away or was he (or she) up close, shooting upward, including maybe a sun ball or lots of blue water with a secondary subject in the shot? I try and think of the kinds of images that made an impression and identify what I liked about the shot and then try and use a similar approach.

Now that digital has replaced film, there are quite a few companies manufacturing housings for a wide variety of digital cameras. There are also “point and shoot” underwater digital cameras available. The value in digital cameras as a learning tool is simply huge. The learning curve shortens exponentially. You take one shot, look at the image and then make the camera and strobe adjustments and shoot again. You simply repeat the process until you get the shot you want. The only down side to these types of cameras (especially for those of us whose eyes are not as young as they used to be) can be the small screens to view your images although the screens are getting larger on the newer model cameras. When shooting a digital SLR, you’re focusing through the viewfinder. Some of them are pretty small so shooting on manual focus can be a challenge. When composing using the digital view-finder you pretty much have to rely on the autofocus and assume they’re in focus because critical focus adjustments are out of the question (at least for my eyes). The upside is that things like exposure and strobe placement can be dialed in perfectly. Add to that the high number of shots available on most storage media and digital cameras are the perfect learning tool.

I could blather on for pages with specific underwater photography tips but other people have already done that and frankly, they’ve done it far more effectively than I could hope to. My advice is to get out and dive with your camera, read some books, go on a photo oriented dive trip or two, and take some classes from the experts. The old trial and error process can lead to some interesting results and experience is still the best teacher out there.

Just one more thing… I want to say a word or two about diving skills. I spent ten years teaching scuba diving before I ever picked up an underwater camera. Diving is second nature to me so the addition of a camera was no big deal. Now I’m not advocating becoming an instructor before taking up underwater photography, I just want to stress the importance of good diving skills. This is both from a dive safety standpoint and a reef health standpoint. I shudder to think what could happen to the novice diver who after loading himself up with a lot of expensive photo equipment, got himself into a situation where he had to make the choice between his new $5000.00 toy and his life. It sounds silly, but I’ve seen panicked divers struggling to maintain buoyancy on the surface and reluctant to drop a $50.00 weight belt. Make sure you have a high comfort level underwater before venturing in with a camera in your hand.

The other aspect of good diving skills is the health of the reef system. More and more resorts are stressing the importance of buoyancy control as the reef systems suffer the impact of increased diver pressure. Occasionally, underwater photographers suffer increased scrutiny because of the perception that they will do whatever is necessary to get the shot even at the expense of a four hundred year old coral head. Good buoyancy control is essential but so is an awareness of your surroundings. Where are your fins in relation to some fragile Staghorn Coral? When you move, will you have to kick or can you simply inhale and gently lift yourself up. At the very least, excessive finning can kick up a sand storm and destroy the visibility for your buddy or worse yet cause serious damage to the reef.

A couple of years ago I was on a week long photo trip/contest at one of the more popular Caribbean Island resorts. On every dive boat, they had divemasters who brought along their own cameras. We thought how quaint, they’re going to take pictures of the contestants. Boy, were we wrong; their whole purpose was to record underwater photographers in the act of destroying the reefs. Their hope was to disqualify anyone captured on film coming in contact with the reef. I mention this only to illustrate how serious some dive resorts are about the health of their reef systems.

Underwater photography can be a tremendously rewarding sport. A word of caution though, it can be seriously addictive. It’s easy to measure your progress as you get better and its fun to dazzle your friends with your photographs and stories of your death-defying (just kidding) escapades under the sea. When I think about it, I guess the ability to share the fascinating underwater realm with others is really why I do this. Just make sure to have fun and be careful out there.

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