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A Beginner's Guide To Underwater Photography

Updated on June 9, 2008

The Basics

Underwater photography is a unique field. Many divers find that their diving experience is improved ten-fold once they have learnt the basics of underwater photography and are able to take a camera down with them to record the sights.

This particular type of photography requires some extra knowledge, however. Not only must you be proficient in the basic operation of a camera, you must also be able to tackle the unique environment and all of the new variables that this entails.

Know Your Equipment

First off, it is important to remember that you will require some special equipment if you wish to take photos on a dive, or while snorkelling. There are a number of options available in this field. Separate waterproof shells are now available for many commercial ‘point-and-shoot' digital cameras. Indeed, these are going down in price all the time; they are likely to set you back around $200.

However, while these are sufficient if you wish only to take snapshots, you are likely to find that cameras of this type produce sub-standard results as they are not designed for underwater use.

Underwater photography presents a number of unique problems. Amongst these is the magnifying nature of water. When you take a photograph in water, you will find that everything appears larger in the viewfinder than it would if you were on land. This is because water magnifies by nature.

As a result, you are likely to need a wider angle lens than that which you would normally use. Point-and-shoot cameras frequently do not offer sufficient width. As such, you may well find that you need to use an SLR with a wide-angle lens to produce the best results.

Cheaper options for housed digital SLR

Currently there are no SLRs available that come ready-packaged for underwater use - at least not affordably. There are, however, a number of options for the protection of your gear. Some specialist companies now make casing for SLRs, but you will need to know the dimensions of your lens before you buy. This is a fairly expensive option.

Alternatively, it is now possible to buy special waterproof plastic bags into which any camera will fit. These bags have watertight metal closures to ensure that water does not seep in. Many underwater photographers have found, however, that this is not a valid option for depths over around 30 feet, as the pressure exerted renders the camera inoperable; the bag shrinks around the camera to such a degree that the lens is not movable. If you are just snorkelling, or shallow diving, however, a specialist watertight bag may well be the best option.

It should also be noted that underwater photography poses problems for exposure and saturation. When you view your images you may well find that the colours are ‘muddy' and indistinct; this is because, while your eyes adjust fairly quickly to the blue tint, your camera will not.

This can frequently be fixed with the creative use of some image editing software; you may wish to read the articles on digital processing elsewhere on this site for some help with ensuring that your final images are as successful as possible.

Waterproof Digital Cameras for Underwater Photography

The Basic Rules

Before you bother with anything anything more specific about diving with a camera, you should learn the basic rules for taking photos underwater. These rules are not unique to any particular camera of course but they must be learned. Every website, book and conversation on the subject explains these rules but no one seems to learn until they've produced a bunch of bad photos. Before you do anything else to improve your photos, tattoo these basic rules to the back of your hand and refer to them often. No camera currently available can produce good photos if you don't follow the basic rules.

1. Get close

Hands down, the most common mistake made by new underwater photographers is shooting from too far away. Light going through water loses its colors which is why all beginners (and many not-so-beginners) come home with hazy blue photos of nearly everything.

The answer of course is to bring your own light in the form of a flash (strobe). Even strobe light however, can only penetrate a few feet before it becomes blue-green.

Remember: Getting closer will very likely improve your photos more than anything else you can do.

2. Get low and aim up:

The reason for this is more art and less science than the 'get close' rule. This is because aiming the camera up so that all or part of the background is open water or the surface just and simply produces a more attractive photo. As an example, the following image is of a very cool subject, a banded sea snake, but it's still a fairly unappealing photo because the background is...well...dirt.

Getting below a subject like this one is often not possible, and in fact, isn't always required for a good shot. However, it's a good rule to follow most of the time for better composition.

3. Evaluate and be critique

This part is a wonderful balance of art and tech. This is really just looking at your photos and figuring out what's wrong with them both technically and artistically. This isn't quite as simple as it sounds. Most people can say "I like it" or "that sucks", but saying why is sometimes a challenge. It's even more of a challenge to say "I like it but it could be better". As I said earlier, I'll leave the details of this for other people to explain but take my word for it, you won't get better if you don't do this. With some shots, deciding what could improve will be a no-brainer, with others it'll be very difficult. With a little luck maybe you'll end up with some that have no room for improvement.

A book that is widely accepted as "the bible" of composition and one that I highly recommend is "Jim Church's Essential Guide to Composition" By Jim Church.

Note: A good reason to learn to evaluate your photos is that with a digital system, you'll do it almost immediately after every photo you take. If you know what you want and what a good shot should look like, you can know instantly if you need to try again.

4. Get the light right

Unless you're taking a silhouette shot the strobe ABSOLUTELY MUST light up the subject. This means you must have the strobe turned on, aimed correctly, and close enough to the subject to do some good (see rule #1). Getting the light right is a bit more involved and is covered elsewhere, but for the purpose of this page, just trust me that understanding flash photography is critical.

If you really try to improve, you'll get better with each dive trip so hopefully you'll come home impressed with your photos. You have a fun challenge ahead of you to learn how to appreciate your photos but still try to make them better. I was happy with the first photos I ever took and I'm happy with my most recent, but the differences between them is fairly substantial.

Buy the best system you're willing to afford that will accept,

After you decide what type of system you want and what you're willing to spend, you'll have to narrow it down to a particular camera, housing, strobe, etc. I'm in no position to make that decision for anyone but myself of course, so I suggest you do some research on the popular underwater photography related websites before you buy. There's a lot more opinion than hard fact available, so take what you read with great care. Whatever you buy, you'll be limited at first by you're skills more than by the camera though it'll be tempting to blame it on the camera. However you don't want to reach the limits of the camera too soon and end up wanting an upgrade.

So here's what I suggest to the complete beginner: Buy the best system you're willing to afford that will accept, at a minimum, an external strobe should you want to add one later. That gives you the opportunity to take some photos with the camera's built-in flash and get familiar with the system, then add on later.

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