Digital cameras are everywhere these days, especially those compact varieties that fit in your pocket or purse. You can take it everywhere – and with an underwater housing, now you can take it underwater too! However, you may have come home from a recent dive trip disappointed in the overwhelming blue hue saturating your photos. The goal here is to provide a few tips and techniques – in plain English – to help you get some satisfying shots.
1. You’ve got to use the right tool for the job. That compact digital might take awesome high-resolution photos on land, but the underwater environment throws in a few additional challenges that we need to deal with in order to get a good shot. Compact cameras are usually more suited to macro shots and fish close-ups. To capture that wide-angle reef scene in any color other than blue, you need a wide angle lens and probably an external strobe. Going after shots suited to the equipment you are using will yield more successful results making you a happier diver.
2. Slow down. It is extremely difficult to find a subject, avoid scaring it away, compose your shot, and take the picture when you are swimming a million miles an hour around the reef. Especially when shooting macro, focus on one or two coral heads and find those cleaner shrimp, arrow crabs, and nudibranchs. Close-ups of fish eyes or faces make for interesting abstract shots too. Take several pictures of the same subject and pay attention to composition.
3. Built-in flashes are evil. Do you have a bunch of backscatter in your shots ruining that otherwise perfect picture? The culprit is that built-in flash. On compact digital cameras the flash is located so close to the lens that it illuminates any particles that are in the water, and then your camera records all that backscatter at 10+ megapixels! How do you avoid this? There are a couple of options. You can either stay shallow and shoot with ambient light (no flash) and a color correcting filter, or you can get an external strobe and angle it at about 45 degrees above and to the side of your subject so those particles in the water are illuminated from the side, not the front. You may need to do a little creative engineering to sync your strobe to your camera. You will also need to cover or deflect the built-in flash so it does not affect your shot. If your housing does not come with an attachment to cover or deflect the built-in flash, duct tape also works great for this purpose.
4. Get close. You think you’re close to your subject? You probably need to be closer. Three feet or less is ideal. Why? You need to be close because water absorbs light. You already know this from your regular diving – as you descend through the water column, the water absorbs the reds and oranges from the ambient light, and you are left with cooler colors, such as blue. Well, the same principle applies horizontally through the water. The light from your strobe has to travel to the subject, illuminate it, and then travel back to your camera lens. If you are more than a few feet away from your subject, the light is simply absorbed, and that strobe is just as good as dragging dead weight around. Also keep in mind the effect of refraction. Water makes an object appear 33% larger and 25% closer (4:3 ratio), so what appears to be three feet away is actually four feet away. Unfortunately strobes don’t care about refraction, so you have to get a little closer than you think in order to properly illuminate your subject.
5. Think about composition. Fish tails do not make for interesting photos, even if it is the tail of the rarest fish on Earth. Shoot at upward angles, rather than looking down on your subject…and stop chasing those fish! Follow the Rule of Thirds for visually pleasing photographs.
6. Stay off the bottom! Buoyancy is key in diving, especially when taking underwater photos. By maintaining neutral buoyancy, you will avoid stirring up sand or silt in the water column, thereby keeping the water as clear as possible and helping to minimize backscatter issues. You also won’t be labeled as “one of those” photographers who plants themselves on the reef, damaging coral and disturbing reef creatures, while trying to get the perfect shot. No photograph is worth damaging our beautiful and fragile reefs and wrecks.
I hope these tips help. These are just some of the practices I have followed over ten years of underwater photography. I’ve used both compact digital cameras and digital SLRs, and have gotten very nice results with both. Remember, the only way to get good at underwater photography is to take underwater photographs. And take lots of them! Practice taking photos on land. Get to know the features, functions, (and limitations) of your camera, and you will find that underwater photography can be extremely rewarding!
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