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Dive Photo Guide

Getting Started

Shooting in Auto Mode
If you don't want to learn about manual exposure just yet, put your camera on auto mode – usually indicated by an Auto or a “P”(for program)  on your camera’s mode dial. Note: "A" may be another option the mode dial but it does not stand for auto! Auto mode is the easiest way to shoot because the camera chooses the settings and manages the exposure for you. All you need to do is point and shoot.

The Auto Mode Blues

The problem with letting the camera choose the exposure for you is that cameras are not designed to be used underwater. As you’ve now learned, light acts differently underwater than it does on land (again, technically, in air), absorbing the warmer colors like red, orange and yellow pretty quickly as you descend, resulting in very blue images. To some degree, your eyes can adjust to this, so you see shades of reds and yellows, but your camera does not, so it can’t record those same colors. There are some easy solutions that can help restore color to your images, but if you choose not to use them, be warned: with the exception of very shallow water on very sunny days, your images will be singing the blues - literally.
underwater photograph that is too blue
Images can look very blue when shot in auto mode and without a strobe

“Can I Use The Built In Flash?”

Artificial light is the best way to capture the vivid colors underwater. However, using the on-camera flash in not advisable underwater, as its position close to the lens will create backscatter. The built-in flash is also fairly weak when used underwater. So ideally, you will need to buy an external strobe.

Buying a strobe is the one investment that will immediately and noticeably improve your photography, even more so than upgrading to a more advanced camera. For more on strobes, see our Lighting Guide.

If you are just starting out, you may not want to spend the extra money on or deal with the extra hassle of an external strobe. Even the simplest digital cameras come with a built in on-camera flash, and all point & shoot housings are designed to enable the use of this flash. It can be helpful in restoring color and lighting small subjects when shooting macro photography, but ultimately the benefits of the camera’s internal flash are limited underwater. Our recommendation, of course – is to bite the bullet and buy at least one strobe if you are serious about learning more about underwater photography.


Shooting Without Flash 

In the right conditions, you will be able to create great images without using any flash at all, only relying on the natural ambient light. Remember to:
  • Stay shallow
  • Shoot at mid-day (between 10am – 2pm) when the sun is high in the sky and the maximum amount of light is penetrating underwater
  • Shoot with the sun to your back, as you would on land (as you will soon learn this is not always the case underwater).
underwater photograph shot in ambient light by Matt Weiss

Here are a few more tips to help you create great ambient light images.

Using Filters

Filters are another option when looking to shoot without strobes. Filters are small colored gels placed in front of the camera’s lens that help adjust for color loss. There are filters designed specifically for underwater use that can be an easy solution for getting good color in your images.

Try Using Underwater Mode

Many recent compact cameras are equipped with an “Underwater Mode.” This mode attempts to adjust the camera’s white balance to compensate for the loss of color underwater without the need for an artificial light source.

Underwater mode works differently in different camera models, and generally it appears to be improving. Reports of the effectiveness of underwater modes range from pretty good to excellent depending on the camera model. For the most part, it works best in shallow depths of up to about 8 meters where plenty of sunlight still exists in the water column. In some cameras, the underwater mode even adjusts at various depths based on the ambient conditions. For example, there will be a different adjustment when shooting at 8 meters versus 3 meters because of the different amount ambient light at each depth.  

Manual White Balance

If your camera has a manual white balance function, and you are inclined to learn how to use it, we recommend shooting ambient light images with custom white balance settings when possible (if custom settings are not for you, go ahead and skip to the next section).

Setting the custom white balance is actually quite easy. What it will do is maximize the amount of color captured at any particular depth / lighting conditions by calibrating against the color white and adjust accordingly for the light at that depth. Basically, you are telling the camera what white is (technically it reads white and adjusts for a specific tone of gray, but that’s a more advanced topic). In order to set the custom white balance, you will have to carry a white slate with you underwater. In a pinch you can use a patch of white sand or even the palm of your hand.

Here’s what to do.

Select custom white balance in your menu, fill the frame with the white slate and press the shutter. You should get an “ok”, “success” or “WB set” message. You have now set the white balance for that particular depth and lighting conditions. You’ll need to reset the white balance with every few meters of depth or each time the lighting conditions change. Keep in mind that you still will not be able to restore color at any significant depth without strobes.

Pick A Starting Point – Macro is A Good Choice

While you may have the desire to start shooting everything you see on the reef, in order to learn, you’ll need to pick a starting point. Ultimately shooting macro is easier than wide angle, so it’s a good place to start focusing your energy.
The first step is to put the camera in macro mode (if shooting with a point & shoot camera – SLR’s need to use macro modea macro lens). Look for the flower icon to indicate macro mode. This mode allows you to focus closer to the subject than in normal mode. You may find that it takes longer to focus, so it is best used with relatively still subjects.  However, the ability to focus closer will allow you to minimize the amount of water in between the subject and your camera and allow you to shoot smaller subjects, which would otherwise be mere specks in the frame if shot from farther away.

Macro mode is the one area where trying your camera’s internal flash may work out in some cases. With small subjects, it is possible to light up the entire frame so the colors are reintroduced into the image. However, if the water isn’t very clear, you will notice backscatter in your images. Refer to your camera’s manual to see how to turn the flash on and off.

To fill the frame as much as possible with your subject, try using the cameras optical zoom. The further in you zoom, the more the subject will fill the frame, making the subject appear larger. The more you zoom in, however, the harder it will be to focus. Make sure you half click and remain still when focusing and in telephoto. Don’t use the zoom as an alternative to moving in closer. This is a common mistake. Remember – closer is better! Using digital zoom is not advisable because you will lose image quality.

solar panel nudibranch by Matt Weiss
Slow moving macro subjects are a great place to start your foray into underwater photography

Continue to  Taking Control of Your Images With Manual Settings


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