Teaching Underwater Photography

by Douglas Hoffman on March 17, 2022

As a photo coach my goal is to help divers and snorkelers improve they’re underwater photography skills. Since everyone is different and has unique experience, the first thing I do is get an idea of their diving and photography experience. I want to know how many dives they have done, what kind of equipment they have, and if they use manual or TTL when it comes to lighting. This way I can plan the dive and lectures accordingly.

Macro is the easiest type of underwater photography to learn. In this style of photograph the background is not important and most often black. This eleviates the need to meter the background as when creating wide angle images. Since ambient light is not important and all illumination is from strobes or video light, the photographer can shoot higher shutter speeds and F-stops. The majority of cameras these days since between 1/160th, 1/250th and 1/320th of a second. In Macro photography the diver needs to understand how to bracket strobe power relative to subject distance and reflectivity.

Fiji to Tonga Liveaboard Dive Trip
soft coral crab

Wide angle underwater is more difficult to learn. In this style the photographer must do two things. First, meter the background exposure and set the camera to that shutter speed and f-stop. Second, set flash power to fill in light on the subject, adjust strobe position so that the edge of the light is on the subject, and not on the water between camera and subject.

Wide angle reef in perspective style

By talking with the diver and concentrating on their needs, we will concentrate on macro or wide angle photography. I prefer to do a briefing the day before diving. This gives me the opportunity to talk to the diver face to face about light, exposure, metering, bracketing strobe power, camera settings, strobe positioning, mixing strobe light with ambient light, and the exposure triangle. I ask the diver to bring their camera, so we can review settings and do some exercises on land.

After demonstrating how to meter light, I ask the diver to meter the scene and set an exposure. Then, I talk about how to recompose the scene and use strobes to add fill light on the subject. After explaining it, I ask the student to meter the light, set the camera, recompose on the subject and make some exposures bracketing the strobe power from full, 3/4. 1/2. 1/4 and 1/8 power. Once we do it together a few times, I instruct the diver to go back to the condo or resort and put different items on the table on the balcony and practice adding fill light on a subject while keeping the sky blue.

The next morning before the dive we will review the homework, then go over the dive plan. If shooting wide angle I review how to meter the background for exposure and set camera to that f-stop and shutter speed before getting into camera position, bracket the amount of strobe light is needed to fill the subject, and to stay the same distance away from subject while bracketing the flash.

If shooting macro, I review camera settings and strobe positioning and power. I talk about setting the strobes at slightly different power settings and positions to create soft transitions from highlight to shadow and to provide some dimension. I also review buoyancy and how important it is not to lie on the coral or stir up the bottom.

Leaf Fish

I know from experience that when a diver is focused on photography, buoyancy control suffers. Thats why I start every workshop with two different buoyancy exercises. The first has the diver hover for 90 seconds in a vertical position in the water column, 5 feet off the bottom.

Next, I ask the diver to get horizontal and lie flat in the water. I want them to set their buoyancy one foot above the bottom and stay there for 90 seconds. This not only tests the divers buoyancy control but also reminds them how important it is not to let fin tips stir up the bottom.

Improper finning can increase the amount of sediment, sand, and turbidity in the water column and will reduce visibility for every diver on the reef. As a rule divers are very considerate of other divers but sometimes when taking pictures their attention is focused on the photo, and they are unaware their finning is stirring things up. I have a GoPro with me and record the diver doing both good and bad behavior for a post dive discussion.

During the dive briefing I talk about how to get everything set before swimming into camera position. This includes how and where to meter light for best exposure, fine tune strobe position to illuminate subject and not water between the lens and subject. Once everything is ready, we dive the plan with the student doing buoyancy skills, metering light and setting up before getting into camera position, and bracketing strobe power. After the dive we review video and still images and I provide feed back as to what went well and can be improved. It is this final step that learning takes hold.

Everyone learns differently.   Some are fine reading a book.  Others do better when they see and hear something being explained, then do it for themselves.  This is the modern day diver see, hear, do, & learn technique. Combining our senses enables divers to better remember the lesson.   

While I have workshops available in Maui, I have camera and am willing to travel and teach in beautiful locations like Fiji. Check out my site for more information

Stop clowning around, and come to Fiji