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Top 10 Basic Principles of Underwater Photography
Learning the technical jargon is not for everyone. In fact, don't even worry about it right now. However, shooting marine life underwater is not as easy as shooting on land (technically in air), and even a simple point and shoot camera underwater requires a little extra thinking.
underwater photograph of a clownfish by Matt Weiss

The first step to understanding any kind of photography is understanding your camera. If you are brand new to digital photography, take the time to read the camera’s manual.

The Fundamentals

No matter what camera you have, from an entry-level digital "point & shoot" to the most expensive dSLR , there are ten golden rules of underwater photography that you must always remember. Many of these rules are related to composition in the underwater environment. Every photographer can benefit from proper composition, so it is also worthwhile to read the entire Composition Guide.
1) Get Close, And Then Get Closer!
The overarching mantra of underwater photography is to get close. Or, better phrased - "get as close as you think you need to get, and then get closer!"
sea turtle underwater photograph by Matt Weiss
Water absorbs light very quickly, and the most common complaint for new underwater photographers is the dull blueish-greyish hue of their images. Removing the amount of water between the camera and the subject will mean a clearer, sharper, and more colorful image. Additionally, in water, there are tiny floating particles that you might not notice until they show up in your images. We refer to these particles as backscatter.  Minimizing the amount of water between your camera and your subject will also minimize the amount of backscatter in your images.
underwater photograph with backscatter

2) Shoot Up


In underwater photography, images usually turn out better when shooting at a slight upward angle towards the subject. Shooting down on the subject is often easier, as the reef is usually below us while we dive, but images of the tops of fish and coral are not interesting. Shooting up creates a more appealing view of your subject, and can create much needed contrast between the foreground subject and the background of your images. By shooting up, you can often also include the open water in the image, which is a better background for an image than a cluttered area of the reef.
The image shot on a downward angle is not that effective
This image, shot at eye level, is much more interesting.

3) Focus On The Eyes

Getting images in focus is, obviously, necessary for a successful image. Everything else can be perfect, but if the subject is out of focus, then, well, it’s really just an image of an ambiguous blurry thing.
In wildlife photography, one of the most important rules is keeping the eye of the subject sharp. Place the focus bracket (the little crosshair looking thing you see when looking at the LCD screen or the viewfinder) so it aligns with the subject's eye, depress your shutter button halfway to focus in on the eye and then when you have your photograph composed, push down completely on the shutter. Voila – you’re now in your focusing groove!
underwater photograph of hawkfish by Matt Weiss
Notice how much impactful the side of the image where the hawkfish is making eye contact is than the side where the eye is turned around and "missing"

4) Keeping Yourself Focused


Diving with a camera and diving without a camera are two totally different activities. After diving with a camera, you may find that those dives where you just cruised along casually observing the scenery no longer seem quite as fun.  Carefully perusing the environment for the next photo opportunity is the name of the game now, and there’s no going back.

Patience is paramount in underwater photography. Waiting for your subject to assume the perfect position or letting other divers go by so that they are not in the frame are things you will have to get used to. It’s not uncommon for advanced underwater photographers to spend multiple  dives on a single subject – even a common subject. The results can be worth it.

Of course, the casual underwater photographer doesn't need to be obsessive, but a level of personal focus and attention to detail will take your photography a long way!

5) Use a Strobe

Since water absorbs light and sucks the color out of underwater images, use underwater strobes to restore color, create contrast and help retain image sharpness. This may be your single most important investment. 
underwater photograph with no strobe
Because of the way light penetrates water, many images look very blue without using strobes. Additionally, strobes freeze movement which helps avoid blurry images.
underwater photograph with strobe of clownfish by Matt Weiss
Using a strobe can make all the difference

6) Shoot, Review, Adjust, Rinse, Repeat

Sometimes we take for granted the shortened learning curve that digital photography has created by giving us immediate access to review our images. To an extent, the LCD screen on your camera may be its most important feature. Take advantage of this feature and take the time to review your images as you shoot to make sure your subject is well exposed, nicely composed and you are happy with outcome. Review every image if possible. Don't like exactly what you see? Adjust accordingly and shoot again (you'll learn how to adjust soon, we promise.) New photographers may find it hard to understand how anybody ever acheived good results with underwater photography prior to the advent of the LCD screen. In fact, capturing good underwater images on film was indeed much more difficult than it is today.  

7) Go Manual

Starting off in auto mode is not a problem. But auto settings can only get you so far in underwater photography. To really control the exposure, color and sharpness of your images and to get creative you’ll need to embrace some degree of manual controls. Don’t worry, it’s not that scary!

8) Maintain Your Equipment

Water and electronics don’t mix very well. It’s important to take your time when setting up your camera and housing. Make sure o-rings are clean and greased, but not over greased. One strand of hair or spec of dirt can be the difference between keeping the ocean out of your housing or flooding it. Assuming you are shooting in saltwater, rinse your camera gear off with fresh water after every dive. Never let salt water dry on your equipment. For more information on maintaining your underwater gear, read our guide to maintenance.
underwater photography maintanence
Maintaining your equipment is part of being a successful underwater photographer (Photo by Jeff Mullins)

9) Respect the Environment

Remember, we are priveledged guests in the underwater world. Respecting the environment and its inhabitants should be one of your top priorities. Before you start taking your camera underwater it is important to have excellent bouyancy skills, this will help protect both yourself and the environment around you. Keep all of your gear streamlined as to minimize the potential of a gauge or hose getting entangled or damaging the reef. Never harrass or touch marine life. You may not realize the damage inflicted from even minor touching. Be patient and let your images be the reward from your interactions.

10) Have Fun!

Don’t forget that underwater photography is supposed to be fun. Don’t get too caught up in the technical side. Start off with the basics, get a feel for it, and learn the technical side later. Go get wet and enjoy yourself!
school of fish with diver

Continue to Basic Principles of Light Underwater


There is nothing wrong with shooting in auto mode. Underwater photography is inherently fun and exciting enough that dealing more
If you don't want to learn about manual exposure just yet, put your camera on auto mode – usually indicated by an Auto more
Learning the technical jargon is not for everyone. In fact, don't even worry about it right now. However, shooting marine more
At some point or another, most divers have thought about learning how to shoot underwater photography. The affordability of more
Underwater photography presents unique challenges due to the properties of water and its effect on light. Water absorbs light in more
Arthur Koch
Dec 11, 2009 3:06 PM
Arthur Koch wrote:
Excellent job of outlining 10 areas for learning underwater photography!

Arthur Koch
xie jerry
Dec 28, 2009 8:08 AM
xie jerry wrote:
good materials. thanks.
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