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Dive Photo Guide

Getting Started

Camera Settings for Macro and Wide Angle
This is largely meant for compact camera users, if shooting with a DSLR, please refer to the separate macro and wide angle articles found in the Technique Section.
The settings you will use will largely depend on whether you are shooting macro or wide angle. A good tip is to go into a dive with your settings appropriately adjusted for underwater use. A good benchmark that many beginners use is to go into the dive shooting at 1/125 and f/8. You will most likely have to adjust the settings depending on whether you are shooting macro or wide angle, but this is a good starting spot. Using your camera’s lowest ISO is also a good starting point to minimize noise in the image.


For macro, depth of field is important due to the nature of the photograph. Be aware that if you are completely zoomed in on macro mode, less of the image will be in focus  than when shooting all the way zoomed out. Since you will often be zoomed in, high (smaller) apertures are usually used for macro photography.
macro underwater photograph by Matt Weiss

Your shutter speed will largely depend on the conditions of the dive, how fast your subject is moving, and whether you are using a strobe (or strobes). If there is a current or the water is choppy, it may be hard to get yourself steady, and  faster shutter speeds are required. Additionally, if you are shooting a moving fish, you may need a faster shutter speed than if shooting, say, a lethargic frogfish. The settings will change significantly if you are using a strobe. For the most part, when shooting macro with flash, you are basically shooting all artificial light and no ambient light. This means you can use higher f-stops and faster shutters speeds.  Additionally, the flash will freeze the action, so the shutter speed can mainly be used to moderate exposure.
crinoid shrimp by Matt Weiss


For wide angle, use the camera’s light meter to determine a good ambient light setting. The light meter is usually located on the bottom of the viewfinder or LCD screen, depending on which you use to compose your image. It consists of a number of “ticks” or marks in a horizontal line ending with a + on one end and – on the other. These ends represent over and under exposure ranges. In the middle of the line is larger tick with a 0 underneath, this represents a correct exposure. If you half click the shutter, your camera will read the light and place a line where it believes your exposure will be if you take the picture with your current settings. Since the light varies throughout most wide angle scenes, take meter readings against an area that represents the mid-range of exposure in your scene. However, remember that the light meter was designed for land use, not underwater, so review your image and adjust your settings accordingly. The light meter is only meant to be used as as starting place.
It's important to remember that strobes  are only able to illuminate a foreground subjects several feet in front of the camera. You are always relying on ambient light for the mid-ground and background. You can learn more about lighting in our Lighting Guide.
Wide Angle Underwater photograph by Matt Weiss

Additional Adjustments

If you don’t want to shoot in full manual mode, there are still some adjustments that you can make which will give you some control and help you create stronger images than you can on full auto pilot.

Exposure Compensation

If you are shooting in automatic (P), aperture priority (A or Tv) or Shutter priority (S) modes you have opted to give up most of the control over exposure to the camera. Even in aperture or shutter priority modes, if you attempt the change one setting, the camera will change the other settings to compensate.
However, there is a way to adjust exposure in these modes — exposure compensation. Refer to your camera’s manual on how to change your exposure compensation, also known as your EV. You can adjust your EV by pressing the +/- button.  Turning the EV up to +1 or down to -1 is the equivalent of one f-stop.  You can usually adjust you EV in 1/3 stop increments. So, setting your EV compensation to +1/3 will make the image one third of a stop lighter than what the camera would have otherwise selected automatically.

If a subject contains a lot of white, it can easily be overexposed. If you like how your image looks, but your settings overexpose the white, try turning your EV compensation down a little.


Exposure bracketing is a technique used by photographers to help ensure they capture a correctly exposed imaged.    It is a simple technique that is especially important underwater, where lighting is inherently complex.

When you take an image, you adjust the settings on your camera and your strobes so that the right amount of light reaches the camera sensor and produces the correct exposure. When shooting wide-angle, you usually meter on the mid-range of blue water so that the water is properly exposed as a nice (subjective) shade of blue. However, light can be tricky underwater and what your camera’s light meter thinks is the correct exposure doesn’t always result in the image you envisioned or what you see in your viewfinder.  If you bracket this exposure with another one that is slightly underexposed and another that is slightly overexposed, you can help compensate for the possibility of an incorrect exposure.  Depending on your exposure mode, you can either step your aperture or shutter speed a stop down or up, or adjust your EV compensation.
overexposed underwater photograph
sea turlte by Matt Weiss
under exposed underwater photograph

Additionally you can bracket by adjusting strobe position and/or power settings. Particularly when shooting macro, most, if not all, of your image is lit by your strobes.  In this case, you may want to bracket the exposure by adjusting your strobe power rather than with your camera settings.
Bracketing is especially useful in tricky lighting situations and scenes with a high dynamic range, like if you are shooting into the sun, a situation that can easily deceive your camera’s light meter into underexposing most of the image in order to not over expose the areas of the image close to the sun.
If you are just getting started in underwater photography, bracketing can help you get the right shot.  Reading the LCD screen underwater can be difficult and takes some getting used to, so its not always safe to assume what looks properly exposed on the camera screen underwater, will look properly exposed on your computer screen topside. Always consider bracketing images to get the best results.


There is no such as thing as the "right" settings. As the light changes, your settings will need to change. Play around with your settings and see what works best. Sometimes it's trying something a little different or unusual that gives the most striking results. 

Continue to the Learn More Page


This is largely meant for compact camera users, if shooting with a DSLR, please refer to the separate macro and wide angle more
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