An In-Depth Guide to Shooting Over-Unders/Split Shots
This awesome split shot of a humpback whale in Oman is currently the cover image for Adobe Lightroom!
Photographs that are taken half in and half out of the water are commonly known as split shots or over-unders. These types of images are especially powerful, as they connect our usual environment with the underwater world, and allow non-divers an opportunity to see some of the beautiful scenery and wildlife that lies just beneath the surface of the ocean.
Various factors come into play when trying to create an exciting and successful split-shot image. You will need the correct conditions, some essential equipment, and a good understanding of specific camera settings and controls for optimal results.
Freediver Anna von Boetticher preparing for a dive beneath the ice in Greenland
Choosing the Right Equipment
First of all, you will need a wide-angle lens that has the largest angle of view possible, which means that fisheye lenses such as the ubiquitous Tokina 10–17mm are ideally suited for this purpose. You’ll need to house this wide-angle lens behind a dome port with the largest diameter possible. The bigger the port, the easier it will be to keep the camera steady and place the dividing waterline across the center of the image, so that equal parts of the frame will be devoted to what is above and below the surface.
Trying to accomplish these shots with a compact camera that has a lens diameter of less than an inch is extremely difficult, and should only be attempted in extremely calm conditions. For DSLR users, a standard 8-inch dome port will be adequate for most scenarios, but try shooting over-unders in rough seas and waves, and you will be grateful for as much surface area as possible. For this reason, professional underwater photographers sometimes build giant, custom-made dome ports to help solve this problem.
Blue sharks circle the boat in Cape Town, South Africa
A snorkeler and a hawksbill turtle at the surface in the Maldives
Finding a Suitable Scene
Once you have assembled the necessary equipment, the key to success is to find a location perfectly suited to this type of image. For the underwater part, you require a subject close to the surface worth capturing, and then must combine this with an in-focus and well-lit above-water scene. Shallow coral reefs provide some of the best split-shot opportunities, but these can be challenging to find, as most coral tends to grow at depths below 15 feet since above that is often too warm for them to survive.
Available light and water visibility are also important factors, and you will struggle to get good images if it is cloudy or the water is extremely murky. When the sunlight and visibility are good, the depth of your composition should be no greater than 15 feet, and for the best results, between 3 and 10 feet, so that the sun can light both segments of the image and you won’t have to use strobes at all.
A picture perfect shallow coral reef in the northern Red Sea
Cabbage corals as far as the camera can see, just below the surface in Raja Ampat, Indonesia
A diver explores a crystal clear freshwater lake in Austria
Ideal Camera Settings
The next challenge is to balance the often dramatically different lighting conditions above and below the water to achieve a good overall exposure. Shooting with the sun at your back will help, but most importantly, always expose for the top, above-water, half of the image. This will normally underexpose the darker underwater portion of your image, but you can fix this problem in post-processing, as it is relatively easy to bring out the details in the shadows, but impossible to fix blown-out areas.
Another problem is that optical distortions cause the above-water portion of the image to seem further away than the underwater scene. Normally, an aperture of f/8 would be a good starting point for wide-angle underwater photography, but using this setting for splits will likely result in half of the image being out of focus. You will need to close the aperture to around f/16 or f/22, increasing the depth of field enough to make sure the entire image is sharp. In addition, make sure to set your focus point below the waterline, as it is acceptable to have some blur in the topside section, but the underwater part of the image must be sharp for maximum appeal.
A mangrove forest in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, perfectly lit in the afternoon sun
Because you will be shooting with a small aperture, it is advisable to increase the ISO to compensate. Just be careful not to go beyond what your camera can handle and introduce unwanted noise. Some cameras deal much better with this than others, so it’s important to understand the limitations of your gear. Increasing the ISO also allows you to use a faster shutter speed, which helps avoid camera shake and blurry results. Combine a fast shutter speed with your camera’s burst mode to fire off multiple frames, increasing your chances of capturing at least one successful image.
Red crabs cover every rock on Australia’s Christmas Island
Another immaculate shallow coral reef at sunset in northern Egypt
Tips and Tricks
Once you have found the perfect scene and dialed in the optimum settings, one last challenge remains: avoiding watermarks interfering with the above-water part of the image. The truth is there is no perfect solution for eliminating water droplets on the top half of your dome port. Products designed to reduce residue on car windscreens are only marginally helpful because they tend to quickly lose their effectiveness when constantly submerged in seawater. Your best bet is to spread a bit of saliva on the top half of the dome port, then wash it off, in much the same way that many divers spit in their mask to stop it from fogging up before a dive.
A giant iceberg from above and below in Greenland
You can also reduce the appearance of droplets by quickly submerging the entire port, and then lifting it up to the desired level and quickly pressing the shutter. This technique results in a thin sheet of water covering the entire dome port, which will start to form into droplets after only a few seconds, so if you would prefer not to spit on your gear, dunk regularly and keep shooting!
If you have a 45-degree angle viewfinder attached to your underwater camera housing, this can be really helpful when trying to frame the shot, as you can look down into your camera from above, rather than at water level. This will require extra leg work to stay above the waves though, so make sure you inflate your BCD to spare your calf muscles.
Exploring the shallow Chrisoula K wreck in the Red Sea, Egypt
Like most underwater photography disciplines, practice makes perfect when it comes to capturing successful over-unders. Find a place to experiment in calm water, such as a swimming pool or lake, and once you have mastered the basics in these conditions, you will be ready to take your new skills to the open ocean. It’s not easy to capture the perfect split shot, but when you get it right, the results are well worth the effort.
The huge dorsal fin of a wild orca breaks the surface in Norway
A snorkeler below and a double rainbow above in the Maldives
A strobe-lit coral reef in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt
Turtles regularly visit the surface so make great subjects for over-under images
A humpback whale puts on a show in Oman
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