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An Underwater Shooting Primer

With prices dropping and capabilities on the rise, underwater photography is within the grasp of just about anyone who has an interest in giving it a try
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This Article Features Photo Zoom

While increased access to underwater photography makes it easy for almost anyone to compose images in water and underwater, capturing a quality image requires skills and techniques unique to the liquid environment. Light behavior in water, principles of buoyancy, white-balance issues, effects of water on camera equipment (trust me, you don’t want to experience this), equipment maintenance and water clarity are all issues new to photographers entering the water. I’ll cover some basic techniques and skills that, when applied, will give you the opportunity to capture amazing images from the 70% of our planet that’s water.

Snorkeling With Compact Cameras
Snorkeling is perhaps the most popular form of in-water photography today. Camera manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, and Olympus have developed housings for their most popular compact digital cameras. Olympus has even produced a line of compacts that are waterproof to 30 feet without a housing! The Stylus 1030 SW is Olympus’ most recent addition to the line with this capability. As a snorkeler, the tendency is to shoot down on the reef and the animals below. This results in images of hard-to-see animals blending in with the background.

There are three general rules of underwater photography:
1 Get close to your subject, which minimizes the effect of water filtration on your subject.
2 Fill the frame; you don’t want tiny specks of unidentifiable critters in your images.
3 Shoot at upward angles; this allows for separation of your subject from the often cluttered background.

Most compact cameras have custom white-balance and camera settings called Scene modes. Some manufacturers like Canon and Olympus have included a number of underwater Scene modes that allow you to capture color-balanced images for wide-angle and close-up situations. The on-camera flash for most compact digitals is only effective for a few short feet in water. Turn it off for anything other than close-ups and macros to prevent backscatter in your image caused by lighting out-of-focus particles in the water.

Advanced Compacts
As you dive deeper into the water column, you encounter more challenges with diminishing light and lots of blue cast in your images. Fortunately, there are solutions available to overcome this. Many of the advanced compacts like the Canon PowerShot G9 and Olympus SP-560 UZ can be housed and fitted with external flash units that allow photographers more lighting power combined with the ability to move the flash away from the lens axis to prevent backscatter. This, combined with advanced features, wide-angle zooms, RAW image capture and manual controls, gives the underwater photographer greater flexibility and control over image-taking.

While many advanced compacts have preset Scene modes, they also incorporate manual white-balance settings. Using a white card at the depth you’re diving and performing a manual white balance ensures the most accurate color balance. If you prefer a lightly warmer color to your images, try manual white-balancing using a neutral gray card.

Ikelite makes housings and strobes for D-SLRs, and offers an advanced compact setup for the Canon PowerShot G9. The package includes an Ikelite housing and Ikelite DS-125 strobe, and it has become a popular compact system that gives shooters built-in TTL capability.

So with all the functionality of the advanced compact digital, why would someone go through the expense of putting a D-SLR in a housing? Good question! To answer that, one has to look at a couple of factors. First, the underwater environment is fluid in more ways than one. By this, I mean that it’s constantly moving. Fish are darting about, kelp is swaying back and forth, sea lions zip by quickly—it’s life in motion. Shutter lag, while much reduced in recent compacts, is a non-issue with today’s D-SLRs. Water refraction also reduces the angle of view of the lens behind a housing with a flat port.

D-SLR housings offer domed ports to correct this, especially important underwater, as getting as close to the subject as possible reduces the effect of water density and scatter between the lens and subject. Manual control over exposure and advanced metering in D-SLRs gives the photographer the ability to meter the background water and underexpose slightly to bring out the rich blue hues and tones while balancing foreground fill light with external flash. D-SLR housings also include the ability to add external flash units, giving underwater photographers greater control to cover their subjects with balanced fill light. A popular system is a Canon or Nikon D-SLR in a Sea&Sea housing with two Sea&Sea YS-250 Pro strobes. Olympus is unique in that it manufactures its own housing for the E-520 D-SLR, which, along with a few strobes, is also a decent package.

A D-SLR system like this not only gives greater lighting control, but also lets photographers choose from the manufacturer’s extensive list of lenses to meet their shooting needs. The most popular of these lenses is an ultra-wide prime or zoom lens. These lenses let photographers get close to their subjects and give greater control over lighting while still capturing full-frame scenics. The Canon 14mm, Nikon 10.5mm and Olympus 7-14mm are examples of wide-angles commonly used on D-SLRs underwater. For photographing fish portraits or close-up work of coral, shrimp and other small critters, popular lenses are macro lenses in the 60mm to 105mm range.

Given the greater degree of flexibility and control, shooting underwater with D-SLRs in housings can justify the added cost and weight of these systems.

Video Underwater
Capturing video underwater can bring to life the motion and electricity divers and snorkelers experience. There are many solutions for bringing video capture into the water. Video-capable digital compacts like the Canon PowerShot SD line or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5 offer housing solutions that allow quality video capture in the water. Panasonic offers a waterproof compact video camera with its SDR-SW20. For the serious underwater videographer, there’s the option to house many of the popular HD video cameras from JVC, Panasonic, Sony and others. Custom housing manufacturers include Amphibico, Gates Underwater Systems, and Light and Motion. Shooting video underwater requires a steady hand (tripods aren’t that practical underwater). The density of the water, however, aids in keeping your video segments “fluid.”

Budd Riker is a PADI Scuba Instructor who has been scuba diving and making underwater images for the past 30 years. He has taught hundreds of people how to enjoy photography while diving or snorkeling. See more of his images at Visit the PADI website at

Resources Video Housing
(800) OK-CANON


(317) 923-4523


(800) NIKON-US
(888) 553-4448


(800) 211-PANA

(514) 333-8666

Gates Underwater Systems

(800) 875-1052


(800) 882-2345
Light and Motion
(831) 645-1525


(877) 865-SONY