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Shooting Abstracts: Underwater Photography for Hipsters
By Sage Ono, August 25, 2023 @ 08:00 AM (EST)

Instead of filling the frame, the pygmy seahorse is PART of the frame, tying the image together (105mm, f/16, 1/200s, ISO 125)

Look back into your memory and find the best underwater photograph you have ever seen. Something jaw-dropping; a moment in time so perfectly captured, so perfectly composed that you can’t even be jealous of the photographer who took it. You may be thinking of clear blue water with a charismatic subject, interesting behavior, or maybe some clever or spectacular lighting. One thing is certain, it’s the type of photo that makes you simply say, “Wow!”, and stare in wonder. Perfect, according to every photographic “rule”!

These are not the types of photos I will be discussing. Instead of photos that make people go “Wow!” and gasp in awe, we’re talking photos that make people go “Huh?” and tilt their heads: underwater abstracts. It turns out that this “brand” of underwater photography is much easier to show than explain, but because the right mindset is important when it comes to composition, I’m going to try anyway.

Let’s say that the baseline goal of underwater photography is to find spectacular moments and capture them as faithfully to reality as possible so that the viewer feels like they were actually there. These are the “Wow!” photos. The key to abstract photography lies in how an image departs from that faithfulness. For the sake of explainability, think of a spectrum with conventional rules of composition living in the center and the more abstract ones at the extremes. One can approach one side of this spectrum by removing the specificity and context of an image, thereby leaving more space for interpretation. With more ambiguity, it takes on a conceptual, artistic aesthetic. On the other side, a composition becomes more abstract as it tries to impose a specific and artificial structure. When underwater photographers think of composition, we tend to think of subject and environment, but when a painter thinks of composition, it is more in terms of shape, perspective, and repetition. This end of the spectrum is focused on the latter.

Symmetrically cropped crab on sea pen (105mm, f/16, 1/10s, ISO 200)

Fractal feeding tentacles on a sea cucumber (105mm + Nauticam SMC-1, f/20, 1/200s, ISO 200)


Concepts of Abstract Photography

That’s enough with the art-school mumbo jumbo; let’s talk “specifics.” In the world of underwater photography, there are endless creative techniques photographers use to add a little spice to their shots: snoots, long exposures, props, diopters, backlighting, and so on. Unfortunately, creative techniques do not a creative photo make, as evidenced by all my lame snoot shots! So rather than listing out a bunch of ways to carry more gear underwater, here are some useful concepts to get a photographer in the right mindset for putting together more unique compositions.


Squint your eyes at a photo and you’ll notice that the details of the subject and its environment can be broken down into shapes. Humans, pattern-seeking organisms that we are, love clearly defined shapes. If there is too much uniformity or chaos, we don’t know where to look first and the photo can feel messy or plain. However, if a picture has strong shapes to guide our eyes, it will be subconsciously much more pleasing to us. Take the image below, for example. The concentric ovals of the angel shark’s eye immediately catch the viewer’s attention. Try to break down your favorite photos into simple shapes and you’ll begin to see curves in place of kelp, triangles in place of fish, circles in place of eyes. Try finding compositions based on shape to expand your range of subjects and diversify your portfolio.

Radial symmetry with an angel shark eye at the center (60mm + Nauticam SMC-1, f/18, 1/200s, ISO 160)



Similar to shape, “line” is an indispensable tool in terms of guiding the viewer’s vision. The main difference is that while shape provides appealing points of focus, line creates paths and divisions in the scene for the eyes to follow. More extreme examples, like the photo below, incorporate bold lines to give an image a strong geometric look. These shots depend on sharp high-contrast forms like kelp stipes, fin rays, and branching corals. On the subtler side of line are gradients and layers. The fuzzy transitions from one color to another, differing light levels, and the barrier between reef and blue water can break up an image into sections, making a busy scene more digestible. An abstract photo does not necessarily need a subject; try to find lines and gradients that will organize your compositions without the need for a clear focus.

Tubesnout eggs adorning the vertices of branching giant kelp (60mm, f/14, 1/160s, ISO 250)



Everybody loves a nice subject. Charismatic sharks, majestic whales, and vibrant nudibranchs are mainstays of photography competitions. The only problem is that everyone loves them, so there are thousands of variations on the same blue-water shark sunball shot everyone is familiar with. How do you get unique shots of the most over-photographed critters out there? By looking closer! Forego the full-frame subject and look for the shapes, lines, and patterns that make up the animal. Have you ever seen a shot just composed of the teeth of a shark? I haven’t either, but I bet it could be incredible! Take the time to pay attention to the smaller facets of a subject to find patterns and images others have missed out on. Just remember to bring that diopter.

Vibrant patterns in the cerata of a spanish shawl nudibranch (60mm, f/18, 1/250s, ISO 640)



Bokeh is far from a new concept in underwater photography. Open the aperture up and you get a dreamy blur effect that captures a one-of-a-kind aesthetic. This is great advice, but thinking of a shallow depth of field as simply applying a “dreamy” effect to your shots can be limiting. Instead, it is an invaluable tool for erasing specificity from an image and making room for the viewer to use their imagination. When using an extremely shallow depth of field, an image is effectively split into a focal point, a before, and an after. The continuity between these focus “zones” can have a drastic effect on how we interpret an image. When a single object spans these focus “zones,” it appears dynamic, grander, larger than our normal field of view. When we focus on a single point with no continuity, it creates a sense of space around it; we are seeing only a fraction of a larger moment. Aim your focus for the middle distance and try to select compositions with elements that span different levels of focus.

Pinpricks of light reflect in a Melibe leonina nudibranch, like a galaxy come to life (105mm, f/22, 1/200s, ISO 125)



Though the underwater world is not a place where most people spend their time, there is a level of familiarity that people still find in certain photos. Example A: the classic reefscape with a natural blue background. It’s alien, but still reminiscent of the blue skies and rock formations or trees you might find at a national park. This familiarity can be the bridge from a photo that is simply weird, to one that is strangely alluring. Example B: the channel between the spines of an urchin can remind us of a curved path up a forested hill, albeit where the trees are sharp and iridescent. Keep your eye on your viewfinder to search for images that echo sights we are familiar with from everyday life.

The path less traveled between the spines of a magnificent fire urchin (105mm, f/22, 1/200s, ISO 160)



Someone once said that the difference between an average photo and fine art is turning the saturation down to zero. While it certainly isn’t true all of the time, color can often be a red herring in underwater photography. The natural blue-green tinge that light takes on as it goes through water can make balancing color and strobe angling a pain while taking your attention away from the contents of the image. By focusing on the black, white, and gray in between, it’s possible to achieve a minimalism and nuance to images that would look cluttered otherwise. Normally, abstract monochrome shots lean towards the extremes of high-key and low-key compositions, but don’t be afraid to keep the subtler shades for a less stark shot. When shooting for abstracts, focus on the structure and lighting of an image before the colors. Best case scenario, it looks great in color because the lighting was already great; worst case scenario, throw it in monochrome.

A high-key composition outlining a tangle of bull kelp (24mm, f/11, 1/160s, ISO 640)



Unsurprisingly, light is the most complex factor when it comes to abstract composition. Not all light is created equally and the underwater photographer’s arsenal is considerable. From strobes, to video lights, to snoots, to natural light, the combinations are endless. Natural light alone is highly variable based on the angle, turbidity, depth, and cloud cover. Luckily, if you stop your aperture and ISO down enough, you can rely on that lovely even artificial lighting for all of your shots. That being said, the one advantage of natural light is the fact that it is uneven. As light passes through an uneven surface, it splits, bends, and dapples. This can make for fascinating textured light like sunbeams on the kelp in the image below. Mix in a bit of artificial light and it’s a whole new world! Watch out for interesting natural light as it makes for layered and prismatic effects, and don’t be afraid to push that ISO up high to expose for the darker parts.

Dappled sunbeams on a frond of giant kelp (60mm, f/10, 1/160s, ISO 1000)



Capturing motion in photography is, quite literally, pushing the conceptual limits of the medium by not only freezing a singular moment, but condensing the dynamism of the natural world into an image. From a compositional standpoint, this creates fascinating opportunities for unique shapes and layering that you wouldn’t be able to achieve with static photos. Natural movement can form abstract chaotic shapes that show off unique environments and behaviors. Artificial movement like panning, spinning and zooming can take a sedentary subject and transform it into something more interesting.

Unfortunately, all of this does not come for free; the cost is the balance problem between strobes and constant light. With long exposures, what you are effectively doing, is using the constant light to “paint” the movement and layering a single frozen moment at the beginning or end. The trick to balance is ensuring that the “painted” light does not overpower the strobe light in terms of exposure or color. Constant light ends up more or less determining the primary color of a long exposure, and preparing for that during composition is key to the image’s overall feeling. When capturing long-exposure abstracts, search for subjects with interesting movement patterns or that benefit from directional motion blur. Then adjust for natural light, or bring your own constant light in the color of your choice to paint the image exactly how you want.

Perhaps nothing can result in more unexpected results than slow shutter and motion (17mm, f/13, 1/4s, ISO 320)


Final Thoughts

While these concepts can be helpful when creating more abstract compositions, there are no true formulas that will always lead to an incredible shot. After all, abstract photography is about deviating from the tried-and-true methodology. Worry not! Embrace the chaos, confusion, and experimental nature of abstract photography. Worst case, you end up with a photo that’ll make your friends say “Huh?”; best case, you end up with a shot that no one has ever seen before.

Kelp and light: You can do everything right and still end up with a mediocre shot. On the other hand, some defy explanation (60mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 640)


To view more of Sage’s fantastic underwater work, please visit his website, www.sageonophotography.com, and follow him on Instagram.


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