Underwater Photography - Part 1

This is the first part of our underwater series, you can also read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

Getting started

A few years ago having a camera on a dive boat would have marked you out as a high rolling playboy explorer. That was a measure of how expensive and foolhardy it used to be to venture into the sea with expensive, delicate photographic gear. Jacques Cousteau's adventures inspired a lot of frustrated people, but now digital cameras and their affordable housings mean any diver can express themselves. This is great news, previous generations of recreational divers had to consign their experiences to their own fallible memories, but today's plongeurs can easily share digital slide shows with land locked family and friends. N.B: Please do this sparingly or we'll all get a bad reputation!

There's lots to see underwater...

There's lots to see underwater...

 

...but there are hazards.

...but there are hazards.

 

Start with animals who can't or won't move.

Start with animals who can't or won't move.

 

Take it easy

One thing that accessibility breeds is opportunity, but this doesn't always translate into results. For divers this is because as soon as you go underwater, life gets complicated. Not only is it a totally alien environment to take pictures in, but as soon as you add anything new you start to suffer what is known as task loading. You simply have too much to think about. Even staying still so you can pause for a look at the controls is an effort, so the very first piece of advice is to leave the camera until you are ready. Get to the point where you are comfortable in the water and don't feel the need to fall to your knees kissing the ground when you’re back on dry land. Mastering buoyancy control (or at least understanding what's going wrong) is the key to considerate diving and also really handy for taking pictures. It's the ability to hover mid-water.

Get trained, you can't always rely on help from those around you.

Get trained, you can't always rely on help from those around you.

 

Once you have your diving under control, take the time to look around and enjoy it. Diving is an amazing experience; appreciate it for yourself before you try to capture it. Once you're seeing stuff you actually want to share, you're ready for a camera. It doesn't have to be mega animals or microscopic slugs - it can just be your mate grinning inanely in an especially unflattering mask.

Safety first

SCUBA Diving is already a very gear heavy pastime. When you add a camera the first thing you need to do is ensure it is safe and that it won't endanger you. Most cameras come with a (right) wrist strap, a lot of them float and so quite a few new divers end up hitting themselves in the head and getting tangled up whenever they adjust their mask or regulator. I find it much better to clip it securely to one of the rings on the buoyancy control device (BCD, jacket or wing) - then your hands are free when you need them. Your preference may differ but give it some thought - first you must be safe, then the camera should be safe and lastly you need it ready to take pictures. Don't dismiss stowing it in a pocket, a lot of divers don't take many pictures and end up hampered by a handful of unused camera throughout their dives – but if you don't take it at all, something great will swim by!

Have your hands free when you need them.

Have your hands free when you need them.

 

A metal carabiner will attach the standard wrist strap to rings on your BCD, but extending lanyards are useful if the straps are too short.

Make sure your camera(s) are secure.

Make sure your camera(s) are secure.

 

I bet you're hungry for some photographic information now, so brace yourself, here it comes!

Well red

Dive training will have taught you about some of the optical characteristics of water. The most striking is the way that red light is filtered out more and more effectively as you descend. Once you are more than 10m down the world will seem a bluer place. This continues with more depth, until in even the brightest, clearest seas the world is monochrome - cyan/grey in the tropics and green/grey in European waters - black if you're unlucky! Because of this loss of red, you need to consider white balance in underwater photography much more than on land. One way is to set to 'auto' and fix it on the surface. Because most cameras don't understand the blue cast, they will need help in post processing. This works but it isn't ideal, as with any underexposed picture major brightening will boost noise as much as detail - potentially blotchy, red noise in this case. There are a couple of ways around this.

The first is to use flash - a strobe in underwater photo jargon - as a source of full spectrum light. The built-in flashes of small digital cameras aren't very powerful so they won't reach very far. This deficiency is increased by the water itself and the diffusers most cases have - to spread the light more evenly - which halve their power. They aren't generally useful much more than 1m/3ft from your subject. Strobes are the cure chosen by the vast majority of underwater photographers, because they work. If you see brightly coloured shots in books, they will have been taken with strobes. Professional underwater photographers use much bigger flashes and more of them too. Don't expect the same results with a point and shoot camera on its own.

Getting really close will cut backscatter.

Getting really close will cut backscatter.

 

If a flash can't provide enough light then using ambient light - natural or available light in underwater jargon - is your other option. Sadly you will find that not only has most of the red gone, but that actually light itself is in very short supply. Thus exposures will be long and you (or your camera) will have to up the film speed (ISO) to keep this manageable. High ISO settings can give interesting results used sparingly but probably won't produce poster shots. Natural light is pretty much a complete non starter for macro (close up) pictures.

Hot Tip: If a dramatic reef scape or wreck shot is spoilt by noise then converting it to black and white immediately renders it a moody, atmospheric piece of art. Look out for this trick in a lot of magazines...

If you use natural light, then choosing the right white balance setting will make the most of what light you have. It will also ensure the camera's metering works properly. Set to auto, most cameras will struggle to grasp that the world is unusually blue or green and if the flash is still set to fire, it will assume that will be the dominant light source. Lots of cameras now have an underwater setting, this often simply equates to selecting a dull daylight balance. The worse the weather the bluer the light, so choosing sunny, shadow or cloudy settings will partially correct for loss of red. These aren't usually enough to fully recover vibrant colour, although they can help. They can even be used with the flash on for extra warmth. The 'right' option is to set a custom white balance using a white card at every depth you take a picture. This can get really tedious and not all simple cameras have this facility.

You can't brag about moments like this without a camera.

You can't brag about moments like this without a camera.

 

With this adjustment the camera will try to collect more red light (and aim to ignore quite a lot of blue), which will make for even longer exposures. 'Long' may mean beyond what you can easily handhold without your hands shaking and ruining your image... really anything much longer than 1/15th of a second. If your camera doesn't tell you what it's doing, you may only get a hint of this when your pictures look smudged and monochrome.

Although a large torch can provide extra light it can't light whole scenes and will usually have bright spots, so it's not a great for macro either – leave them for videographers. However, even a small torch will usefully speed up focus and the small focus lights which extinguish when the flash fires are very handy.

Suggested starting settings?

A camera can't do justice to a whole scene in the same way as your eyes, but close up, even a small camera can achieve some cracking results. The best initial plan is to use flash and get close. Most divers fall at the first hurdle by ambitiously snapping away at the same distance which would be comfortable on land... it doesn't work with birds, it won't work with fish and you can forget smaller targets. You need to be very close to your quarry and luckily most marine life is surprisingly relaxed about personal space. Use macro to give your camera a hint that it should look less than a metre away. Then close up, the flash will light properly, the lost red will be restored and you can start building up a library of shots for your next family slideshow!

Conclusion

If this has been an information overload just absorb the key nuggets of advice from this first part:

  1. Don't take a camera underwater until you are a safe, confident diver with time to look around
  2. Before you take your new toy down, think about how to keep both you and it safe
  3. Use flash to restore colour and macro to allow close-ups
  4. Practise, practise, practise!

Lastly remember the basics of all photography: hold the camera still as you focus and shoot. Compose the picture, if the animal is a dot in the viewfinder it will be a dot in the photo - get closer. Practice with the housed camera on land, don't only use it underwater. When you do dive start with slow moving subjects you can get close to.

Thanks to Caroline at Rainbow Divers Vietnam for her tropical modelling!