As much as possible prepare the settings on your camera before you move in to take the photo. Assess the light conditions and distance to subject then if you are working in Manual mode adjustment the shutter speed and aperture. If you are using strobe/s adjust their positions. If you are not using a flash then adjust white balance. If you want to take a macro shot select that setting.
By doing this once you are in position and have a shot composed you only need to make minor adjustments to your camera settings and light source. You can concentrate on getting the subject in focus and composing the photo.
Each time you take a photo check to see if it is correctly exposed and make further adjustments if need be. It is possible to correct images with computer software but getting in right in the water is better. 😉
Effects of depth on colour
As you descend deeper the colour spectrum (light) is absorbed/filtered or lost in the water. Light becomes the most important thing to learn to control when it comes to underwater photography. Without enough light or re-programming your camera with Manual White Balance (MWB) your photos will come out a washed out bluet/green colour, not that attractive. Another way to improve colour is to attach a ‘Red Filter’ to the outside or inside. This can work particularly well when using a GoPro camera/housing. I will post more information about this in my Blog area.
Here is a list of colours and roughly at what depth they are lost. There are other factors involved but lets not be over technical here.
– RED: 10ft
– ORANGE: 24ft
– YELLOW: 30- 40ft
– GREEN: 70- 75ft
Use of light is so important for taking good underwater photos. If your housed camera has a flash then try to use it even though it will have a limited effect on your image. It can bring out the natural colours in the reef and subjects. The limit of your small builtin flash will only travel so far and will not be much use on a wide angle reef shot, but you can use it for close-up photography reasonably well.
It will only illuminate subjects that are between 1-3 feet away, depending on the camera model. The flash coverage is also restricted because it will mainly cover one side of your camera, hence it will illuminate that side of the image better than the other, especially if your have a zoom function and the housing protrudes out of the front a few inches. This can create a shadow in the photo.
The down side of using a flash is the light from the flash could catch and highlight any tiny particles in the water that are between the camera and the subject. These will show up in the photo as tiny white/grey dots known as ‘backscatter’. Hence the need to get closer to your subject, less water in between means less chance of backscatter. It also highlights the need for a wide angle lens so you can get closer to your subject.
For best results I would advise you to buy an external strobe and I recommend the Inon D-2000, which I sell here.
Note: You will need to set your camera on Auto White Balance when using a flash!
Many scuba divers who take up underwater photography buy an underwater housing for a land camera that they already own. This is a good idea because it means you only need to invest in one new piece of equipment to start your new hobby. Plus you already know how to use it right?! However a common misconception is thinking that your camera will work the same way underwater as it does on land. Unfortunately this is not the case, mostly because cameras are set up to work in AIR not water. Light behaves differently underwater and because of this you will need to help the camera ‘see’ better. Plus if you want to take photos of fish or any marine life you have just chosen to become a wildlife photographer…….. underwater!
Taking a photo with a housed compact camera with any pixel size will result in the photo lacking colour at any depth greater than 10ft. Even if you can see colour around you the camera will not be able to capture the image as you see it. The deeper you go the worse it gets.
If you want to take photos that have a good light balance and good colour then you will need to either use a flash attachment or manually set the white balance on your camera. (see other tip) Basically speaking, underwater, you need to tell your camera what ‘white is’ so it can re-calibrate the colours for you. (manual white balance, MWB) Flashes can be an expensive addition so if you can master MWB then you can attain shots like the one here. (above)
We are all very much aware of the need to take great care not to damage coral reefs, whilst diving. Every scuba diver should consider the protection of corals a priority and make sure they capture the beauty of marine life leaving the reef as they found it. To this end, buoyancy control is a key factor.
If you want to take photos of a subject that is not moving around too much then find a patch of sand or natural break in the reef to set down on. If this is not possible then move on and find a new subject. I cannot stress enough, please don’t take up underwater photography until you are a very competent diver and have full control of your buoyancy at all times. Practice holding something with both hands for the duration of a dive before you actually take your camera down.
After some practice you should be able to float still enough whilst composing and taking your wide-angle photo. If need be once you have your composition you can hold the camera with one hand and hold a rock or non-coral part of the reef with the other. I do this quite successfully but I always ensure I only use limited contact and touch something that is not alive.
If you are taking a close-up or macro shot because you need to be absolutely still it is best to set down somewhere safe first. Any shallow dives on a sandy bottom are great for macro photography and also wrecks where you can hold or lean your camera hand on part of the wreck structure for stability. This way you damage nothing. Enjoy your photography but come up happy knowing you didn’t damage any marine life. 🙂
Manual White Balance
On land we don’t think about the white balance it is factory set to auto. But underwater you either need a red filter or you need to adjust the cameras’ white balance. This basically means you are telling the camera what white is. It is easier to go through your camera’s process on land first without the housing. You will need to go into your camera menu to find the WB settings. If your camera does not have a manual adjust setting then the best you will be able to do to correct the colour underwater is check to see if there is an underwater or fish setting and try that. (or add a red filter)
In your cameras’ manual white balance (MWB) setting – Point the lens at something white or near to white, it will need to fill the view from the lens. Take a photo, the camera will use this as a measure. It will ask you to ‘Save it?’ so save it. Now you have reset the white balance. Try it on non white surfaces and see what happens! It will look weird on land.
When you are confident you know what to do fit the housing on and continue practicing. Remember it is always harder underwater.
To adjust it underwater you will probably need to buy a white marker board designed for use underwater. They usually come with a pencil and clip and are not expensive. It is also possible to get good results by using the palm of your hand or even the sand.
You will need to re-calibrate the white balance when you change depth every + or – 30ft (10 meters) so don’t start to adjust until you are at the depth you will be diving at. In other words don’t calibrate it on the way down or near the surface. When the sun goes behind a cloud this will make a difference too. You will need to re-set (calibrate) the WB throughout the dive but this does give very good results and works better than adjusting it on your laptop.
If you point the camera on a subject try to have the sun (the major light supplier) behind you so it illuminates the subject. This principle works for video too as does the manual white balance adjusting. Your camera may have an easy access button that you can assign to MWB so you don’t need to go into long camera menus all the time.
This can be a key issue. If you have spotted something on the reef then instead of heading straight at it, take a few moments to watch how it behaves and what it does. Approach it from the side not head on and slowly with no sudden movements. Check out the area around it and find a place you can rest safely without damaging the reef. Let it/them get used to you before you take your shots.
Some subjects may become inquisitive and move closer to you if you remain still. This is true of Butterfly fish, Angel fish, Trumpet fish and Wrasse. I have often experienced Angel fish swim very close to my lens whilst composing a reef or wreck shot, which creates a stunning focus point at the front of the photograph. They don’t hand around for long though and I only manage to get off a couple of photos.
First find a reef scene (Pro’s call this Negative Space) that you like, which could be a beautiful collection of corals and sponges. Reef subjects like this (stationary but interesting and colorful) are excellent for testing and learning about your camera settings and capabilities. If you are shooting without flash then you will need the sun behind you. If you have a flash then have the sun high up in the photo and use the flash to illuminate the reef. In situations like this to get the blue of the sea in the background you will need to get down low and aim at an angle upwards. Very often this shot lends itself to a vertical image. This naturally puts the sun high up in the photo and creates more interest. To make sure the sun’s light does not overpower the photo use a higher Shutter Speed.
You may find that, after awhile, having tried a few different settings in this location, fish life will join the scene and provide a more complete image, worthy of winning a competition! Remember focus the camera on the focal point of the scene and holding down the button compose the photo. Check the results until you are happy. To give the reef scene depth having a passing diver in the distance can help. If you have been doing this for sometime, check your gages and buddy!
What are these? This is a term used to describe a characteristic behaviour of many species of fish and larger marine life like rays. All fish carry parasites and algae can grow over time. These can have a harmful effect if not removed so marine life regularly visit ‘cleaning stations’ to get this done.
They occur all over the world and it is a good chance to take photos and video of fish in action (doing something).
Down on the reef small fish called cleaner wrasse work alone or in small groups eating parasites and algae from the ‘host’. All types of fish and even fish schools visit ‘cleaning stations’ from time to time. This is a symbiotic relationship, where the ‘cleaners’ get a free meal and the host gets unwelcome attachments removed from their bodies. It’s a win win situation, plus the keen photographer has an opportunity to get up quite close whilst this is going on because the fish are somewhat distracted.
In many parts of the world this occurs with manta rays, although usually the cleaner fish are often species of butterfly fish not wrasse. The mantas hover over the cleaning station and can even be seen flinching when a fish nibbles them. It’s quite an amazing site and the Maldives is one of many places this can be witnessed.
Using your camera in auto focus is by far the easier option and we all use it. Many cameras have different autofocus settings, place the focus box in the center and make the box as small as you can. You should find the camera will focus more quickly because it is only trying to focus on a small part of what it sees.
You may want to compose the photo without having what you focused on in the center. This is easy, to do this just hold you finger down on the auto focus button and once it has focused keep it held down and move the camera and compose the picture, then press down fully the button and take the shot.
In fact most images look better when the central focus of the image is not exactly in the center. This I will explain more in ‘composition’. If you are taking a photo of a fish and it is a major part of the photo make sure to focus on the eye, it has to be in focus. Once in focus you can compose and then take the shot.