DPG is a comprehensive underwater photography website and community for underwater photographers. Learn underwater photography techniques for popular digital cameras and specialized professional underwater equipment (wide angle, macro, super macro, lighting and work flow). Read latest news, explore travel destinations for underwater photography. Galleries of professional and amateur underwater photography including wrecks, coral reefs, undersea creatures, fashion and surfing photography.
Dive Photo Guide


Freediving to Maximize Your Photography Opportunities
By Andrew McLachlan, May 17, 2024 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

A common octopus hunting the rocky shallows

For those setting out to explore the world of underwater photography, it can be a daunting endeavor—all that expensive scuba gear and all that expensive camera gear! Snorkeling is a more cost-effective way to get started on your underwater photography journey. It does not require costly certification courses, specialized gear, or air fills. All you need to get started is a mask, a snorkel, and a set of fins!

Underwater photography, especially when practiced on scuba, provides limited time to ply our photographic trades. Factors like air supply and decompression limits restrict how long we spend underwater. The time constraints also limit our ability to thoroughly explore and capture the underwater environment. Snorkeling or freediving, however, allow for longer, if not endless, time in the water. No longer reliant on compressed air tanks, the extended time that snorkeling allows often yields a greater assortment of subject matter, better opportunities to find the perfect shot, and more freedom to experiment with different compositions without worrying about running out of air. Snorkeling also gives extended time to observe the underwater environment, and as a result, perhaps witness special marine life behaviors.

On a windy day, a southern stingray swims over the shallows of Grand Cayman’s famed Stingray City

A close-up of a redlipped blenny: This species often lives in extremely shallow water, making them an easy macro subject to access while freediving

Beautiful hard corals growing in the shallows just offshore

Snorkeling offers incredible opportunities to capture a wide variety of underwater subjects. Here on Grand Cayman, during my own snorkel excursions, I frequently photograph a diverse range of marine creatures, from larger animals like reef fish, sea turtles, and rays, to octopuses, eels, and blennies. I’ll spend hours on end exploring shallow coral reef systems to photograph the intricate shapes, textures, and hues of corals and gorgonians.

The underwater landscape provides me with unique opportunities to explore the play of light and shadow beneath the surface. I can incorporate the mesmerizing effect of sun rays into my imagery as they filter through the water’s surface. I can go back in time and explore history by photographing shallow water shipwrecks. On days when conditions are calm, I can often get up close and personal with smaller subjects such as crabs and blennies with my macro setup.

A pair of Caribbean reef squid engages in a mating dance in a few feet of water

Shallow seagrass beds are a great place to find green sea turtles munching on the grass

While macro is generally easier on scuba, there is no reason you can’t find and photograph good subjects on a single breath as well

Generally, snorkeling takes place in shallower waters, where natural light penetrates more effectively. Often, this allows for vibrant and detailed images without the need for artificial lighting such as strobes. Still, lighting is the most important aspect of photography and strobes will be beneficial in the majority of circumstances underwater. Light behaves differently underwater, so it’s essential to understand how this may affect your photos.

On bright sunny days, I often work with ambient light, but there are also occasions when I may add a touch of fill light from a dual set of strobes or use the strobes for creative lighting techniques. On days where there may be heavy cloud cover, a set of strobes will definitely add a much needed pop of light to the images you are capturing. I seldom go out without my strobes now, as I find them to be an indispensable aid.

My go-to setup for underwater photography—bought largely because of the compact form factor for freediving and snorkeling—is the OM System OM-1 in an AOI UH-OM1 housing. My favorite lens for snorkeling is Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO with a small four-inch dome port. The small footprint enables me to get closer to larger marine life such as turtles and stingrays while allowing me to fill the frame with smaller subjects like octopuses or crabs for close-focus wide-angle opportunities. When I photograph coral textures and small fish such as blennies, I will switch to my macro lens: an Olympus 60mm f/2.8 Macro.

Even old farming equipment can become a bustling artificial reef in the shallows

Hawkbill turtles are beautiful and common subjects to encounter on snorkel excursions

Most of the images that I create during snorkeling excursions are photographed in roughly 5 to 10 feet of water, although I will dive to 15 to 20 feet when the need arises. There is a slight drawback that you may encounter when photographing in shallow environments, which is poor visibility due to more particulate matter suspended in the water column from wave action. However, this can occasionally provide opportunities to capture images with a bit more atmospheric feel to them. After all, visibility and clarity in the water column is ever changing and our subject matter lives and thrives in these variable conditions. My goal is to try and capture as many of these variations as I can.

Our line of sight during snorkel excursions tends to be a top-down view. Instead of shooting from this perspective, try to photograph subjects from eye level or slightly below. This will mean swimming down to subjects while on a breath-hold, but this perspective can often provide a more immersive view and showcase the underwater environment from a different angle. Getting as close to your subjects as possible, without disturbing them, will improve the clarity of your images.

A yellow stingray searching for crustaceans in the shallows

On a sadder note, snorkeling reveals just how quickly shallow coral reef systems are affected by our changing climate. In the summer of 2023, I witnessed the devastating effects of coral bleaching that occurred on Grand Cayman. As the ocean temperatures soared, healthy corals expelled algae and turned completely white—in as little as two weeks. While bleaching doesn’t mean the corals are dead, it is an indication they are in danger and if temperatures don’t reduce, coral death follows. It is my hope that by capturing these visual narratives, awareness can be raised about the impacts of warming seas on marine environments and foster a greater understanding and empathy for the urgent need to mitigate the effects of climate change.

A common octopus and a bar jack “nuclear hunting”: The jack will follow the octopus around, preying on fish or crustaceans that the octopus spooks out of cracks and crevices in the reef

To see more of Andrew’s work, please give him a follow on Instagram and visit his website, www.andrewmclachlan.ca.


Be the first to add a comment to this article.
You must be logged in to comment.
* indicates required
Travel with us

Featured Photographer