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Dive Photo Guide

Getting Started

Taking Control of Your Images with Manual Settings
There is nothing wrong with shooting in auto mode. Underwater photography is inherently fun and exciting enough that dealing with manual settings is not for everyone. However, taking the next step into manual mode opens up endless possibilities with underwater photography. The main advantage of using manual settings is that you take full control of your image. The camera is your tool, not your brain. If you have a specific image in mind, the only way to turn it into a photograph is by using manual settings, because the camera can’t read your mind. 

Additionally, shooting in manual mode makes the actual shooting process more fun.  Trying to find the right settings, so that the image taken matches the one in your head is like trying to solve a puzzle. Few things are as rewarding as nailing an image you have spent time thinking about and then perfecting.

Even if you decide to shoot in auto mode, understanding how the camera works and what the settings mean will improve your photography.
Ribbon Eel by Matt Weiss
Shooting in manual allows you to take complete control over your images

The Jargon

When beginner underwater photographers hear terms like aperture, shutter speed or ISO they tend to freeze up and want to go back to auto mode. While the technical jargon sounds overwhelming, if you take a little time to think logically about the concepts, they’re really quite intuitive.
Even though the technology used in cameras has changed dramatically since their conception, the basic principles behind how they work remain the same. A camera has always been, and still is, little more than a lightproof box that contains some sort of light sensitive media. Today this is your camera’s digital sensor. At one point, not too long ago, it was film. A lightproof tube (a lens) is attached to the box. This tube contains a hole that can open and close (the aperture) to allow light to reach the sensor. You, when in manual mode, but your camera when in auto mode, can control how big that hole is (again, aperture) and how long the hole stays open (shutter speed) in order to determine how much light reaches the sensor.  The end result of light hitting the sensor is a recorded image called an exposure. See, very straightforward!

This is of course an over simplification, as digital cameras have advanced mechanics and modern lenses contain complex optics—which usually require a strong grasp of physics and engineering to understand. But have no fear, you will never need to understand all of the complex theories and science that help your equipment work (unless you really want to).
A third aspect, the ISO, which is the degree of light sensitivity of the sensor, can also effect the exposure and will be discussed later. 


The aperture refers to the hole in the lens, known as the diaphragm, that lets the light in.

The aperture regulates how much light reaches the sensor. The sizes are calibrated in terms of f-stops or f-numbers. The range of these numbers is as follows:  f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, and sometimes onward. Each number does not necessarily correspond to a specific size of the aperture opening, but is a relative number. Each aperture size (referred to as a stop) is marked with a corresponding number that represents half the light of the previous stop. For example f/8 lets in twice the amount of light as f/11 but half as much as f/5.6. Don’t get too worked up about the mathematical relationship of the numbers for now – just know that each stop either doubles or halves the amount of light.
Diagram of different apertures

Something that confuses beginner photographers is this: The smaller the f-stop, the larger the aperture opening. F/8 represents a larger hole than f/16 (as indicated in the image above) and lets in four times as much light (2 stops).  Smaller f-stops have larger apertures, which means a larger hole size. It’s an inverse relationship.

The f-stop values mentioned above are fairly standard among lenses; however, you may see some differences at the ends of the spectrum. Some lenses don’t have the extremes. In fact, most point and shoot cameras’ highest aperture is f/8. To learn how to set your camera’s aperture, refer to your manual.

So, what does changing the aperture mean in terms of the image? Since the amount of light reaching the camera is dependent on the aperture, the overall exposure is altered by changes in aperture. For example, if you were taking a picture of a starfish at f/ 5.6 and f/8 and all other things remained constant, the photograph taken at f/5.6 would be brighter, or more exposed, than the one at f/8 and the image taken at f/8 would be darker, or less exposed.
wide angle underwater photograph
This is a wide angle image at f/8.
over exposed underwater photograph
This is the same shot but at f/5.6, note how it is lighter because the aperture is larger
under exposed underwater photograph
This is the same shot again, but at f/11. The exposure is darker because the aperture is smaller 

Depth of Field

The size of the aperture not only affects how much light reaches the sensor, but also how much of the image is in focus. 

When you take an image you must pick a point of focus. Anyone who has ever used a camera has done this. You pick this point by placing the focus box on the subject. When taking vacation pictures of your friend, you usually place this point on your friends head. An area behind and in front this focal point will also be in focus. This area is called the depth of field. The depth of field is dependent on the aperture. The larger the aperture (remember, that means the lower the f-stop) the smaller the depth of field. This means that the area that looks sharp will be greater when shooting at f/8 than at f/2.8.

The fact that a smaller opening in the lens leads to a greater depth of field is counter-intuitive, but with practice, it becomes second nature.
tiger shrimp by Jason Heller

Aperture Priority Mode

If you have a specific depth of field you want to acquire in your image, you can set your camera to aperture priority mode, usually indicated by an A or Tv on the mode dial. In aperture priority mode, you can select the aperture you want manually, and the camera chooses the shutter speed to get the best exposure. 

Shutter Speed

There are two panels inside your camera that are like lightproof curtains on a window and block the light coming through the lens from hitting the sensor. When you take a photograph, you are opening these curtains and letting light momentarily hit the sensor. These curtains are called the shutter, and you can manually set the time you want them to stay open for. This length of time is called the shutter speed.  

Shutter speeds are expressed in fractions of seconds (and sometimes full seconds). Just like a lens has a range of apertures, your camera has a range of shutter speeds. Common ranges on cameras are 1/1000 s, 1/500 s, 1/250 s, 1/125 s, 1/60 s, 1/30 s, 1/15 s, 1/8 s, 1/4 s, 1/2 s, 1s, 2s, and so on. For example, a shutter speed of 1/125 means that the shutter will be open for 125th of a second. Just like with f-stops, there is a mathematical relationship between different shutter speeds—each shutter speed stays open half as long as the one above it, or twice as long the one below it. For example, 1/30s allows light to reach the sensor for half as long as 1/60s but twice as long as 1/15s.
Since the shutter speed determines the length of time that light hits the sensor, it will affect the overall exposure of the image by halving or doubling the exposure. An image shot at 1/30th of a second will be lighter than one shot at 1/60th of a second because light had twice as much time to go through the aperture.


Freezing Motion

Shutter speed also effects motion in your image. A slow shutter speed will blur motion, while a fast one will freeze it. If you think about it, this makes sense. Say you are shooting a fish and have the camera at a shutter speed of 1 second. When you take the shot, the shutter is open for a full second, enough time for the fish to swim right through the frame. The fish’s entire path through the frame will be recorded, and because it was constantly moving, it will be a blur.  Now, imagine you are in the same scenario, but you have your camera set to a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second. The shutter is only open long enough to capture the fish in a particular point in time, freezing the motion.
Advanced underwater photographers will sometimes use a slow shutter speed to show the motion of a subject. However, for the most part, underwater photographers shoot with fast shutter speed like 1/60s or faster for stationary subjects. If not using a strobe, which also freezes the subject, shooting at even faster shutter speeds may be necessary because of something called camera shake. Unless you are perfectly still, which no one is, your camera is moving because you are moving. You will have to adjust your shutter speed depending on how steady your hand is.

blurry underwater photograph 
The shutter speed selected for this image was too slow to freeze the antenna of the lobster

Shutter Priority Mode

If you know you need to shoot at a certain shutter speed to freeze movement, you can set your camera to shutter priority mode (usually indicated by S on your mode dial.) When in shutter priority mode, you choose your shutter speed and the camera chooses the aperture that  it thinks will create the best exposure.

Getting the Right Exposure

To take full control of your image, you must use both aperture and shutter speed in conjunction with one another. Remember, going up an f-stop cuts the amount of light by half. Going up a stop in shutter speed also cuts the amount of light by half. This is a crucial, but extremely simple, mathematical relationship. Because of this relationship, if you increase your aperture one stop (e.g. from f/5.6 to f/8) while also slowing down your shutter speed a stop (e.g. from 1/125s to 1/60s) you will have the exact same exposure that you started out with.
All of the aperture & shutter speed combinations below will achieve the
identical exposure, but the depth of field and motion attributes will vary.
An image shot at f/5.6 and 1/125s is exposed exactly the same as one shot at f/8 and 1/60s (assuming you have not moved and the light is exactly the same). This is because you halved the amount of light being let through the aperture opening, but let in twice as much light by keeping the shutter open longer.

Once you find the right exposure, you can adjust the settings to get the right amount of depth of field and motion in the image. Suppose you take a picture of a goby and find that it is correctly exposed when shot at f/2.8 and 1/250s. However, at f/2.8, not enough of the goby is in focus as you desire.  You can increase the f-stop to f/4 and slow the shutter speed down to 1/125s to increase the depth of field and keep the same exposure.
Now, suppose the perfect amount of depth of field would be achieved with an aperture of f/5.6. You would need to slow the shutter speed down to 1/60s to keep the same exposure. However, slowing the shutter speed down that much introduced too much blurred motion in the image. If you keep the shutter speed at 1/125s, the image will be too dark, referred to as underexposed. You see, it's a puzzle!
There is one last setting you can manually control to adjust the overall exposure.


The ISO represents how sensitive the digital sensor is to light. In recent digital cameras, ISO can range from ISO 100 to ISO 3200 or even higher in high end DSLR cameras. The higher the ISO the more sensitive the sensor is to light.

Therefore, shooting at ISO 100 requires twice the light as ISO 200. Perhaps you are thinking, “Why not just crank the ISO up as high as it can go so you can achieve maximum motion freeze and depth of field?” This seems logical.  However, there is a problem with using higher ISO. The best image quality is achieved at the lowest ISO settings. At higher ISO’s we introduce a noticeable amount of “noise”.
Noise is the term for areas of an image that have color and quality aberrations. This can be noticed mainly in the black or darkest areas of an image as multicolored speckles (pixels, actually). It gives the image an unsightly grainy appearance, especially in smooth monochromatic areas. That nice black background at ISO 100 will become a multicolored speckled mess at ISO 800. The problem is more prevalent in compact cameras than SLRs, but in both cases, noise reducing technology in digital cameras is getting better. The top of the line DSLRs can shoot at ISO 3200 and higher with noise being barely noticeable. 
That said, it is rare that you would ever need to go above ISO 800 underwater. It will probably only be necessary when shooting ambient light, wide angle shots on dark, overcast days. In Alex Mustard’s review of the D3 on DivePhotoGuide, he couldn’t find a situation that called for ISO 1600 and higher, even when actively searching for one.
As a default, set your camera to its lowest ISO setting to have the least amount of noise. Increase it when you need a little extra light, like in the earlier example of the goby. Since every camera is different, experiment, and avoid noisy images.    

The Best Exposure is the Correct Exposure

One of the main advantages of digital photography is being able to get instant feedback of an image via your camera’s LCD screen. The LCD screen will immediately display your image for review. This is a great way to learn the effects of different settings. Take a shot and review it, then adjust your settings and review the differences between them. What was the effect of changing your aperture or shutter speed? In the film days, you had to wait until you got back onto land and had the film developed to see if you got your settings right. Now, you just have to look down at the screen.
underwater image in camera

The Histogram

A lot of times, the underwater environment makes it difficult to accurately read an image’s exposure on the LCD screen. In these situations, it’s helpful to check the image’s histogram.  An image’s histogram is a graphical display of its exposure. The tonal range of the image is graphed according to its brightness value. Tones to the left are dark and to the right are light. 
There is no right or wrong histogram because different shots require different levels of brightness. For a nice evenly exposed image, the bars on your histogram should be an evenly distributed wide bell curve.
If you notice that histogram skews to the left, the image is probably too dark, or underexposed. Slowing your shutter speed and/or opening your aperture may be the solution. Conversely, if the histogram skews towards the right, then the image is potentially overexposed. Increasing your shutter speed or closing your aperture will help limit your exposure.


One key thing to look at while reading the histogram is whether or not it “spills” off the edges of the graph. This usually looks like a lot of tall bars “bunched” up at either end of the horizontal axis. If these bars hit the vertical limit of the graph, then they are either too dark or too light for the camera to read. You may have heard photographers saying that a portion of their image is “clipped” or “burnt out.” This means that some parts of the image are too bright for the camera to read and those pixels’ tonal information is lost, resulting in a loss of detail. Additionally, an image with a histogram that has pixels maxing out the left end will have a loss of detail in the dark areas.
correctly exposed histogram
A histogram for a evenly exposed image, where there is no information lost to under or over exposure.
overexposed histogram
A histogram for a over exposed image-notice the histogram "spills" off the right end indicating areas of the image are "burned out."
underexposed histogram
A histogram for a under exposed image. Here is pixels are"spilling"off the left end.
Sometimes images that go beyond the bounds of the histogram are okay. For instance, a macro shot with a black background will have a histogram that has a lot of pixels at the extreme left end of the graph. This happens because the black is actually underexposed water, but in this case, it’s aesthetically desirable.  In wide-angle photography, sometimes the sun will create areas that are burnt out, but still desirable.
underwater photograph with black background by Matt Weiss
black background underwater photograph histogram
This is the histogram for the image above. Notice that it spills off the left end, indicating that areas are under exposed (where the red arrow is pointing). This is actually the area that is the black background, which in this image is actually desired.
In most cameras with manual controls, you can set-up your camera so that the histogram is automatically imposed over, or placed next the image when it is being reviewed. Many photographers choose this setting because the histogram is more reliable than your eye when it comes to determining exposure. Additionally, in many cameras, there is a feature that can be used to quickly tell you if there are areas of lost pixel detail due to over or underexposure. Usually, the blown out area will flash on the LCD screen to indicate the issue. This is a valuable setting

Continue to Camera Settings for Macro & Wide Angle


There is nothing wrong with shooting in auto mode. Underwater photography is inherently fun and exciting enough that dealing more
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Robert Johnson
Jun 29, 2010 10:50 AM
Robert Johnson wrote:
This page says that Tv mode is for aperture priority but that is incorrect. A camera dial may have "A" and "S" for aperture and shutter priority modes, respectively, or "Av" and "Tv" for the same modes. One of my previous camera manuals described these modes as "aperture value" and "time value," respectively. A quick Internet search turns up the same information.
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