Beginners guide to mastering underwater photography

Mastering underwater photography is a different beast to normal ‘topside’ photography. Not only must you be a master of standard photographic techniques, but also build skills in SCUBA diving, underwater optics, as well as water proofing and maintaining your kit in the harsh seawater environment. If you are starting out on a quest to document the underwater world, here are a few of the most important tips when starting out.

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1. Safety first

The first rule of mastering underwater photography is safety – you’re dealing with an entirely different set of issues as soon as you step off dry land and you need to be aware of how to keep yourself and the wildlife around you safe. When SCUBA diving and taking photograph, buoyancy control is key, and that diving skills are more important to learn than photography skills, at least in the beginning. You will need to get close to your subjects without touching and harming marine life such as corals, so learning how to hover is a good start.

2. Start with simple gear

All of the photographers we interviewed agreed that you don’t need the most expensive gear to start with. A simple compact camera with manual settings in waterproof housing will be enough for your first foray into underwater photography. If you already have a camera, using something you’re familiar with can make all the difference.

3. Pack the right lens

Lens wise, it’s important to know what you want to shoot. You’ll need a wide angle lens for larger subjects and a macro lens for the small stuff as distortion in the water means that the closer you are to your subject, the clearer the shot. Waterproof housing means you’ll be unable to switch out lenses, so know you’re photographing and what shot you want before you get in the water.

4. Know your camera’s settings

Getting settings that work for you underwater is a personal preference. Some photographers prefer to set their aperture first, and others shutter speed. One thing to consider is not only how fast your subject will be moving, but how much you will be moving in the water as well. Aperture priority mode is not your friend if you’re shooting a fast-moving subject.

In terms of colour settings, many underwater photographers will use Auto White Balance settings and correct their RAW files later. This will work in certain circumstances, but when shooting in ambient light this may not be the best choice.

5. See the light

Water acts as a massive filter that eats up the entire spectrum of reds. The deeper you go, the more blue your shots will be. To maintain the correct colour tones of your subject, you’ll either need to be close to the surface or use external lighting.

Many underwater photographers lean heavily on strobe or flash lighting, which helps to bring the colour back into the photograph. Strobes will only light the foreground so in order to achieve the black background seen in so many great macro shots, ambient light needs to be excluded by using a small aperture and fast shutter speed. Also remember the further you are away from the subject, the more particles the strobe will pick up increasing the haze of your shot.

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6. Capture behaviour. Something unusual and amazing!

To really ‘WOW’ the judges, you have to show them something different! Capturing unusual behaviour is one way of showing your level of mastering underwater photography. Shooting a Mantis shrimp in its hole is pretty cool as it is, but shooting it rising up, ready to strike at its prey, is much cooler. Then, capturing the strike itself is just gold! To do this though, you really have to get to know the subjects that you intend to shoot. Doing your own research will help you, either by reading up or from your own time spent diving with the animals. Getting to know them and their behaviour will dramatically increase your chances of capturing something magical.

 7. Be creative.

By mastering underwater photography, you want your shots to stand out from the rest. Try to think of and plan new ways to shoot your chosen subjects. Study what other photographers have done and use some of their ideas to help create your own new and unique style of shooting. Don’t just concentrate on the full animal, you can shoot different body parts, eyes, mouth, teeth or fins. Animals living on other animals are all good examples, but it is up to you to provide the judges with a new exciting perspective in your photography.

8. Know your dive zone

How you dive is up to you. In some places you’ll be able to simply walk into the water from the beach, but other locations will require you to dive from a boat. Check in with local underwater photographers and divers if you’re in a new location to find out about the safest places to dive. Remember, reading about a location and diving there are two different things – talking to someone with experience is always best.

9. Time it right

When budgeting time, not only will you need to consider your oxygen levels and dive capabilities but that every element of photography takes longer. Framing, adjusting your settings and dealing with wildlife will always eat up more time than you’d anticipate. Underwater photographers should budget at least three times longer than you usual to get things done. Normally a shot may take 30 minutes to nail. But don’t count on it when playing underwater.

10. Get to know your subject

If you’re going to be photographing animals in any setting you need to do your homework. Know what kind of creatures are lurking beneath the surface, how they behave, and how much of a risk they pose to your safety. Each animal will behave differently, some are timid and will shy away from you, others you’ll be able to get close to without difficulty.

Knowing the difference between a manta ray and an eagle ray will will not only help you get better shots, but it will also keep both parties safe. Matt Draper warns to never sneak up on an animal and added: “If I feel unsafe I always take myself out of the water.” We recommend you do the same.

11. Stay comfortable

Don’t forget yourself. As important as your shoot may be, being comfortable will make your job much easier. Staying warm in the water can be a challenge, for example, and shooting while your teeth chatter isn’t fun. Your best bet for staying comfortable is to invest in an entire scuba kit. If that’s out of your budget, you can rent a wetsuit to stay warm, as well as some fins (or flippers) to increase your mobility, making it easier to grab the shot you need.

12. Be unique

Depending on the type of creature, there will already be thousands of images of them. Trying to capture a feature of the animal that hasn’t been seen before is the goal. To do this you’ll need to research the animal and come up with innovative ways to photograph and present it. All subjects have been photographed so finding a unique perspective is key.

Take these tips into account, do your own research and just keep swimming. If you are ready to jump into the world of underwater photography, Africa Media offers a month long underwater photography training program in the wonderful tropics of Mozambique and the South Africa’s world famous Aliwal Shoal.

Fiona Ayerst

Blogger Profile - Fiona Ayerst

Fiona is a world renowned underwater photographer and winner of numerous awards. Passionate about documenting the underwater world, she hopes that her photos will inspire greater marine conservation efforts. She developed and oversees the Underwater Photography internship for Africa Media

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