on 30 Sep 2021
Taking home memorable images from an undersea adventure takes a bit of special equipment and a lot of practice. Hong Kong-based scuba instructor and veteran underwater photography coach Simon Lorenz runs through the basics of capturing the underwater realm
“Now smile!” – underwater lighting and patience are key requirements to get amazing results
When we don our snorkel or scuba gear, we enter a magical world that’s often beyond mere words to describe. Above water, we can just snap away with our cell phones. The beauty we see underwater is harder to capture.
What equipment to use, how to capture the essence of the wildlife and how to make it into a nice, frameable photo are important questions. People can struggle for years to get their first decent underwater shots. But stick to some key principles, and it can be a lot easier. You may even find an Instagram following with your underwater photos.
The essence of a good underwater shot is a combination of many factors
Underwater photography is all about the absence of light. If you have taken photos during gloomy evening hours, you will already know the challenges of low light conditions – the same applies to underwater photography. As soon as the sunlight hits the water, it immediately loses intensity. In turbid or hazy water, this effect is even stronger. Photographers need to manage the loss of light and the deeper they go, the bigger the challenge.
With greater depth, the bright colours of animals and continuously fade, making beginner underwater photographs seem monotonous in greens and blues. The reds and oranges that we need to take a picture of a colourful coral, for example, disappear after just a few metres of water depth. An underwater flash or strobe is therefore a required piece of kit so that the light travels through water only a short distance.
When taking underwater photos, we need to deal with these two challenges and make the most out of the situation using the right equipment in smart ways.
With greater depth, the bright colours of animals and continuously fade, making beginner underwater photographs seem monotonous in greens and blues
Using underwater lighting will make your subjects’ colours stand out
These days, smart built-in filters in compact cameras or GoPros can help to recreate the reds, oranges, and yellows that we lose underwater. Simple software like the dive.plus app can add those red colours after a dive. But these images are grainy and still pretty flat.
Because of the low light conditions, we need cameras that have powerful sensors and can shoot high quality images. A number of modern, compact cameras already provide this option. The Sony RX100 is probably the most powerful compact camera for underwater photography. Cameras are placed in housings made of either cost-effective polycarbonate or long-lasting aluminium.
To create colourful images, we also need to add artificial light sources to replenish the spectral colours. Almost all underwater photography is made with the use of artificial light unless it is done close to the surface or in extremely clear water.
Patience is needed to get great photos of even the biggest underwater animals
Video light is an option, but a flash creates the crispest, most colourful and sharpest photos. You also need special arms to have flexibility in light orientation, and an optical cable to be able to connect the camera and flash.
Using an external flash, or strobe as we call it, takes a lot of practice. Do it right and you will have beautifully lit subjects. Do it wrong and you will end up with blurry pictures with tons of backscatter – floating particles that look like snow all over the image. This happens when the strobe shines directly into the water around the subject, lighting up floating particles.
It is why we counter-intuitively need to point the strobe away from the subject. The golden rules are: 1) position the strobe slightly behind the camera and 2) point the centre of the strobe at an angle slightly away from the subject. We are only using the “fringe light” of the strobe, not the core.
A good photo is about storytelling as well as aesthetics
Tell a story
Now that you have kitted yourself out with a camera, strobe and lighting cables, you are ready to dive down and start taking photos. A good photo is about storytelling as well as aesthetics. Photos should take the viewer on a journey, allowing them to marvel at the underwater world.
Rather than just capturing an animal in a frame, we should try to capture some of its behaviour or habitat. What is more interesting – a picture of a colourful clownfish or a picture of a two clownfish living with in an anemone? The more the picture can tell us about the subject, the better. Story elements can be interactions between animals, the way they live, hunt, sleep, or mate. We can also create a story by placing a diver into the photo – an easy way to create the story of human interacting with wildlife.
The impact of poor lighting (left) versus good lighting (right)
Know your subjects
The key to photography is knowing what you are shooting. When you see an animal for the first time and don’t know how it behaves, it is hard to tell a story. With experience this gets easier. So, what should you do when you see an animal for the first time?
Before rushing in to shoot an image, remain at a distance and observe the behaviour at first. Is the animal feeding, hunting, grooming or just relaxing? This also gives the animal time to get used to you. Animals are wary of anyone or anything rushing in on them; even a giant whale will take off when something is approaching too fast. Take your time and observe.
Another trick is to learn about the animals of an area in advance, so you know what you might encounter and can think about how you might want to capture the animals. Having a mental shot plan helps when making photographic decisions during an encounter.
By becoming familiar with an area, you can work out which animals you might encounter in advance
Framing and arrangement
By framing the photo correctly, the viewers’ eye is guided to what we want them to see, be it the eye of an octopus or the teeth of a shark. We want viewers to immediately notice these things.
Framing only works if we are eye-level with the subject. Yet, divers want to avoid touching the bottom, which means the photographic angle underwater is often facing down. On land, no one takes pictures of the tops of peoples’ heads – we want to see peoples’ faces. To get eye-level underwater means having good buoyancy and picking good places to shoot, such as a slope or a reef, which lets the photographer be lower than the subject.
Getting eye-level with underwater subjects requires good buoyancy
By observing the basic rule of thirds (the concept of mentally dividing an image into nine parts, three horizontal parts by three vertical parts) and placing the animal off centre, you create a more balanced photo and room for background (we call it negative space). The main element the viewer is supposed to see should be placed around the four crosshairs of the nine parts. If you put your subject in the middle of the photo, there is no room for background and surroundings.
When you take photos of animals, make sure to get the entire animal in frame. Missing fins, flippers or webbed toes are a stylistic nightmare. Try to avoid taking pictures from the side, which makes a very flat image. Preferably, an animal should look towards the photographer. When you manage to do that, try to create space for the animal in its viewing direction, so it does not look like it is looking out of your frame. This all takes a bit of practice, so it is good to start with stationary creatures, like burrowing fish, crabs or shrimp.
Using open space helps to create movement in an image
Animals are wary of anyone or anything rushing in on them; even a giant whale will take off when something is approaching too fast. Take your time and observe
The real fun is to make the image look artistic. Try to find forms – fish can look very elegant in certain angles. Schools of fish, large corals or a sunken wreck all provide interesting forms to play with. It helps if the images are not too busy, so it is better to take photos against the blue of the ocean rather than the messy background of a reef.
Sunlight and shadows are another great way to make photography interesting. Play with symmetry and motion to spice up your images. Shooting upwards against the sun can create very interesting photos!
Photos taken from below can create interesting forms
Dive skills with a camera
For a good photo your hands need to be steady, so hold the camera straight out in front of you with both hands. Don’t start taking pictures before you have control over your buoyancy, or you will end up kicking the reef and disturbing the wildlife as well as getting shaky pictures. Most photographers chose a wing BCD to give them naturally more horizontal buoyancy. Try to come to a full stand-still before taking any shots.
This also applies if you are snorkelling or freediving. Try using weights to hold a position while staying horizontal.
When taking photos of smaller animals, it can be challenging hold the camera still while hovering above the reef. In these situations, try making a tripod with your fingers on rock, sand or dead coral, to stabilise your camera.
Avoid damaging wildlife by never taking photos until you have your buoyancy under control
Editing and camera settings
Shooting perfect images underwater is hard, so go ahead and do some fine tuning on the computer to unlock the full potential of your images.
Always shoot in RAW format, which means that all pixels are available for editing. A JPG is already pre-edited and compressed, which gives less “room” for editing. You can also improve your underwater photos by adjusting your white balance in the camera to the specific light and water colour conditions of your dive. You only need to do this once; the fine-tuning can be done on the computer.
The most commonly used software is Adobe Lightroom, but there are other solutions. Mainly you want to adjust lighting and darkness and tune the colours to make them pop. You can add some sharpness to the image which is lost due to photographing underwater. Then just export and post to Facebook or Instagram and be a star!
About the writer
Simon Lorenz is an underwater photographer and an author for magazines and speaker at events with a focus on marine life and underwater photography. His travel company Insider Divers offers expert guided trips around the aquatic world providing photography coaching on site.