How to Get Started in Underwater Photography
Have you wanted to get started in underwater photography, and experience what it’s like to capture the magic beneath the waves? Have you ever dreamed about photographing the many weird and wonderful creatures that call the oceans home?
Underwater photography can be an incredibly challenging yet rewarding hobby. The great news is that whether you already have a knowledge of photography, or are a beginner, anyone can learn how to take underwater images!
It’s important to understand that while underwater photography doesn’t always have to involve scuba diving, it often does. Scuba diving is a relatively easy sport to learn but giving yourself time to become comfortable in the water is key.
To take good underwater images, beyond rockpool photography, you will need to have good scuba diving or freediving skills. So, it’s important to prioritize this if you’re thinking about getting into underwater photography.
Having the correct equipment for underwater photography is also key.
That may mean switching to a new camera system that is more suited to this industry or adapting your current system for the underwater world. This of course will also depend on how much underwater photography you are hoping to do, and your budget!
Ultimately, being confident with your equipment and in control of your camera system and lighting will only make you more successful.
It’s an important factor, well worth investing in if you decide you’d like to make underwater photography a serious hobby, or even your career.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that making underwater photography profitable can be challenging.
The path to becoming a professional can be a slow process compared to other styles of nature photography. However, doing what you can to make a name for yourself, and working overtime to build a following will help to open doors in your career.
Of course, so will spending as much time as possible underwater, with a camera in hand!
Starting underwater photography
The best place to start your journey into underwater photography is by becoming comfortable in the water, whether that be via freediving, snorkelling, or diving.
You need to be calm and confident on your own in the water, before venturing into the water with a camera.
Training and learning with a professional are essential for specialised underwater sports. I would recommend taking a beginner scuba diving or freediving course to help you learn the basics.
Read more: An Introduction to Underwater Photography
To dive or not to dive?
Scuba diving is the most popular way to take underwater photos. It will give you much more time under the water to observe marine life, and the ability to stay relatively still. It also allows you to have greater manoeuvrability and speed than freediving.
However, the equipment needed can be expensive, as can the lessons required to achieve competency underwater. There are also specific health requirements that must be met before training can commence.
Freediving is a much cheaper way to access the ocean, but it allows a very limited amount of time underwater, and it’s not hard to understand why this could be challenging for underwater photography.
However, underwater photography isn’t limited to scuba diving. Some aspects of this industry, such as freshwater photography or photographing big ocean animals like whales or sharks are more suited to snorkelling or freediving.
The equipment needed to scuba dive is too cumbersome in those environments.
Learning to dive
Ultimately, most professional underwater photographers are scuba divers as it provides the best opportunities for taking great images.
It maximises the amount of time you can spend underwater, and therefore the amount of time you can spend working on your images.
So, if you’ve already decided to ‘take the plunge,’ and are looking into scuba training – great! Here are some things to bear in mind as you start on your underwater photography/scuba journey.
You might find that many scuba divers believe that numerous qualifications indicate good diving skills, but this is not always the case.
When it comes to underwater photography, the most important skill is being able to control your movements in the water by having excellent ‘buoyancy’.
Buoyancy refers to your ability to stay suspended (unmoving) at a specific depth when diving. Great buoyancy skills can often only be achieved by spending time in the water – and a lot of it.
The more time you can spend diving and honing these abilities, the easier it will be to progress onto taking images underwater.
Underwater photography cannot and should not be attempted before you can control yourself completely underwater. It is unlikely that your buoyancy will be perfected enough after one round of scuba lessons, so persevere with your training until you can demonstrate this skill.
Having this stability will make you more professional and help to keep you safe. It also helps you get close enough to subjects for good images, without getting too close and accidentally touching or scaring them.
The control of your movements when close to delicate marine life is vitally important because we don’t want to cause any damage. Furthermore, it will make your dives more enjoyable!
On top of all of that, your camera will struggle to autofocus if it is always moving around. So, to nail your underwater images, you need to be steady.
If you are focused on your diving skills and unable to relax and control your movements subconsciously, then you may not be ready to introduce a camera yet. A camera is a massive distraction underwater.
Becoming so focused on your camera that you forget the elements of diving which keep you, your buddy, and marine life safe is a very real danger.
It can be prevented; you may just need a little more time to work on your diving skills before your first camera dive! If you find yourself getting impatient, remember that we all have to start somewhere.
Read more: Underwater Photography Ethics and Code of Conduct
Underwater photography equipment
You have a few options to choose from regarding equipment for underwater photography.
Underwater-specific action cameras and compact cameras are a good place to start. They are waterproof to 10m as standard. Cameras such as the Olympus Tough or GoPro also seem to be popular among beginners.
Another option is to buy a complete system involving a compact camera and specific underwater housing second-hand.
Photographers often upgrade their housings and sell their old systems as a package, often at a fair price and with encouragement for others who are just starting on their underwater photography journey!
Read more: What Equipment Do You Need for Underwater Photography?
Underwater camera housing
The third option is to buy an underwater housing, which is like a camera-model case for your existing camera. Some popular brands include Ikelite, Aquatica, Nauticam, and Sea & Sea, among others!
A housing around your camera will allow you to dive and photograph up to 60m and can be made of polycarbonate, aluminium, or a combination of the two. This is the most expensive option but will be an easy transition if you are already using this camera on land.
I would recommend spending time playing with your housing indoors/on land before taking it underwater. It will help massively to be comfortable handling your set-up before taking it into foreign territory.
Shooting through a housing can feel a lot more cumbersome than holding your camera ‘naked’.
If you’re going to be diving anywhere cold, like the UK, you will probably be wearing thick neoprene gloves that limit your dexterity, so it’s worth practising with them on as well!
Read more: Landlocked – How to Practice Your Underwater Photography Without Going Diving
Underwater camera lens
Using the correct lenses underwater is also an important factor to consider. Zoom lenses, while common in the wildlife photography world, are uncommon underwater.
The rule in this genre is to get as close to your subject as possible, and most underwater lenses are divided into two categories, macro, or wide-angle. Ideally, you would eventually plan to have one of each.
A close-focusing wide-angle lens will allow you to capture a range of subjects in their environment and wider scenes such as reef-scapes.
A macro lens allows the exploration of smaller creatures and textures, capturing all of the small details, and requires being close to the subject.
Some photographers work with fish-eye lenses, but macro and wide-angles are standards of the industry and a great place to start.
Read more: A Guide to Underwater Macro Photography
Underwater equipment: lighting
Flash for underwater photographers comes in the form of strobe lights.
These are specialised lights that are mounted onto your camera system, made to fire brief, powerful bursts of light onto the subject you are photographing.
Underwater photographers typically use one flash when they are learning, then progress to having two as they understand when and where to use flash.
As you dive deeper into the ocean, you begin to lose colours such as reds and oranges, leaving your images with a washed-out blue colour. Using flash underwater is mainly used to restore colour and is the best way to improve your images.
Snorkellers or free divers tend to use only ambient light as they spend the majority of their time photographing in shallow water or at the surface where there is enough light filtering through.
Positioning your strobes can get be a tricky business and getting the hang of using them can take time.
Backscatter can be one of the most difficult things to combat; water naturally contains particles, when you use flash, the particles are illuminated and can cause backscatter (white specks) in your images.
You learn to avoid this by angling the strobes slightly away from the subject, lowering the power of the strobes, or by getting close to the subject.
By getting close, you’re limiting the amount of water between you and the subject, but this process often requires trial and error.
Read more: An Introduction to Using Strobes in Underwater Photography
Beginning to break into the industry
The path to becoming a professional underwater photographer isn’t as clear as it is in many other styles of photography – this can make it a little daunting.
The most important step is to be happy with the quality of your images, which undoubtedly takes time.
You will learn something new every time you head out under the waves, and it’s truly the best place to spend your spare time if you have any hopes of pursuing this professionally.
There will eventually come a time when you start to see improvement in the quality of your photos. This is when you can begin to explore competitions and publishing opportunities.
Sharing your images is a good way to become known as an underwater photographer, whether that be by joining a local camera club or posting your work online.
Building a name for yourself and a style that other photographers can recognise will only help to enhance your reputation.
Having an online presence also allows you to network with other photographers. Many photographers have social media accounts and are happy to answer your questions, or even meet up for a shoot.
A popular social media account will help to make your work accessible, but it doesn’t generate a huge amount of income, so the amount of time you spend on it should be limited.
Yet, it is a way of marketing yourself and your images to a new audience, so it is certainly a worthy venture.
Workshops are also a great way to learn and improve your images. Many underwater photography workshops exist around the world. Some are aimed at complete beginners; others are tailored to semi-professionals and those hoping to learn advanced techniques.
A workshop will teach you key skills but also offers the chance to network with other photographers and critique each other’s work.
Top Tip: Never be tempted to exaggerate your experience when signing up for an experience like this – you risk putting yourself and others at risk and will have a much more enjoyable experience working at the correct level for your skillset.
Competition success can play an important role, but the key is choosing the right competition for you.
Competitions with a big media profile will show your work to the largest amount of people, and they can also be a great way to see how your images compare to other professionals in your area.
Many larger competitions such as Underwater Photographer of the Year offer beginner or compact camera categories, which give newer photographers a chance to win or place in the competition.
If you have good images, then being persistent in entering competitions will bring success.
The more you can enter, the more chances you have of winning, and a win in a big competition can help to open incredible doors in your career.
Read more: How to Develop a Photographic Style
Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned pro, there is always room for improvement in underwater photography.
Luckily, the underwater photography community is welcoming, and usually brimming with passionate individuals who are happy to answer any questions a budding underwater photographer might have.
Reaching out to your local underwater photographers and asking for their advice is a good place to start, along with reading forums and articles online, or even attending a beginner’s workshop.
Don’t rush into the underwater world; there is so much to see and enjoy for photographers here, and time in the water will only help your underwater photography improve.
Try not to be discouraged at the start of your journey either; being unable to control your movements very well at the beginning can be very frustrating, especially when you risk scaring subjects away.
It can also throw you off if you’re migrating from land-based photography, where you may already be quite competent!
The more hours you spend learning a technique, the closer you will become to mastering it.
It’s always an enjoyable experience to see the magical blue world that lies beneath the waves – even more so when you can capture the wonders you witness with a camera in hand!
So, I hope you feel inspired to give underwater photography a go. You may find yourself hooked!