46 Secrets to Improving your Underwater Photography

I recently received the following question via my website asking for some secrets to improving underwater photography, and as I started to compile the list, I thought that I would share a few of my secrets with you.

…” I just purchased a Canon G12 and the WP-DC34 underwater housing for it. I am an experienced diver, I have decided to get into underwater photography and was amazed by your photos and video with the Canon G12.. I was wondering if you could share some secrets and pointers for my upcoming trip to Belize. I would love to return with some quality video and photos…. hoping your insight could give me an edge. Thanks, Lowell”…..

Thanks Lowell for the great question.

I sat down and started to make a list. It got quite long (some people have written whole books on this subject), so I have tried not to get too carried away.

Some of these secrets are scattered around in previous posts, and I have tried to keep my list to a few key points. Some points relate specifically to the Canon Powershot G12 (which I also own), but most points are general and relate to all cameras that can be used for underwater photography.

Canon Powershot G11 inside wp-dc34 underwater housing

Before the Dive

My list starts before the dive, as I am a big believer in preparing things correctly allows you to be more relaxed during the dive, which in turn allows you to take better pictures.

  • Be Familiar with your gear – Practise with your camera equipment as much as you can on land to get to grips with the various modes and functions. During the dive is not the time to learn a new camera function, and the fish will not wait around while you try and figure it out.

Preparing for the trip:-

  • Make sure to take your battery charger and any relevant power adaptors.
  • Take enough memory cards to cover the period of your trip. I use 4GB SanDisk Extreme SD cards, with one card enough to last me a day of 3 dives with stills and video. I like to use smaller size memory cards, and a different one each day. That way if something goes wrong, I will only lose one day worth of images and not the whole week.
  • Review other peoples images – Grab a few dive magazines for reading on the way to your destination and have a look at the images. Try to work out the techniques used to create them. Likewise have a look on the web for images of the destination.
  • Do not forget your certification card. You may laugh at this one, but a really high number of people get to their destination without a certification card, and risk not being able to dive.

Preparing your camera housing – View my post “My obsession with preparing and cleaning my underwater housing” for more tips on preparing your underwater housing, but some key points are:-

  • Carefully prepare your housing. Do not rush it. I generally take around 20 minutes to prepare my dive and camera equipment. And I do it the same way each time so I do not forget anything. If you rush this stage you run the risk of a leak during the dive, which would really put a dampener on your week.
  • Use your plastic dive certification card to remove the housing o-ring for inspection. Do not use anything sharp or pointed that could damage the o-ring.
  • Make sure your o-ring has no cuts or depressions and is clear of sand and hair.
  • Make sure your housing lens is clean and clear of dust and marks.
  • Use silica gel packs in your camera housing to absorb any condensation.
  • Test the assembled housing in the sink or bath to make sure you have no leaks. Push the buttons and move the knobs 6-8 times to check they are not leaking.
  • Use the wrist strap for your camera housing and not the neck strap. You do not want anything around your neck when you are underwater.

On the Boat

  • Do not leave the camera in the sun. It is preferable to put the camera in a bucket or tank of water if one is available. Many boats have these now, and they help to reduce condensation and allow the housing to equalize in temperature with the water.
  • Be careful of other camera systems in the bucket that may scratch your housing lens. I like to put protection over the lens to stop any scratching. I saw someone once use an old thick sock. I have been toying with using a cut-off neoprene beer cooler.
  • If available, I like to use Soft-soap or liquid soap to keep any suntan lotion build-up off the lens between dives.

Fish on a tropical coral reef
Fish on a tropical coral reef.

In the Water – Camera Settings

Everyone has their own preferred settings that differ from camera to camera, but here are a few or mine and the reasons I use them:-

General camera settings:-

  • RAW – I like to shoot in RAW mode, as it gives me a lot more data to play with at a later date. If you have access to image processing software such as Adobe Lightroom , Adobe Photoshop  or other image processing software, I recommend photographing RAW mode. If you do not have processing software, shot in JPEG or RAW+JPEG mode.
  • ISO – I like to set my ISO around 200. The G12 has improved noise performance over previous models and ISO 200 is fairly good. With less light underwater you want as high an ISO as possible, but not going so high as to degrade the quality of the image.
  • Shooting mode – Most of my stills images are shot in Aperture Priority (AV) mode, or Manual (M) mode. AV mode allows me to choose the depth of my focus in the image, and I typically use an aperture setting of around 5.6 or 6.3.
  • Metering mode – For macro and close up shots I prefer to use Centre Weighted average metering mode, which gives greater weight to the exposure metering around the centre area of the screen. I find the Evaluative mode does not deal well with shadows and areas of high contrast underwater, but it is OK for scenic or wide angle shots.
  • Exposure compensation – My G12 camera tends to expose to the right underwater which in turn can cause the highlights to be washed-out, so I use a -1/3 exposure compensation.
  • I setup the preview mode with the new HOLD setting. This way I just have to press the shutter button and the preview of the last taken image goes away allowing me to quickly take another photo, without having to wait the normal 2 to 5 seconds while the subject has swam away.
  • I set the Review Mode to DETAILED, which allows me to look at the histogram of the image that was taken, and make sure it is OK. Ideally I am looking for all the histogram levels to be distributed across the range, and not bunched up at one end. The trick to remember is that the histogram is a representation of a JPEG version of your image, so leave a little space at either side for the RAW image.
  • In the Live Preview /Display Information, I turn on the Grid lines to help me with composition, and the histogram for checking the exposure is correct.

White balance: – I photograph everything using custom white balance.

  • I use the C1 white balance setting, and regularly reset the white balance at different depths throughout the dive. If you do not reset the white balance at different depths, your picture will get redder as you get shallower, or bluer as you get deeper.
  • The nice thing about the C1 setting is that if I flick from still photography to video in the G12, the same white balance settings are retained and automatically applied to the video.
  • Use a white slate or your hand as a reference for setting the white balance.

In the Water- Technique

Scott Gietler at www.uwphotographyguide.com has put together some good information on technique in his Underwater Photography Composition page .

Some tips I have learned from experience are:-

  • Buoyancy – As an experienced diver you know the importance of good buoyancy. You will find this even more important as you get into photography, and try to keep steady mid-water while taking a photograph or video. The more you zoom out, the more noticeable any movement will be.

Note the direction of the light –

  • Ideally you want the sun at your back to light a subject.
  • If you are swimming along a wall, and the sun is on the other side of the wall, everything will appear dark and contrasty to your camera.
  • Swimming into the sun, the light will be falling behind you, so do not forget to turn around and check out the view for possible photos with the best colour and lighting.

Volitans lionfish or Red Firefish (Pterois Volitans)
Volitans lionfish or Red Firefish (Pterois Volitans)

Photograph creatively:-

  • Get low to the subject so you are shooting up, and not shooting down.
  • Get close to the subject. If you think you are close get closer. I see too many divers trying to take a photo 2 meters away from a subject, when they could be 10cm away.
  • Learn and observe as much as you can about the marine life. The more you learn, the more you will get a feel for how close you can get without causing stress or harm to the animal or yourself. I just recently learned how to find fish cleaning stations, and now like to look for the anemone cleaning shrimp. Learning about the marine life is part of the fun of underwater photography.
  • Take your time diving. The slower you move and the more relaxed you are, and the more subjects you will find.
  • Do not be afraid to try and photograph from strange angles. Remember being underwater is a three dimensional environment. I often photograph swimming on my side or even upside down.
  • Focus on the animal’s eye – Most people are drawn to the eye of an animal in a photograph, so you want this in focus.
  • Use the s-button for more control – Using the camera in an underwater housing can limit access to some of the buttons. The Canon Powershot G10, G11 and G12 have an S button that can be used to implement the control dial functions while the camera is in the underwater housing. See my post “How to use the Canon G11 control Dial in an underwater housing” .
  • When the visibility is low, try looking for macro or video subjects. Macro and video tends to be less susceptible to low visibility conditions.
  • Dive at shallower depths. Most of the coral grows in the top 18m/60 feet, and most of the fish and turtles like to hang out around the top of the reef. I like to spend a lot of my dive above 10m. This also means I have a wider angle of view when looking for subjects below me. Do not forget to look up occasionally.

Some other tips worth checking out from Scott are:-

After the Dive

  • Make sure to rinse your equipment and put the housing some place out of the sun to dry. Check there is no sand or hair on the o-ring.

Protect your images –

  • I travel with a laptop and a backup hard drive, downloading my images each night and making a copy.
  • If you do not have a laptop, remove your SD card of images from the day, and put it somewhere secure. It is usually not a good idea to put it in your bags, as if the bags are stolen, you have lost everything.
  • Likewise- when travelling home carry the SD cards on your person, and not in your luggage.

Review your images:-

  • Review your images at the end of each day. This is the best and quickest way to learn, and you will be surprised how fast you improve. I use my laptop to review images, but with most cameras now you can also review them on a TV using the AV cable, or in the worst case on the screen on the back of the camera.

In Conclusion

Despite all the information above, the two biggest secrets to improving your underwater photography are:-

  • Practise, practise, and practise. The more you shoot, the more you learn, and the better you get.
  • Have fun. Enjoying what you are doing will help you make better underwater photographs.

I hope this post has been helpful. Feel free to leave any extra secrets to underwater photography below in the comments section if you have one that I have missed.

Recommended resources for further reading:-

Carl Chapman