Take the Plunge.

by Douglas Hoffman on March 15, 2012

Many photographers dive into underwater photography with a lot of enthusiasm but end up discouraged because the images made did not meet expectations. The bottom line is that many elements have to come together in order to create good images underwater. Understanding what works and more importantly what does not, takes time. The good news is one does not have to master everything at once, and the learning process is half the fun.

All the experts agree that is best to become a good diver, then learn one aspect of u/w photography, before starting to learn another. The most important diving skill is buoyancy control. This is having the ability to regulates ones breathing to neither sink, nor float.

New divers are often observed  laying on the bottom or clinging to coral.   Even worse their fins are constantly moving stirring up sediment that will get dispersed into the water column. As it takes time for this backscatter to settle, it will  reflect light towards the lens and  ruin many photographs. If not bad enough divers down current will also be affected.

The ability to control ones breathing not only enables the photographer to limit the turbidity his presence has in the water but also to become part of the environment. Fish feel threatened when a large diver with a camera starts stalking them. So, it makes sense that after they get used to a diver, they will relax and resume their normal routine. This in turn enables photographers to make good pictures.

It is important to know the kinds of images you want to make before going diving, because once underwater it is not easy to reconfigure equipment. Changing lenses requires surfacing, drying off, changing the lens and the port. This takes time and if hurried will result in a camera flood.

Murphy’s law as applied to underwater photography says: When you set your camera up for macro, you will see wide angle subjects like turtles, mantra rays, & dolphins. And, when set up for wide angle you will see rare fish posturing in the current, mating squid, or two eels in the same hole.  The lesson here is to enjoy the special moments then get back to the dive and continue looking for subjects appropriate for the lens you have.

Underwater photographers just starting out will do better shooting macro. The reason is that the subject matter is very close to the lens and ambient light is not an important part of the overall image. Wide-angle photography under water is all about using the ambient light as part of the overall exposure. This is a very important topic and will be discussed later.  For now lets concentrate on macro photography.

In the context of underwater photography we can take better photographs of a fish, if we know what kind of coral it prefers to live around, where does it hide when threatened, what does it eat, Does it go to a cleaning station on the reef. Once you know a little bit about your subject, you will know where to look for it. Sooner or later your knowledge and patience will get rewarded, and the opportunity will arise to create photographs of the desired fish.

Finding the fish is just one part of the process.  After the subject is located the next task is to expose and light it correctly. This requires the proper use of strobe, shutter speed and aperture. Don’t let these words scare you. Instead embrace them, as these are key elements to making good pictures. Depth of field in Macro photography is important. Setting the camera on F22 or F16 is the place to start. These F-stops allow great depth of field and at the same time help to eliminate ambient light.

Proper use of shutter speed will help control how much ambient light is in your image and if the image is sharp or blurry. Shooting at speeds of  1/ 125 of a second will enable you to freeze the action and limit the ambient light. When shooting macro, use two strobes set on manual. The primary is set at full and the other at 1/2  or 3/4 power. If using a flash with F-stops, make the secondary strobe 2 – 3 stops lower than the primary. This ratio of light allows creativity, shadows and depth to the image.

Some photographers use TTL.  This means they preset the camera to meter the flash.  When they press the shutter halfway down to focus the strobes measure the distance to subject and overall light conditions then select how much power is needed to illuminate the scene so when the shutter is completely depressed the right amount of light is used. While many professionals love this system, I am a bit old school and want to know exactly what I am doing and don’t want the camera deciding how much  power to use.

I want to create some light ratios that manage the shadows and highlights in a manner that illuminates the scene as well ads texture and dimension. While the most modern equipment might enable the user to use TTl flash and control  each flash individually with a compensation dial, I want to know exactly what my light is doing.   TTL  exposures typically  send an equal amount of light to both both flashes.  To me that creates a flat lighting pattern.

Lets put this information to use and plan a dive to make fish portraits. The first thing to do is research the dive site, and find out what fish are common there, what kind of corals and bottom topography is present. I suggest asking the local dive shop if there are any cleaning stations on the reef your going to dive. This is an area underwater where fish gather to get cleaned by specialized fish.

Its kind of like when we take the family car to get washed. This is a great place to make photographs. Once you have an idea of what fish might be at the dive site, make photographing them part of your dive plan. This will remind you to take your time to get used to the surroundings as opposed to chasing after each fish that crosses your path.

Marine life is delicate, and it is our responsibility to respect and protect it. Don’t move or touch anything for the sake of a photograph.


While you may see others do it, set an example by passing on an image as opposed to breaking coral or handling an animal just to get a shot. Remember everything you do while underwater has an immediate and long-term affect on the world below.

By respecting the sea, maintaining good diving skills, using shutter speed, strobe, and depth of field everyone can create beautiful macro pictures underwater.  Next time I will talk more about wide angle photography. Until then have fun.

If interested in photography consider immersing yourself in the subject and travel with a professional photographer