With its richly colored landscapes and fascinating sea creatures,
there are few places more beautiful to photograph than the
Underwater photography presents unique photographic challenges, but
don't be intimidated -- it just takes a some extra gear (and, yes,
some practice) to capture amazing images next time you go diving!
(image © Dennis Sabo)
Whether you’re scuba diving among sharks or snorkeling along a reef,
the photographic possibilities are endless and intriguing.
Of course, underwater photography can be a little intimidating since
shooting underwater presents unique photographic challenges. But
you’ll get immediate feedback with your digital SLR so you can make
adjustments when necessary and it won’t be long before you’ll be
showing off images of your underwater adventures to fellow divers,
snorkelers and land-locked shutterbugs. To help you gear up and grab
those once-in-a lifetime shots, here are some guidelines and tips to
get you started.
Camera Equipment Selection:
Underwater housings are available for many digital SLRs so if you
already own a DSLR, the most economical way of gearing up is to find
a housing for your current camera. However, if you’re just starting
out or are thinking of stepping up to a new DSLR, make sure that a
housing is made for your preferred model. Also think about the types
of images you want to shoot and the conditions under which you’ll be
Perhaps the two most important features to consider are the sensor
size and lens selection.
Consider cameras that offer Live View, and even EOS HD Video mode
shooting options (such as the Rebel T1i camera pictured above) to
make the most of your underwater photography experience
(LCD image © Brad Sheard)
If you’re interested in taking fish pictures and macro shots under
well-lit conditions (or with a strobe), you’ll be fine with an APS-C
sized sensor found in cameras like the EOS 7D, or the Rebel T2i.
If, however, you really want to concentrate on underwater
landscapes, shipwrecks or large marine life, you may want to
consider a full-frame camera like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II so you
can fully utilize the viewing angle of a wide angle lens. One of the
goals in underwater photography is to get as close to your subject
as possible to lessen the amount of water between camera and
The camera you choose should also offer a full complement of wide
angle and macro lenses since these are the two types of lenses
you’ll be using most often.
Other considerations when selecting a DSLR for underwater
photography include video capabilities, if you like to shoot both
still and video and Live View (see below for information about
Housings and Live View).
How to Choose an Underwater Housing:
While most camera manufacturers do not offer underwater housing for
their SLR or DSLR cameras (Canon does make underwater
accessories for most PowerShot models), a variety of third-party
companies do. Many of these speciality companies offer dedicated
underwater housings, each with different specifications and
capabilities depending on the camera they are designed for. Housings
are generally constructed of acrylic or aluminum. The former are
generally less expensive but are sometimes a little bulkier than
their aluminum counterparts and may be a little less durable.
Depending on your camera model, you may not have a choice but both
materials are perfectly acceptable.
There are several options for underwater housing. The most common
materials are aluminum or acrylic, and generally each housing is
custom designed for specific camera models, such as the examples
seen above for the PowerShot G10, Rebel XSi, and EOS 5D Mark II
A more important factor to consider is the depth rating. At best, if
you take the housing deeper than it’s rated, the camera controls
won’t work. At worst, the housing can leak or implode. Consider
that, at the surface, air pressure is 14.7 psi (pounds per square
inch). Pressure doubles at 33 feet underwater and increases by 14.7
psi for each additional 33 feet of depth. Dive to the bottom of a
swimming pool to about 12 feet and you’ll feel the pressure
difference in your ears. That gives you a hint about how much
pressure your housing needs to withstand to operate at depth. If
you’re only going to snorkel, you should be able to get away with a
depth rating of about 33 feet (as long as you don’t do any deep free
diving). Many DSLR housings have a depth rating of between 200-300
feet, which is deeper than most scuba divers dive but provides a
good safety margin for the housing.
After depth rating, perhaps the most important aspect to consider is
which controls can be operated when the camera body is in the
housing. Check out several different housings to see which one best
meet your needs, especially if you plan to use many of the camera’s
manual or advanced features. Get some hands-on time with the housing
if you can or examine a diagram to see how the controls are
positioned. You want control positioning that falls naturally within
reach while your hands remain on the housing’s handles.
With the advent of Live View, underwater photographers have another
option for composing a shot. Keep in mind, though, that autofocus
isn’t as fast with Live View but it does make for easier composing.
If your camera is equipped with Live View, test it out to see
whether it works for you. Otherwise, you can easily use the camera’s
optical viewfinder. Although your eye is separated from the optical
viewfinder by the housing and your mask, most housings come with a
built-in optical system that provides increased eye relief. This
magnification allows you to see the entire image in the viewfinder.
With the Canon EF 15mm fisheye lens, you can get close enough to the
shark to “hit” it with a splash of strobe light. Just be sure to
know your shark species before approaching. Proper angling of
strobes—versus lighting straight on over the lens—helps avoid
backscatter, where the light bounces off naturally occurring
particulates and results in snowstorm-like spots
(image © Brad Sheard)
You’ll also need to decide what type(s) of ports to purchase for
your housing. Each manufacturer has slightly different
specifications and provides a list that matches ports and lenses.
Generally, though, you’ll need a dome port for wide angle lenses and
a flat port for macro lenses.
For wide angle lenses, the rule of thumb is get the widest angle
lens you can afford. Again, you want to limit the amount of water
between the camera and the subject. If you’re shooting with a
full-frame camera like the 5D Mark II, check out the Canon EF 14mm,
and the EF 15mm fisheye, lenses. Full-frame shooters will also make
good use of the Canon EF 16-35mm, f/2.8 L II lens. The Canon EF-S
10-22mm is a good alternative for cameras with APS-C sized sensors;
keep the zoom as wide as possible to counterbalance the cameras’
1.6x crop factor.
On the macro side, you also want to position the camera as close to
your subject as possible, so the Canon EF 50mm, the EF-S 60mm, or
the EF 100mm macro lenses will work well.
Perfectly angled dual strobes provide even lighting for this macro
shot, taken with a 60mm lens. A single strobe can work for macro
shots but dual coverage is better
(image © Brad Sheard)
Of course, you don’t want to scare away a tiny fish or get too close
to anything that can harm you. A friend once had a small octopus
grab onto her strobe and rip it off the housing—not a common
experience but something to keep in mind when approaching wild life
of any kind. Another diver found the strobe later that day,
abandoned by the curious octopus.
You’ll also need to budget for one, preferably two, external strobes
and a set of strobe arms for each. One option is a self-contained
underwater strobe, which requires no extra housing and, depending on
the strobe, may be more economical than purchasing and housing a
standard strobe such as the Canon Speedlite 580EX II.
There are a couple of differences, other than price, that should be
noted. Obviously, you can’t use the underwater strobes above water
(okay, theoretically you can but they’ll be incredibly heavy) so it
might make more sense to house your current flash(es). Another
downside is the lack of E-TTL in some external strobes, so examine
the specs carefully or be sure you’re well-versed in manual strobe
For lighting, you can use purpose- built underwater strobes, or else
invest in waterproof housing for Canon Speedlite flash units (such
as this Fantasea model pictured above)
Self-contained underwater strobes have a major advantage, however.
They cover wide angle lenses while housed strobes do not so unless
you plan to only shoot macro, you should opt for a self-contained
Underwater Housing Tips:
Before you make your first dive with a housing, be sure to check it
for leaks. The best way to do this is to take an empty housing on a
dive with you. Yes, it’s a waste of a good dive but it’s better to
find out that the housing leaks or you didn’t seal it properly
before you put your camera in it.
Pay attention to the manufacturer’s instructions about checking,
cleaning and replacing O-rings. Even a little speck of sand or a
strand of hair can break a seal and allow water to enter the housing
and potentially harm your camera. Be sure to maintain your equipment
on a regular basis. .
Thanks to large capacity media cards and excellent battery life,
your camera will be good to go for at least a full day of diving
(and maybe a night dive, too). But when you need to take the camera
out of the housing in between dives, be sure to wipe the housing dry
before opening it up so you don’t get drips of water on the camera.
When you’re traveling, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to fit all
your underwater photo gear into a carry-on bag so be prepared with a
hard-cover case with TSA-approved locks. Most hard cases come with
customizable foam interiors or padded divider system for protection.
If you’re concerned about checking everything, carry your camera and
lenses on board and check the housing, strobes, strobe arms, and
other accessories. At least you’ll have a topside camera if your
luggage gets delayed on the way to your island vacation.
Lighting is key in all photography but takes on an even more
critical role underwater since light waves are refracted and
absorbed as they travel through the water. So, unlike land
photography, the best time to shoot underwater is between 10 a.m.
and 2 p.m. on a sunny day for the brightest ambient light possible.
Utilize fill flash to illuminate your main subject while maintaining
a well-exposed ambient light background. You can either underexpose
the background by about a stop or expose for the background and cut
strobe power anywhere from about 1/8th-1/2
(image © Brad Sheard)
Also keep in mind that color effectively disappears underwater, with
red vanishing at about 15-20 feet and other colors progressively
dissipating the deeper you go. Sure, you can get great images using
ambient light but in order to capture the full bloom of color
underwater, you need to use strobes.
As we mentioned earlier, two strobes are better than one because,
just as in studio lighting, multiple light sources provide more even
coverage. And, because strobes are mounted on adjustable arms, you
can easily position them at the appropriate angles for different
Straight on lighting, especially with a single strobe, is usually
unflattering under any circumstances but causes a phenomenon unique
to underwater photography: backscatter. Even the clearest water
contains particulates and if you point the strobe straight ahead,
the light will hit these tiny floating objects and reflect back into
the camera. Rather than a beautiful underwater scene, your image
will resemble a snowstorm. So go with dual strobes if you can and
watch your angles.
Before you start shooting underwater, be sure you’re comfortable
with your camera—you don’t want to try to figure things out when
you’re at depth. Also become familiar with the camera’s full
complement of manual exposure modes since you may need to adapt your
settings to changing environments.
You might want to start out in aperture-priority or shutter
speed priority (if you’re using manual settings on your strobe,
be sure the shutter speed is set to sync with the strobes). If
you want to capture an image of a rapidly swimming fish (or
diver), be sure your shutter speed is at least 1/100th-1/125th
of a second to stop motion. And if you’re diving shallow on a
windy day, up the shutter speed to help correct for water motion
that may be bouncing you around.
White Balance may be perfected while editing, if you shoot in RAW.
However, if you prefer to shoot JPEG images try using the 'Cloudy'
or even 'Shade' WB presents, which eliminates some of the overly
Exposure metering depends on the subject you’re shooting, of
course. But it’s safe to use center-weighted average or
evaluative metering, especially if you’re shooting an elusive
(and moving) subject.
Autofocus generally works well underwater but if you want to
play it safe, get manual focus gears for your housing so you
have the option to switch from AF if the scene is too low
contrast for AF to work effectively. Canon lenses with their
full-time manual focus (no need to switch between AF and MF on
the lens) are very good for this dual focus option. Again, you
can try Live View although it’s probably best for static
subjects like coral rather than schools of fish.
While every underwater photographer has his or her own
preference for white balance settings, to have the most
flexibility, it’s best to shoot in RAW (or RAW plus JPEG). We
have to say, though, that auto white balance on the Canon 5D
Mark II actually works quite well. Also try the Cloudy white
balance preset, which helps cut down on blue casts or bring a
small white diver’s slate with you to set a custom white
One of the coolest specialty shots is an over/under shot, with half
the image underwater and the other half above the water line.
This over/under shot was taken with a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon
EF-15mm fisheye lens using a dome port. Since the focus points are
different below and above the water line, it’s best to stop down the
lens to get good depth-of-field
(image © Brad Sheard)
The easiest way to achieve this type of image is with a fisheye lens
and a dome port (you can use other wide angle lenses as well, but we
think the fisheye lens works best). Check to make sure there are no
water droplets on the top half of the port when you’re shooting.
(Some underwater photographers use Rain-x or Pledge on the port
beforehand to help prevent water drops.). The Canon 5D Mark II’s
evaluative metering works well for the over/under shots, although
you may want to stop down the lens to increase depth-of-field to
compensate for the difference in the over/under focus points.
There’s also a more complicated version that entails using a split
neutral density filter to balance the over/under exposure and a
diopter to compensate for the different focus points. But unless
you’re going to specialize in this type of image, you’re better off
experimenting with the gear you have.
Try to include a diver in photographs, especially to give scale to
large marine life, reefs and shipwrecks. If you’re shooting up
towards the surface, use the exposure compensation feature found on
all DSLRs to underexpose the shot (bracket if possible).
Underexposure can also be used to silhouette a diver or a school of
fish against a bright background.
Try to include a diver in your shot when photographing large marine
life to provide scale—it’s much more impressive when you see the
size of this Manta Ray. Shot with ambient light, this image was
converted to black and white in post-processing in order to keep the
color original on file for possible future use.
(image © Brad Sheard)
Fill flash is particularly useful underwater. To highlight a coral
head or reef against the ambient light background, underexpose the
background by about 1 stop and shoot with the flash at its E-TTL (or
manual) exposure setting. If that doesn’t work for you, try the
reverse—expose for the background and cut the strobe power by
1/8th-1/2. You’ll get a brightly colored foreground against a
beautiful blue (or green, depending on where you’re diving)
Underwater black and white images can be as beautiful as their color
counterparts but it’s always best to convert them to black and white
after the fact. You’ll still have the color image and you have more
control over the monochrome effect in post-processing.
To see what’s possible with underwater photography, look online and
through magazines to see other photographers’ work. Most
importantly, get in the water and have fun! With practice, you’ll
soon be capturing consistently beautiful images .
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