Underwater photos have such mystical appeal, but they take time, patience and care to get right. Here are our tips on how to nail your underwater photography and some inspiration to get you started.
What You Need
Waterproof Housing or a Waterproof Camera
Waterproof cameras, especially for underwater photography, are available, but more likely you’ll want to make use of equipment you already have, in which case the most important thing is to keep it safe and dry.
There are waterproof housing for DSLRs, and waterproof cases for phones. Some cameras and phones are labelled as water resistant. It’s important to stress that water resistant is not water proof and you should read the details for your particular make and model very carefully. It may be that it’s only splash proof, in which case submerging it in water would not go well.
Read reviews before you commit to a brand and buy from a trusted source. If you’re putting your faith in something to protect hundreds or even thousands of pounds worth of kit then you need to make sure it does the job it promises.
Shooting under the water will present you with some lighting challenges. Using your internal flash might help, but it’s likely to pick up all sorts of little bits in the water, which the pros call backscatter.
You can help avoid backscatter by positioning flash or strobe lights further away from the camera and subject.
Natural light is always a winner and many underwater photographers recommend shooting near the surface when you can, to make the most of ambient light.
A Safe Environment
Whether it’s in a pool or out in the open water, make sure your environment is safe for you and any models you may be shooting.
If you’re not a confident swimmer, then deep water may not be for you. The changing current and temperature can be dangerous factors and you may find yourself in jeopardy very quickly.
If you really must attempt open water then don’t go on your own. It makes sense to take a water-savvy or, better yet, water safety trained friend to keep an eye on things and let you concentrate on making your images.
It goes without saying that you should always be aware of your surroundings and environment. Watch for things like slippery rocks or local wildlife that might see you as a light snack.
It’s probably wise not to leap into the water the moment your waterproof housing arrives! Using your camera this way can be difficult and take some getting used to, so it makes sense to do that on dry land first, where you can focus on one thing at a time.
If you’ve not had any experience of taking close-up photographs before, it might be sensible to practice that first, so you can become familiar with the settings needed and how to deal with potential issues like a shallow depth of field.
If you’re setting up a particular shoot with models, practice what you’d like on land first, while everyone is warm, dry and even tempered. If you head straight for the water and everyone isn’t on the same page then people can become tired, cold and irritable very quickly.
A Blue Hue
The deeper you go into water, the less light will reach your subject. The warmer colours are filtered out first, so even if you use a flash, you might end up with a blue-green tint to your photos.
You can solve this by adjusting your white balance in camera accordingly, or using the Underwater setting that some cameras now come with.
Hot Pictures: Better White Balance With the Kelvin System
Quick Tip: 5 Tips for Perfect White Balance
If you’re far away from your subject, your chances of getting a sharp and well balanced photo are low. Water will obviously reduce visibility and clarity, so the closer you can get, the better.
Macro mode, or a macro lens if you’re using a DSLR, will help you be able to maintain sharp focus, while being up close.
Rather than shooting down on your subject, try to get straight on or position yourself below it and shoot upwards. As well as an interesting angle and stronger composition, this should also help you with the light from above.
If you’re shooting a model or animal, remember to focus on the eyes. If you miss focus on the eyes, it won’t matter if everything else looks great, the photo will lose its impact.
Loose clothes look great underwater, but they can be a hazard too, easily getting tangled or snagging on something.
Tight clothing will allow for free movement and is much safer, but if you’d rather go with the floaty dress option, then make sure there’s nothing the clothes can catch on and potentially hold the person underwater. You may want to have scissors or a knife in a safety kit, with you, in case you need to cut someone free.
Keep in mind that the weight of the clothing will affect someone’s ability to swim or float and as a result, that person may tire much more quickly.
A great underwater picture doesn’t have to be taken in a stunning beauty spot. Try some fun alternatives like using your shower at home or heading out into a storm.
If you’re lucky enough to have your own pool, it’s a great place to practice and you can get your friends involved in some unique group shots, too! A public pool or water park can offer a lot of opportunities but always check if you’re allowed to take pictures. Many public swimming pools forbid any kind of camera poolside.
Underwater images are likely to come out a little flat and desaturated, for the reasons we mentioned earlier. The temptation can be to bump all of these up to compensate and end up with something too far in the other direction. Increase colour and contrast subtly and when you’ve looked at it for too long, take a break and come back to the image later, when you can look at it with fresh eyes.
Fogging up of your housing or lens can be an issue. Here are some tips to avoid it:
- Keep a desiccant such as Silica Gel in your housing
- Put on your housing somewhere cool and dry, avoid outside if it’s humid
- Cover the housing when it’s not in the water to avoid it heating up in the sun. Try a damp cloth or towel.
Keeping still in the water is tricky and your subject will also be moving which adds to the difficulty. Mostly, the key to nailing this is practice. You’ll eventually get used to the differences of shooting in the water and you’ll find your technique.
In the meantime, if you really don’t have a steady hand, you might want to try a selfie-stick or monopod. These are useful for shooting video underwater too, as you can get a much smoother pan.
Sea Turtle and Scuba Divers
This is perfectly lit and really nicely composed. Even though the photographer and subject are on the seabed, they’ve made great use of the ambient light from above by angling the camera upwards. The empty space is filled by the other scuba divers which balances the picutre nicely and adds further interest.
Photographing your child at swimming lessons is a fantastic way to get an unusual and original portrait of them doing something they love. Be sure to check with the pool that it’s allowed, but if it’s a private lesson and you’re only photographing your own child, it’s unlikely they’d have an issue.
Yes, you read right… an underwater businessman. Things that shouldn’t be underwater generally catch our interest and this is case in point. This kind of shot would also make a very unique style of head-shot for a company, but you’d have to have a very trusting client and good insurance!
There’s an ethereal quality to this that’s just wonderful. The flippers lengthen the body almost to the point of the surreal and help to draw our eye upwards. Again the ambient light here is used to great effect and seems to be the sole source of light.
The Middle of the Ocean
Half underwater, half surface pictures are really popular, and you can
see why. While the surface of the sea may not seem interesting in itself, we
see it from an angle we’re not used to seeing and although it might have been
nice to see more of what was under the water, the block of colour actually
works nicely, almost creating a gradient effect.
If You’re Not Ready to Dive In
Pun completely intended, if you aren’t ready for underwater photography then there’s an easy (and dry) way to give your photographs the deep sea treatment.
FD-Design’s Underwater Action for Photoshop adds textures, colours and shapes to your image to fake an underwater feel.
I tried it out on this image from Photodune:
The action does take a little while to run, almost three minutes on my machine. Initially you must create a new layer and brush over your subject:
I’ve sped it up at the start, but you can see how involved it is, with each part on a separate layer in a non-destructive way so your original remains untouched.
I erased some of the bubbles and colour from the model’s face and this is the finished result:
Considering I’ve made very few changes I think this is a great way to add a fun underwater effect to your image. And you get to stay warm and dry to boot!
Top Tips to Getting Underwater Photos
- Buy trusted housing for your kit: read the reviews
- Bring artificial light, if you can
- Be safe, no matter whether in a pool or the ocean
- Practice poses on land first so as not to exhaust your models
- Shoot close and upwards where possible
A Few Further Resources
- How to Create Custom Water Splash Brushes in Adobe Photoshop: With a bit of effort, you too can create your own beautiful water splashes to use!
- How to Make a Colourful Bubble Macro Photo with Oil and Water: This tutorial, using oil and water, is a fun way to try some new macro photography with a fairly quick set up and immediate results.
- Look at This! Diving for the Ball: This official photo from the United States Navy shows students at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center playing underwater football to cool down after a physical training session. It’s an incredibly intense, action-packed shot that provides a great look into Navy life.
Underwater photography requires an investment, both in the right kit and in terms of time. It’s unlikely that you’ll nail the perfect shot on your first go, who does in any aspect of photography?
Invest in good waterproof housing. I’ve read horror tales of leaks and water damage that make me want to hug my Nikon and wrap it in cotton wool. You can’t protect against everything, but you can do your research and read reviews. The old adage of ‘buy cheap, pay twice’ springs to mind.
Think about your lighting. If you’re using your internal flash then you’re probably going to face difficulties like backscatter. Use ambient light where you can but if you’re serious about getting into underwater photography then it’s probably wise to pick up a couple of strobe lights.
Practice out of the water first, to get used to the housing/kit without the added problems that being in the water can cause. If you’re working with models then this is really important as they’ll tire out quickly and may become cold if you keep them in the water for too long.
Remember, safety is your number one priority. Have someone else with you if you can and never risk photographing in a potentially dangerous place. Watch out for floating clothes on your models which might restrict them or snag.
Nail focus on the eyes if you’re shooting aquatic life or people. Pointing upwards will help you to get an interesting angle but also to make use of the light coming from the surface. Get as close as you can to overcome the problems with murky and moving water and use a macro lens or macro mode on your camera to enable close focus.
Clean your kit after each use, particularly if it’s been in salty water and make sure it’s all thoroughly dry. It might help to keep Silica gel packs in with your kit, but remember to refresh or dry them out regularly.
Finally, if you love the underwater look but can’t
bring yourself to do more than tip your toes in the sea then not to worry, try
a helping hand (we won’t call it a cheat, but we’re thinking it) and use an
action or preset to give your images some instant watery charm.