An Introduction to Underwater Photography

Introduction to Underwater Photography

Taking images underwater is an exhilarating and fun experience. If you are already a diver and feel comfortable underwater, then taking a camera with you on a dive to take pictures is just the next step in exploring the underwater world. Even if you aren’t a diver don’t despair, as snorkelling offers just as many great opportunities to photograph marine life and produce compelling and beautiful images.

Wide-angle Underwater Housing

Bargibanti pygmy seahorse

Obviously, to take photos underwater you need your camera to be waterproof, or to put the camera in some kind of waterproof housing to keep it dry. There are a huge range of cameras and housings that can be used today, ranging from compact cameras all the way through to the professional DSLRs. Many different makes and models of housing can be purchased, from the plastic to the aluminium, at varying costs from the relatively cheap to the expensive (£100s to £1000s). There is also a very good second hand market for digital cameras and underwater housings where bargains can be found. Whatever camera and housing combination you choose, it is very important that you understand how the camera works and how to change the settings. In other words, you need to know your camera as you will not be able to pull out the manual when you are under the water!

Underwater Yellow Fish

Underwater photography offers a number of challenges not found on land. Water absorbs light, and so light levels drop the deeper you go. The water filters out different colours throughout the light spectrum as you get deeper. Reds are absorbed more quickly than blues, and by the time you are 5 to 6 metres below the surface there is virtually no red colour left. To bring out the true colour that adorns much of the marine life you need to add light yourself. A flash, or a strobe as it is known in underwater photography, is used to add artificial light to help produce a well exposed image full of colour. If no strobe is used you will find your images look blue. In very shallow, clear water shooting without a strobe, and just using natural light, can produce colourful images – but as soon as you start to get deeper strobes become essential.

Colourful Coral Underwater

Wide-angle and macro photography are the two most used methods of photography underwater. Macro allows you to take pictures of small animals whilst creating almost life-sized images, often of extraordinary and colourful creatures that leave you in wonder of the underwater realm. Wide-angle is more like taking a landscape image, but underwater, and creating scenic shots of habitats such as coral reefs. Both have their challenges and rewards, but for anyone setting out on their first underwater photography foray a very good way to start is by shooting macro.



To take pictures of marine life, one of the key rules is to cut down the amount of water between you and the subject that you are photographing. Macro photography does this naturally as often the subjects are relatively small, and to focus and fill the camera frame with the subject you need to get close. The position of the flash is very important and you need to make sure the flash will light the animal you are trying to photograph. Angling your strobe from the side will reduce backscatter (particles in the water showing up and obscuring the image).

Richard Shucksmith Underwater

Just like macro photography, wide-angle photography also requires you to get close to the scene or animal you are trying to photograph. Specialist lenses can be used, such as a fisheye lens, that allows you to get close to the subject whilst still capturing the surrounding scene. The closer you get to your subject, the better the colour, contrast and sharpness will be. It is important to understand exactly how your camera works and reacts to the different settings you can apply, as it is much more difficult to make quick, and correct, adjustments underwater.

Fish and Scuba Diver

Whilst there is a great variety of different cameras that can be used underwater, it really comes down to the knowledge of the photographer to make the most of a camera’s ability. The key things to remember are to understand exposure and what affect the aperture, shutter speed and ISO have on your image, and to use a strobe to add light and bring out the colour of your subject matter. In addition, get close to your subject as this will improve colour, contrast and sharpness of an image. However, respect your subject and do not disturb, or harm in anyway, the creature you are trying to photograph. Most of all, taking images underwater is exciting and fun, and you will find yourself looking at marine life through a new set of lenses than you are used to.

Editor’s Note: We’ll be adding more tutorials about specific areas of underwater photography soon!


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Dr Richard Shucksmith is a underwater photographer as well as a marine ecologists. He has spent many hours exploring the underwater world with his camera and one of his favourite places to dive is Scotland. Richard won British Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2011 with an underwater image of a jellyfish taken around the remote islands of Sula Sgeir on the west coast of Scotland.

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