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How To Master Underwater Photography With Our Complete Guide

How to master underwater photography with our complete guide. If you've ever wanted to take great underwater photographs, then this guide is for you. From beginners to more advanced.

|  Olympus Tough TG-6 in Specialist
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Submarine Photo By CraigBill

Submarine by Craig Bill


If you've ever wanted to get in to, or improve your underwater photography, then this guide is for you. We'll start with some of the basics, and include hints and tips on how to master this photography subject, from a number of underwater photographers. 


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The Basics

Underwater photography is difficult for a number of reasons. You need specialist kit for a start, whether that's in the form of a tough compact that is capable of braving the depths (most nowadays are good for at least 10m) or a specialist housing for your mirrorless or DSLR kit. 

When you go underwater, the light levels drop the deeper you go, and the water has an effect on the colour of what you see. It can alter how far away things seem, and displace light differently. This is because water has a larger index of refraction to the air around us, making things seem closer or larger than they actually are.

Some cameras will have modes to try and counteract this but results can vary greatly depending on the type of water you're in.

You may also want to consider the macro performance of a camera, as you may be photographing small subjects, such as fish, shrimp, coral, or maybe just the contents of your own aquarium.


Beginners' tips

You can pick up a budget point and shoot camera, but unless you're shooting in bright sunny conditions, then your results may not be as good as more expensive waterproof cameras. We've had good results from our favourite waterproof camera, the Olympus Tough TG-6 (available on Amazon*), which has a number of built-in underwater modes, and a number of macro modes to make it easier to get great shots. 


Glass Shrimp Macro (with flash) | 1/100 sec | f/14.0 | 18.0 mm | ISO 800
Glass Shrimp Macro (with flash) | 1/100 sec | f/14.0 | 18.0 mm | ISO 800 - This impressive macro close-up was taken in an aquarium with the Olympus Tough TG-6.


Read the manual - The last thing you want is for your housing or camera seals to become ineffective. Be rigorous when checking every compartment is properly sealed, and that there is no debris in the rubber seams - even grains of sand could cause water ingress. Be aware of how long you are covered for underwater use, the seals may not be guaranteed after time, and many camera manuals recommend these being serviced after a period of time. You should also rinse your camera under clean tap (or bottled) water after using the camera in salty, or dirty water, as salt and other impurities in the water can corrode and degrade your camera and it's ability to remain waterproof.

Snorkeling* is a great way to see underwater without the added expense and training needed for scuba diving. You're unlikely to go much deeper than a meter, but your camera could go deeper than this, as you reach to photograph the scene. Most underwater cameras are rated to go down to 10 meters or more.

Useful accessories include a floating handstrap* to stop your camera sinking to the bottom of the sea. 


Can't I just use my waterproof smartphone? 

Samsung Galaxy S7 Underwater
The Samsung Galaxy S7 may be waterproof - but this isn't recommended and can cause damage to USB ports.

Whilst many premium smartphones are technically waterproof, and often claim up to 1m or 1.5m waterproofing for 30 minutes, this doesn't necessarily mean that use of smartphones underwater is recommended, or advised, as often the headphone, microphone(s), and USB sockets on these smartphones are still completely exposed, and any water left in these ports could cause operational problems at a later date. Water damage is often not covered by manufacturers warranties on smartphones either. Newer smartphones will emit a nasty beeping noise when you try to charge them if water is detected - don't risk it!

If you do want to use a smartphone underwater, then please use a waterproof case* (if available), if a dedicated waterproof case isn't available, then generic waterproof cases are available, and we'd recommend you ensure that all ports, sockets, and holes are adequately protected from water ingress. It's much wiser to invest in a waterproof compact, especially if you're shooting in salty water for long periods.


Take the next step - with higher quality kit

If you want to take the next step up in photographic quality then you'll want to look at a camera with a larger sensor, and that will most likely mean you'll need to look at a digital camera, and a separately available waterproof housing - but be aware that these can often cost as much as, if not more, than the camera. The plus point is that you'll be able to dive much deeper and see more exotic life under the waves. 

Diving deeper like this will mean some training in scuba diving - make sure you are comfortable diving underwater before you think about doing photography at the same time. It's a big commitment and isn't cheap.


Canon WP-DC56 - Underwater Housing for G1X III

Underwater housing

Companies who specialise in underwater housing for cameras, include Nauticam, Sea and Sea, and Fantasea. A housing from Nauticam for the Sony A7/A7R III will set you back around £2600 (including VAT). A housing from Fantasea for the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III/IV/V cameras will set you back around $529. You may also be able to get a camera housing directly from the camera manufacturer, depending on what camera you have, for example, Canon offer the WP-DC56, shown above, for the Canon Powershot G1 X Mark III, giving you waterproofing down to 40m, and a reasonable price of around £310 - from Amazon UK*.


Understand exposure 

It's a good idea to have a basic understanding of ISO, Shutter Speeds, Aperture, and how they affect your photos. As we've mentioned above, images can look different underwater and so it'll help if you can use your understanding of the exposure triangle and white balance to adjust images accordingly. Make sure you're very familiar with the camera and its controls before going under the water as it can be more difficult to see what you're doing clearly.


Cameras with good low-light capabilities 

Light levels drop off very quickly underwater and so if you are wanting to invest in a camera specifically for underwater shooting, then picking with one that performs well in low light would be advisable.

Here's a link to our best low-light cameras roundup - cameras that have a good ISO range, and more importantly, perform well in low-light conditions, so that if you do have to increase the ISO speed, then you won't need to worry as much about noise in your images as long as you pick the right camera. 

If you don't want to use additional lighting or flash, then getting a camera with good noise performance will definitely help. Although as with most photography, using the lowest ISO speed possible will help get cleaner images with better detail and image quality (as long as you have enough light). 


Pick the right lens

The other factor to consider is the lens you use. A lens with a bright aperture (f/1.4 - f/1.8) will let in the most light. Consider a prime for better clarity as you'll most likely be fairly close to your subjects when shooting underwater.  A wide-angle lens (20-50mm) will help you capture more of the seabed but you can also consider 50-100mm macro lenses if you're looking to focus on macro elements rather than seascapes. 

Make sure you check that you preferred combination will fit into the housing you're going to use, to avoid wasting money and time.


Lighting underwater 

Does your camera have a built-in flash? Will it work with the housing you've chosen, or do you need an additional external underwater flash? Depending on how deep you are diving or swimming you may have to invest in a more powerful underwater flash.


Underwater Stingrays Swimming, Image Craig Bill.

Stingrays underwater, by Craig Bill.


Water quality 

If the water is murky or cloudy, lighting it up will only make things worse - it's like driving in fog with your main beam on. If you can't see clearly under the water consider changing location or coming back on a calmer day if it's choppy.


It doesn't matter how good the equipment and lighting, and cameras settings are - if the water quality is poor, then it's unlikely you'll get good results. Shoot in clean and clear water for the best results. 


Not sure? Consider renting the equipment first

You can rent cameras and housing to get a feel for kit first and see if you get on with it. See if you like the camera, and the results available, before parting with your money.


Getting good shots

The same photography rules apply to underwater photography, as they do to "dry" land-photography, you will need the photo to be in focus, correctly exposed, and sharp, with a fast enough shutter speed, and you'll also need the right aperture, and ISO speed to make sure everything works together to give you a good result. 


Improve the colour of your images with white balance

Does your camera support RAW shooting? If so, you can adjust the white balance after in post-processing. Does the camera have a specific underwater white balance setting? This will produce the best results. If the camera doesn't have an underwater white balance setting, then you can try leaving the camera on auto white balance, or you might want to use custom white balance - if your camera doesn't have it or it's difficult to get the settings right - try the Daylight setting. If you're using the camera's flash or another flash, then you can use the auto white balance setting. Experiment and see what gives the most natural look.


Shooting underwater - Quick Hints and Tips

  • Get closer to your subject - this will help with colour and detail and there will be less water between the camera and the subject
  • Shoot in raw+JPEG - so you can edit your raw images if needed
  • Like portrait photography, if you're taking photographs of fish or other critters, then focus on the eyes
  • Macro photography - try and avoid distracting backgrounds if you can
  • Look up to catch sun-rays in the sea
  • Take multiple shots


Linda Pitkin Underwater Photography - Turtle, Sharp, Wave Crashing


Tips from Linda Pitkin - Specialist Underwater Photographer

  • Plan ahead - will you need a permit to dive?
  • Fish look best close-up but don't interfere, as they look best in their natural state
  • Have a look at the Underwater Photographers Code of Conduct
  • When approaching fish, move slowly
  • Keeping still will help you get the shot, and avoid scaring the fish
  • Everything moves underwater! Be prepared to move with it
  • Using flash helps freeze any movement, and improves colour
  • Pay attention to composition
  • Clean your equipment afterwards, and check seals carefully


Want to learn more? 


Taken some great underwater photos?

Share your photos with us in the gallery! We'd love to see them.

If you have any questions about underwater photography, please ask in the forums

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Photographs taken using the Olympus Tough TG-6

FetchGet me a SausageSwimming with SealsHide and SeekPaddle BoardTreesTree ShadowsPhacelia tanacetifoliaBorageMushrooms“My God, it’s full of stars”Pepper StalkSolarEncroachingCherries

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