If we had to describe the steep learning curve that accompanies underwater photography—it would be the slope of Everest, with landmines and big foot along the way trying to send you tobogganing back down to the bottom.
There are lots of mistakes we must make first before learning the right way. Around the virtual DPG water cooler, the staff discussed some of the top mistakes—and how you can fix them.
1. Loss of Color
Problem: The water is blue, and so are your photos.
Solution: We all know that as you descend, colors are absorbed in the water column. But the same is true in the distance between your lens and the subject. That’s one of the reasons for the ultimate underwater photo mantra: “Get Close, then Get Closer.” Also, a fisheye lens (or wet lens adapter for compact users) and strobes will help get you close and add color back to the frame.
2. Out of Focus Eyes
Problem: You feel like you need glasses when looking at your images.
Solution: Eyes are what draw a viewer into the image, so it’s almost always critical that they’re in focus. If you find yourself having trouble getting complete focus, try increasing the depth of field with higher apertures (f/11 and higher). If you have the ability, you can also lock manual focus and actually move the camera until the eyes are in the focus plane.
3. Shooting Fish Tails
Problem: Your friends think you like big fish butts and cannot lie because every shot you have of a fish is of its derrière.
Solution: There are a few ways to solve this problem. If shutter lag in your compact is the issue, try half-pressing the shutter to pre-focus so you’re ready to click when the fish is facing you. Also, never attempt to chase your subject—let the fish move into the frame.
4. Over Editing
Problem: You’ve merged with your desk chair from the amount of time you spend in Photoshop.
Solution: Get the shot right in the camera. It’s all too easy to look at a photo underwater and think, “It’s alright—I can just fix that in Photoshop.” The key with editing is that it should be a tool, not a crutch. If you find yourself constantly increasing the exposure in post-processing, try doing it with manual exposure the next time in the water.
5. Forgetting Part of Your Rig
Problem: Four flights and you’ve arrived in your dream destination—only to find you’ve forgotten a strobe, or arm, or lens, or port, or all of the above.
Solution: This one’s simple. Right before you pack, set up your complete kit at home as if you were ready to jump in the water. Then you know you’ve got everything you need.
6. Bullseye-ing the Subject
Problem: You’ve gotten the hang of exposing underwater images, but your composition seems bland.
Solution: It’s important to remember that when you take a picture of something, it’s not a target to be bullseyed. Instead, try following the “rule of thirds,” by placing the main subject at one of the intersections below.
7. Backscatter Everywhere
Problem: It’s the bane of most underwater photographers’ existence—those tiny particles that seem to light up light fireworks.
Solution: Most causes of backscatter come from improper strobe placement. Moving your strobe(s) further out, and behind the lens will greatly limit backscatter. For low visibility, try relying more on ambient light by slowing your shutter and opening your aperture with just a “kiss” of strobe light. If all else fails, countless hours in Photoshop should do the trick.
8. Uneven Lighting
Problem: No matter what you try, it always seems that there’s harsh, uneven lighting in your wide-angle images.
Solution: Go back to the basics. Start by turning off your strobes completely and exposing the wide-angle scene with ambient light alone. Once you’ve got good blues, add back in the strobe light a little bit at a time. For advanced shooters, uneven lighting is likely the cause of actually having the same output on each strobe—remember, usually one strobe will be further away from the subject than the other.
9. Blurred Subjects
Problem: It looks like your underwater subject is streaking as fast as a race car.
Solution: If you’re shooting without a strobe, make sure that your shutter speeds are fast enough to freeze the subject—often higher than 1/70th of a second. The short duration of strobes actually works to freeze fast subjects even at slower shutter speeds.
10. Cluttered Composition
Problem: You have to tell your viewer where exactly that fish is in the photo.
Solution: For beginners, it’s important to remember that shooting at an upwards angle will help separate the subject from the background. More advanced techniques include blurring out the cluttered background with “bokeh” or using selective lighting techniques, such as a snoot.
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