Wide-angle underwater photography is a lot of fun and is filled with exciting challenges. Sometimes, the infinite possibilities can be a bit overwhelming and budding photographers might be discouraged when trying to apply new techniques. Fortunately, there are a few camera settings that work well in most situations as well as a few rules that will help you achieve better images in any situation.
The ISO, aperture and shutter speed I choose for wide-angle photography can vary greatly depending on conditions. However, there are three camera settings that will serve you well as a starting point in the vast majority of conditions: ISO 400, f/8 and 1/125s. Consider ISO, aperture and shutter speed to be the three pillars of photography and your mastery of them paramount to creating good images. These settings are a good start in a variety of underwater conditions.
Starting ISO Setting
ISO is a measurement of how sensitive your camera is to available light. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive to light it is. When you are shooting underwater, there will not be as much available light (from the sun) as if you were shooting on land, so you will need your camera sensor to be more sensitive to the available light.
ISO 400 is a great starting point, as it is slightly elevated and will be more sensitive to available light, without incurring the digital noise found at higher ISOs. All current cameras will produce noise-free images at this ISO, and likely upwards of ISO 1600. Set your ISO first, as it is the least likely to change on a single dive.
A starting ISO of 400 will keep your dynamic range relatively wide and noise levels low, while still slightly increasing your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light
Starting Aperture Setting
Put simply, “aperture” is an opening in the lens. Known as “f” stops, the lower numbers mean a bigger opening, and the higher numbers mean a smaller opening. For example, an aperture of f/5.6 is a large opening in the lens and lets a lot of light in. An aperture of f/22 is a small opening and lets in only a little bit of light.
Mastering aperture will put a world of creativity in your toolbox, but for now set your camera to an aperture of f/8 or f/9. There’s an old photography saying, “f/8 and be there.” This will ensure you have a great enough depth of field, while also letting in much more light than more closed apertures.
Using an aperture of f/8 will provide enough depth of field in an image so that nearly all elements are in crisp, clear focus, even at different distances from the camera
Starting Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is exactly what it sounds like: The speed your shutter opens and then closes. These settings are in increments of fractions of a second. A setting of “1/125” means the shutter will only be open for 125th of a second. This speed is my “go-to” setting for wide-angle underwater photography.
Shooting at 1/125s is long enough to avoid underexposure, but quick enough (along with the use of strobes) to freeze the motion of a fast subject that might fly by.
You don’t want a blurry image of a rare encounter: That’s why it’s important to jump in with a quick shutter speed of 1/125s
Adjusting the Settings
Your camera is now prepared for some great underwater photography, but it is important to remember that all settings are affected by available light, visibility, choice of subject and the direction of the sun. The first and most important consideration is the sun. The sun can make or break your shot, so you should decide how you want to use it before you release the shutter. Keep the settings you have if the sun is at your back. Take a shot and look at it in the LCD. You are looking at the luminance of the water, not your subject.
The water should not be too dark, nor should it be so bright it lacks color. If it is too dark, you will need to let in more light. Any of the three “pillars” can be adjusted. You can try a higher ISO, or slower shutter speed, or open up the aperture more. If it is too bright, try a lower ISO, faster shutter speed, or smaller aperture. If you are interested in learning to shoot in manual exposure mode, make sure to check out our guide.
Pay attention to where the sun is. If you can keep it behind you, your initial settings will not have to change that much from subject to subject
These suggested settings might better be described as “jump” rather than “go-to” settings. Conditions and your creativity will demand changes in exposure settings as you go along, and become a more advanced photographer. Use these settings as a starting point, right before you enter the water: That way you’ll be in a good position to capture a chance encounter. These settings will also get you rolling with more common wide-angle subjects.
When setting up a shot, try to find something interesting for the foreground such as a fish or coral, something to add depth or perspective in the background such as a diver or the sun, and if possible a third element that adds ambiance to the scene such as kelp or schooling fish. With these composition rules in mind, and a few basic camera settings, you are sure to get some amazing wide-angle shots.
Ready to step up your game to include creative effects like sunballs? You’ll need to learn to master manual exposure
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