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Underwater Still Images with Your GoPro
By Joel & Jennifer Penner, October 31, 2015 @ 06:00 AM (EST)


While the most popular use for GoPro cameras remains shooting video, did you know that the original GoPro was a simple waterproof photo camera using only 35mm color film? Over the years, the emphasis has been on video, with progressive improvements added to each new version of the camera.

However, newer models like the Hero4 have a few more manual controls than earlier models, which helps improve the quality of still captures. As well, more creativity can be achieved by adjusting exposure compensation in photo mode, along with ISO limits and other settings.

In previous articles, we talked about the importance of camera stability and need for excellent buoyancy to achieve great-looking videos. When taking photos with your GoPro, the same rules apply but for a different reason. You might be wondering, “Why is that, when I’m only taking a single frame? Why do I have to be rock-steady like when I’m shooting video?” The reason for this necessary stability is because the GoPro picks the shutter speed for you and because of this, there are inherent limitations to using this camera for photography. Knowing these limitations, and how to work around them, will allow you to achieve the best possible results in your photography while diving or snorkeling.
 

The original GoPro Hero was a fully auto mode camera. The current models, Hero4 Black and Hero4 Silver, have evolved to semi-auto cameras with more user controls than ever before. Knowing what the camera can and cannot do will enable the photographer to capture great images.

 

Working with Limitations

There are specific settings that can help increase the number of quality images you can produce (more on that below), but we’ve found that the most important thing you can do to increase your chances of getting a good photo underwater is to keep the camera as stable as possible.

Stability Tips for GoPro Photography
  • For best results, take underwater photos in ideal lighting conditions. Diving at 70 feet on an overcast day is not ideal. Good visibility with the sun behind your back is preferred. The more light the GoPro has, the lower the ISO will be and the faster the shutter speed will be. Remember, the GoPro decides the shutter speed for you. So stay shallow, if possible.
  • Use a stable, double handled tray to help keep the camera as steady as possible.
  • Make gentle fin kicks with minimal body movement as you approach the scene.
  • For moving subjects, motion track the subject and move at the same speed it is moving.
  • Get rid of unwanted camera shake when pressing the shutter button by running the GoPro in Time Lapse Mode.

 

GoPro Settings for Still Underwater Photography

Time Lapse Mode

We always use Time Lapse Mode along with the following settings as a starting point to take our underwater photos. This provides multiple exposures of the same scene, increasing your odds of capturing a clear, crisp image.
 


 

TIP: Time Lapse Recording
Only start the time lapse recording when you’re ready to start taking photos and don’t forget to stop recording to prevent wasting space on your memory card. We don’t recommend hitting record at the beginning of the dive. It will force you to review hundreds of images in your photo editor and creates unnecessary, added work!


Interval

Using a time lapse interval of two seconds allows you to see the LCD monitor as you reframe your composition as needed. A faster interval will not allow you to see your image in the LCD monitor, as it will be constantly black.


Megapixels

There’s no advantage to using your GoPro at a setting any lower than “12MP / Wide.” All the lower megapixel setting choices are simply “in-camera” crops of the full-size image. That said, when you run the camera at “12MP / Wide” when shooting with macro lenses for photography, you may need to perform a slight crop of the corners in Adobe Lightroom (or your editing software of choice), after you’ve downloaded your memory card. This is to remove the vignetting or extreme distortion in the corners of image; see the section “Editing in Lightroom” below.
 

Taken with the Hero4 Silver. For macro subjects, we do not use any color-correction filters, only the Macromate Mini and video lights like Light & Motion Sola 1200s. Video lights assist the GoPro in determining what is white for a more accurate white balance and truer colors in your images.


White Balance

Use auto white balance. Then, for wide angle, use color-correction filters like Backscatter’s FLIP Filter System, choosing the appropriate filter for your diving depth. For macro photos, we don’t use any color-correction filters because our video lights will cancel out most of the ambient light. The use of video lights will always help the GoPro to better evaluate what is white in the scene.


GoPro Color

The “GoPro Color” setting gets the best color right out of the camera when shooting underwater. Although it’s possible to shoot “Flat,” there’s much more work involved to add color back into the image. We prefer to make it easier on ourselves!


ISO Limit

Setting the ISO limit to 800 provides good results for underwater photography. Unfortunately, this isn’t a setting that tells the camera what ISO to use; it’s a limit. Thus, if the camera needs to increase ISO to attain proper exposure, it will not exceed that pre-determined amount. Most of the time, the GoPro doesn’t choose the maximum, so we usually keep the limit at 800, knowing that in good, sunny conditions, the camera will choose an ISO between 100 and 400.


Sharpness

While there are a few schools of thought on this, we default the camera to sharpness level “High.” With this setting, right out of the camera, images are sharp and the less post-processing the better. That said, additional artifacts can be introduced from in-camera sharpening. If you’re comfortable with adding sharpness later in software tools like Adobe Lightroom, we recommend experimenting with “Medium” or even “Low” for sharpness and then adding the sharpening later in post.
 

Taken with the Hero4 Black and Keldan Luna 4X video lights. Metridium anemones can easily be overexposed, but by adjusting EV compensation to –2.0, it properly exposed this image with an inky black background.


EV Compensation

By adjusting EV compensation to –0.5, you can eliminate blown-out details as well as gaining a bump in shutter speed. Depending on the scene you’re shooting, EV compensation can be a huge help. There’s a fine line here, though, as shooting an image too underexposed is not good either, since in your post-processing you’ll have to introduce some noise to fix the exposure. 
 

Taken with Hero4 Black, DIVE Filter and Keldan Luna 4X video lights. Not only will video lights help the GoPro attain a better white balance, but they will force the camera to use a faster shutter speed to freeze the motion of fast-moving subjects.
 

Tips for Wide-Angle Stills
  • Use the same approach as our wide-angle video techniques, but shoot in Time Lapse Mode.
  • Pay special attention to the LCD monitor. To prevent overexposed images, adjust accordingly with the EV compensation settings.
  • Unless you are on the surface, always use a color-correction filter for your diving depth.
  • Use video lights in flood mode, if applicable, to help the GoPro get a good white balance, for the best color and increased contrast.


Taken with Hero4 Black, +10 Close-Up Lens and Light & Motion Sola 2100 video lights. For macro photos, no color-correction filters are needed if you use video lights. The lights will cancel out any ambient light, enabling your GoPro to capture true underwater colors.
 

Tips for Macro Stills
  • Constantly evaluate critical focus by following our macro video techniques, but use Time Lapse Mode to take photos.
  • Always use video lights to cancel out the ambient light. Your light’s spot mode, if available, is a narrow beam preferred for macro subjects.
  • Position lighting appropriately to best light the scene and evaluate changes in the LCD monitor.
  • Adjust exposure compensation to prevent overexposing elements in the scene that can get washed out.
  • Use a tripod for extra stability. (Be extremely mindful of your environment, such as resting your tripod on living coral.)
  • If shooting handheld, hold as steady as possible and provide as much light as you can without overexposing (allowing the GoPro to choose a sufficiently fast shutter speed for a sharp image).


Editing in Lightroom

Once you’ve downloaded the images from your memory card, you’ll want to import them into Adobe Lightroom, or the photo-editing software of your choice. As we mentioned earlier, if shooting macro, there may be a slight vignette, or extreme distortion in the corners. This is due to the fact that the GoPro has a fisheye lens, and we’re using a corrective macro lens in front of it. As you can see in the corners of the seahorse image below (left), there’s a black radius of image data that’s not captured, or a vignette.
 

 

For this particular image, a vignette is not desirable.   Using Lightroom’s Crop Tool to remove the vignette will make for a more pleasing image.

 

After the slight crop, the image is much better than the original without the distracting vignette.

 

Shoot Many Frames—Digital Is Cheap

Since the GoPro still doesn’t offer us “Shutter Priority” to lock in a shutter speed for our images, the photographer’s best approach is to take many frames of the same subject and bank on one of them being sharp. This is also true of critical focus when using macro lenses. Take many shots, changing your distance from the subject, and you’ll increase the number of keepers. Why not try some photos on your next dive with your GoPro? The Hero4 cameras can capture some amazing still images!

The next installment of our “Underwater Photographer’s Guide to GoPro” will include topside shooting techniques using polarizer filters and neutral density filters, the Macromate Mini lens, and much more! Using topside filters with your GoPro can dramatically enhance the topside portion of your adventure video.

In case you missed it, start from the beginning of our GoPro series with our first article in the series, Which GoPro Hero4 Is Best for Me?
 



About the Authors: Joel and Jennifer Penner are avid scuba divers and award-winning underwater image-makers. Their images have been published in many magazines, such as Scuba Diving, Sport Diver, Underwater Journal and Scuba Diver. Joel and Jennifer are frequent presenters at scuba industry trade shows, and they are also staff at the annual Digital Shootout and Monterey Shootout events. When the ocean is not their office, they run a multimedia company called Newmediasoup, specializing in design and development for the Web.
 



When purchasing underwater photography equipment like the products mentioned in this article, please support DPG by supporting our retail partner—Backscatter.com.

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