The Underwater Landscape

Dive into underwater photography with an interchangeable-lens camera and housing
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All of the photos shown in this article were taken in the Banda Sea in Indonesia on a Wetpixel expedition. For 12 days, a small group of photographers lived aboard the Damai II dive boat as we moved from Ambon to Kaimana on the island of Papua. Above: The underwater landscape has an alien look about it. The sun ball is along the curved edge of a phenomenon called Snell’s Window.

Underwater photography may be the most specialized form of nature photography there is. It’s gear-intensive, you’re working in an environment where humans aren’t supposed to be able to survive, and it requires being closer to the subject than anything on land other than macro work. Like many people, I was drawn to underwater photography by my love of the ocean and an attraction to the incredible colors in underwater photos I had seen. In 2006, thanks to PADI, I had an opportunity to become a certified scuba diver and to take the PADI Digital Underwater Photography course. That experience changed my life.

Some of the dive sites were teeming with more fish than I’ve ever seen at a time before or since.

More than any other aspect of nature photography, digital cameras have enabled would-be underwater shooters to shorten the basic learning curve. Within a week of taking my first underwater photo (which essentially was an underexposed, blurry gray-green mess), I was shooting sharp, well-exposed, colorful and rewarding images. That’s extraordinary. I had the technical basics sorted out, which freed me to embark on the much more rewarding adventure of looking for compelling images, watching animal behavior and finding underwater scenics.

Clear, shallow water gives you an opportunity to show dry land in the background.

Underwater photography is still highly specialized and gear-intensive, but it has become dramatically more accessible over the past decade. The ability to shoot, review on the LCD, adjust and shoot again has revolutionized the learning process.

Fundamentals Of Underwater Shooting
Get Close. More than any other form of nature photography, it’s important to get close to the subject when you’re shooting underwater. It’s a challenge, to be sure. You’re dealing with surge and current, and you’re trying not to touch anything—and this is all while controlling your breathing and paying attention to the fact that you’re underwater! With all of that to think about, getting close isn’t easy, but it’s essential to making compelling photos.

Suggested Resources is an outstanding resource for anyone interested in underwater photography. The community there is extremely knowledgeable and helpful. is another excellent knowledge source. The best how-to book I’ve seen on underwater photography is The Underwater Photographer by Martin Edge.

Getting close presents some special challenges, particularly when it comes to lens selection. Because of the phenomenon of the virtual image, to render a sharp photo, you need to be using a lens that can focus close or you need to use a diopter. Interchangeable-lens cameras are housed in watertight (hopefully!) housings with interchangeable lens ports. Most underwater scenics are photographed with very wide-angle lenses with dome ports. It’s because of the optical characteristics of the system and working in water that we have to deal with the virtual image. Your car mirror says objects are closer than they appear. When you’re shooting with a dome port, the opposite happens. Objects seen through the dome port are farther than they appear. That’s the virtual image. Also, the virtual image is considerably smaller than the actual subject. (The reason we use a dome port is because using a flat port with wider angles results in chromatic aberrations and sharpness issues, especially at the corners and edges of the frame. A dome port is a necessary evil.) The term “virtual image” can create confusion because it makes it seem as though it’s a trick being played on your eyes. As far as your lens is concerned, however, there’s nothing virtual about it. If the lens can’t focus as close as the virtual image appears, the image won’t be sharp.

Shoot Up. Following this advice will make the single biggest improvement in your images, and it really is that simple. Just shoot at an upward angle. This helps you to emphasize the subject, reduce clutter and distractions in the background and, depending upon the angle, it gives your photos some perspective by showing the surface.

Light It. Underwater lighting equipment is heavy, bulky, finicky to use and expensive. It’s also incredibly important, especially when you drop below about 10 feet. Large strobes used to be the norm for underwater shooters, but today there are interesting options with continuous lights. And, of course, for shooting motion, continuous lights are a necessity.

The X Factor. Like all nature photography, there’s an X factor in underwater images: understanding what you’re seeing. Beyond the tips I mentioned, the best thing you can do to create special photos is learn about what you’re photographing. A few of my favorite underwater photographers are Alex Mustard, Douglas Seifert and Tony Wu. They’re extremely knowledgeable about the underwater environment and it shows in their images. Mustard is a marine biologist with a PhD who resides in the UK. Spend some time looking at his photos (, and you’ll see that X factor. Armed with the right gear and enthusiasm for making beautiful underwater photos, spend some time and effort studying and observing the environment and the interactions—you’ll find your photos will improve in lock step.

Left: Coral structures always make for attractive and colorful images. Shooting at an upward angle keeps the background uncluttered. Right: The purple mantle of this balled-up anemone with its resident clownfish stuck outside is a relatively rare sight. All images: Canon EOS 7D, Sea&Sea MDX-7D housing, Tokina AT-X 107 DX 10-17mm fisheye lens


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Canon 100mm Macro; Tokina AT-X 107

My Gear
In landscape photography, everyone has their favorite lenses. Because of the peculiar requirements and challenges of shooting underwater, many photographers tend to gravitate to a confined collection of glass. For photographers shooting with APS-C cameras, the Tokina AT-X 107 DX 10-17mm fisheye has been a mainstay, and it’s the lens I use on my Canon EOS 7D when I’m shooting wide angle. The Tokina’s minimum focus distance of 6 inches makes it ideal for shooting with both a large dome port or a mini-dome.

When I’m shooting with my Canon EOS 5D Mark III, I use a Canon EF 8-15mm ƒ/4L Fisheye USM lens for most of my wide-angle work. I have a zoom gear for the lens, but more often than not, I just keep it at 15mm. The Sigma 15mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye is another popular lens for full-frame underwater work.

Sea&Sea YS-250 TTL Strobe

For macro, I use a Sigma Macro 50mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG or a Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2.8 Macro IS USM on both the 7D and 5D Mark III. I find the 100mm is difficult to use if there’s surge or current because of the longer focal length and narrower field of view.

My 7D is housed in a Sea&Sea MDX-7D aluminum housing. The 5D Mark III is in a Seacam Silver 5D Mark III aluminum housing. I have flat ports, as well as 8-inch dome ports and 4-inch mini-domes for both housings.

I use Sea&Sea YS-250 TTL strobes. They’re large and heavy, but they pack a lot of power, and I like the rechargeable battery packs they use. When I’m shooting video with either DSLR, I use a pair of Light & Motion Sola 4000 lights or Sola 2000s, depending on the situation. The Sola 4000s have a lot of power, but they’re also large and heavy.

Sea&Sea MDX-7D; Seacam Silver 5D Mark III ; Light & Motion Sola 4000