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Underwater Photography

by | Apr 8, 2019

Strawberry Anemone

Underwater photography is something near and dear to my heart. There’s nothing like experiencing the world beneath the surface of the ocean. It’s a privilege to be able to capture it through a lens.

I left a 25-year computer industry career in 2004 and struck out on my own to explore the world outside of corporations, cubicles and conference rooms, and to discover and develop other talents I knew I had.

At the time, I was a divemaster and made the 75-mile drive from San Jose to Monterey almost every weekend to work with my instructor and his students. I was a scuba diving fanatic. My wife and I had been making at least one trip a year to exotic dive locations in Mexico, Fiji, the Galapagos Islands, and the Solomon Islands.

Photography was also an important part of my life. My father gave me an old Asahi Pentax Spotmatic when I was 14 and I’ve been looking at the world through a viewfinder ever since.

It was only natural that I would eventually combine my love of photography with my love of scuba diving. I started with the Olympus C-series cameras with underwater housings and strobes, and eventually moved up to a Nikon D-100 DSLR. In the early 2000s, DSLRs and digital photography were fairly new, but I had an advantage in technical ability, having just left a career in computers.

Underwater photography is very different from photography on land. The same physics of light and optics apply, but you’re shooting in a medium that is denser than air, where objects appear about 33% larger, or about 25% closer, and there are particulates suspended all around you.

Light also changes as you go deeper. It’s like swimming in a giant prism. You lose reds almost immediately upon leaving the surface. Blood looks green at around 60 feet. By the time you reach 80 feet or so, the world looks pretty gray.

To overcome these challenges, here are some tips I’ve acquired over the years.

Be a Good Diver

First and foremost, get your scuba diving down. In particular, your buoyancy control needs to be excellent. You can’t make good photographs if your arms and legs are flailing around and you’re trying to maintain stability or trim. Breath control is also an important factor. You’re a big wheezy interloper in the underwater realm and more likely to scare away the creatures you’re trying to capture than anything.

It also goes without saying that you should get your photography down. Get a good grasp on the exposure triangle, and really know the gear you’re bringing down with you. Often, you’ll be pressing buttons and turning dials by feel, perhaps in near darkness, so it needs to be second nature. Know whether you’re trying to get wide or macro shots before you jump off the boat. You can’t change lenses underwater, and not all housings allow you to use your zoom.

Try Not To Touch Anything

There’s a phrase you hear divemasters all over the world say in one form or another: “Touch nothing and leave only bubbles.” It’s good advice in any context. You should respect the underwater environment you’re in and not make a negative impact on it if at all possible. It’s challenging when you’re wielding a big camera rig with bright strobes, trying to get good shots of delicate creatures hiding in breakable coral, all the while trying not to hit anything with your fins or smash yourself against habitats in a surge. But always keep in mind, you’re the guest. Everything around you lives down here. Don’t mess up their homes.

Get Close To Your Subject, Within Reason

To overcome the challenge of light losing its colors as you go deeper, you rely on your strobes a lot. A nice pop of light from your strobes can bring back some of those brilliant colors you wouldn’t otherwise see at depth. Often, it’s not until I see a photo on the screen that I fully realize the actual color of the creature I was shooting.

It’s also important to get close because of the particulates in the water between you and your subject, otherwise knows as “backscatter.” The farther you are from your subject, the more backscatter you’ll encounter. Speaking of which, all the basic rules of lighting in photography apply here, but with a twist. If the light bounces off your subject directly into your lens, chances are your shot will be filled with backscatter. Try to position your strobes at angles so the light is reflected away from you.

Again, though, respect the environment and the creatures that live in it. Get close, but within reason. Some creatures can be sensitive to high-intensity light, and many species come with rules for their protection. For example, NOAA suggests keeping a respectful distance of 10 feet (3 meters) from Green Sea Turtles.

Use Wider Angle Lenses To Capture Subjects Closer Up

It might seem counterintuitive, but because objects appear about 33% larger, or about 25% closer underwater, you may need to get closer to your subject with a wider angle lens, depending on your desired composition.

Expose For The Background

Often, when making photographs underwater, the background can be as important to your overall frame as your subject. Adjust your aperture, shutter speed and strobes accordingly.