Underwater Photography: How to Photograph Wrecks

Kittiwake Wreck underwater photography

Exploring a shipwreck as part of your underwater photography trip is a captivating experience, and beckons scuba divers to unlock the secrets of the deep.

A good image can convey the mood and atmosphere of a shipwreck while also inspiring the viewer. How a photographer creates an image that inspires is a matter of carefully applied photographic techniques.

wreck diving underwater photography
Military vehicles in Aqaba, Jordan.

This article will explore the strategy behind creating inspiring photographs of wrecks.

There are several different types of wrecks, each with thier own atmosphere. For example, there are old shipwrecks that may have carried valuable cargo, warships that were lost in battle, or even purpose-sunk ships for scuba divers.

Wrecks can also include aeroplanes, train cars, automobiles, cargo lost at sea, structures, and even flooded towns.

Each wreck can have a feeling associated with it, such as mystery, grief, loss, or adventure. As a photographer, you have the power to influence someone’s feelings through good visual storytelling.

Lighting in wreck photography

The first and most important element in any good photograph is the use of light. Many shipwrecks are dark by virtue of their location, and this can be an advantage or a disadvantage.

underwater wreck photography
Motorcycle in the cargo hold of the SS Thistlegorm using artificial light only.

Perhaps you want to simply show someone what cargo you found inside a wreck. You can shoot an image of the cargo using strobes that would tell the story.

But inside a ship, or any room for that matter, your image is likely to appear flat without light and shadows to give your image depth.

If you can find an angle that allows light from the outside to penetrate the cargo area, use that to your advantage.

underwater photography wreck lighting
Motorcycle in the cargo hold of the SS Thistlegorm in the Red Sea with Ambient light.

Putting blue water in the background of an image gives the image depth and is much more interesting to the viewer.

Read more: 8 Tips for Creating Amazing Lighting in Underwater Photos

Using light to create depth

Sometimes there is no outside light available. However, you can still use light to your advantage.

Putting an artificial light source such as a torch or remotely triggered strobe behind an object can help to make it stand out and give your image depth.

wreck diving underwater photography
Trucks inside the SS Thistlegorm in the Red Sea lit with artificial light and backlight with remote strobe.

In the cargo hold of the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm for example, there are several trucks parked side by side. They are against the wall of the ship so it is not possible to shoot them with outside light. 

However, an artificial light source placed close to the wall sets the truck apart and creates a much more interesting photograph.

Remote light can also be used to emphasize an important element inside a shipwreck.

In the Chrisoula K wreck in the Red Sea, there is a workroom that has a drill press. The room is small so there is not much room for a diver to enter for a photo. However, there is an opening in the wall leading to an adjacent room.

wreck photography
Drill Press inside the Chrisoula K in the Red Sea lit with remote strobe and ambient light.

A remote strobe can be set up to light up the drill press while the diver is holding the camera in the adjacent room.

By adding another diver entering with a light, the photograph gains depth and interest.

Read more: An Introduction to Using Strobes in Underwater Photography

Ambient light

In most cases, the wreck itself is far too large to shoot with strobes. Most photographers will focus on a smaller element of the wreck when using strobes, but there are several options when shooting the entire wreck.

Kittiwake Wreck underwater photography
Kittiwake Wreck in Grand Cayman created with ambient light.

Depending on the depth of the wreck, you can try shooting it without any strobes at all. This will require a higher ISO, lower shutter speed, and more open aperture.

Some professional level cameras are capable of capturing color that can be restored in post-processing.  If the color cannot be restored, the image can be rendered in black and white.  

underwater wreck photography
The deck of the Million Hope in the Red Sea shot with a filter and ambient light.

Another solution to getting a natural-looking photo of the entire wreck is to use a red filter to restore the color.  These filters are made to attach to the lens itself, so if you decide to go that route, you must commit to the entire dive.

Results are usually very good, creating a photograph that has blue water through the entire photograph while showing the shipwreck in its natural color.

Black and white underwater photography

Black and white photographs are a good choice in underwater photography if you want to capture mood.

black and white underwater photography
Black and White detailed shot of a tank in Aqaba, Jordan.

Be mindful when composing your images that when you shoot with the sun at your back, the shipwreck will have a lot of detail, and the shadows will be minimal.

If you shoot facing the sun, the shipwreck will have deep shadows, creating a darker and sometimes more ’emotional’ image with a dramatic effect. Shooting into the sun is particularly suitable for black and white photos.

black and white wreck underwater photography
The Cedar Pride Shipwreck in Aqaba, Jordan, showing dramatic lighting shooting into the sun.

Black and white can also work particularly well with remote light, as seen in the helicopter image below.

This requires a little bit of work in post-processing to separate the light from the dark. If you want a darker image, the blues must be darkened, and vice versa for a lighter image.

Keep in mind that the photograph is black and white, so it is only the blue channel that is darkened or lightened.

wreck photography
Helicopter at Aqaba, Jordan Underwater Military Museum.

Contrasting characteristics

Many wrecks have been underwater for a long time and support a great deal of natural growth. This abundance of life around a shipwreck is in sharp contrast to the shipwreck itself, which may signify destruction and death.

The contrasting characteristics of life and death around a shipwreck can be very satisfying in a photograph. Shipwrecks naturally become an artificial reef and a safe haven for sea life.

For example, this unidentified wreck in Sri Lanka was found because fishermen knew there was an abundance of life at this location. So, while on the wreck, don’t be afraid to point your camera towards the life surrounding the fixture you’re photographing.

Underwater photography tips wrecks
Encrusted cross beams on the Carnatic Wreck in the Red Sea.

The Carnatic (photographed above) ran aground on Sha’ab Abu Nahas reef in the Red Sea in 1869 and has been underwater for more than 150 years. The wood has decayed, but the metal cross beams are still intact.

This makes a wonderful composition when paired with the abundance of marine life growing and swimming on the wreck. Look out for these moments of contrast on the wreck you’re diving.

As a photographer, it is important to seek out the beauty found in the decay, for it becomes a part of the ship’s story.

Read more: 8 Tips to Create Beautiful Underwater Animal Portraits

Photographing divers on wrecks

Having a diver in your image often elevates the picture and helps give perspective to the story.

Sometimes you might just want a diver hovering above the wreck or shining a light on an important element. Sometimes, however, you need a diver to emphasize the space or size of an object.

wreck diving photography
Diver inside the Tristar L1011 Jetliner in Aqaba, Jordan.

If you are in a dark area of the wreck, and your dive model is wearing a dark wetsuit, you must be very deliberate in how you photograph them, or you may end up with a photograph featuring a floating head!

In the above photograph of a diver inside the Tristar L-1011 Jetliner in Aqaba, Jordan, it was necessary to have him hold a light shining behind him to create a separation between diver and background.

Without this light, his body would have blended into the darkness. A remote strobe or video light is usually sufficient backlighting for people or objects in dark places.

Read more: How to Get Rid of Backscatter in Underwater Photography

Important fixtures

Many wrecks are unidentified, but those who discover the wreck are driven to learn the history of the craft. For many wrecks, there is an identifying fixture such as a nameplate, cargo, or type of equipment that helps researchers discover what happened.

The HMS Perseus was lost in Colombo Bay near Sri Lanka during WWI. There are many shipwrecks in the area, but only two are known to have been sunk by a ship known as “The Wolf” during WWI.

underwater wreck diving photography
Steering Quadrant of the SS Perseus in Colombo Bay, Sri Lanka.

When the Perseus was discovered, its identity was confirmed because of the type of steering quadrant that was used. This quadrant is an important fixture for telling this story, so getting a photograph of the steering quadrant was the goal of the dive.

Some fixtures become important after the fact, such as this compressor known as R2-D2. Most ships have a compressor, so the fixture itself is not important. But this compressor is found on the WWII ship Fujikawa Maru in Chuuk Lagoon, Malaysia.

R2-D2 wreck
R2-D2, a compressor found on the Fujikawa Maru in Chuuk Lagoon.

It resembles a soldier wearing a gas mask, which is reminiscent of WWII. In fact, there are several gas masks found on the ship itself. This fixture lends a bit of humor to an otherwise bleak story, and it is one of the most photographed fixtures in Chuuk Lagoon.

I highly recommend doing a little research before diving a wreck to find out what its story is, and then set out to create the images that tell that story. It also makes the experience of seeing and diving the wreck much more interesting!

Read more: 13 Ways to Improve Your Underwater Photos

In conclusion

How you choose to tell a story through your wreck images depends on how your photographs illustrate it. Think about the mood you want to convey and the atmosphere you experience while you are on the dive.

Plan ahead to make the most of your photographic experience, and if possible, I recommend doing multiple dives on the wreck until you understand its ambiance.

If you prepare yourself with the right photographic techniques, you will be able to dive prepared with a strategy to make the most of your dive and tell the story of your wreck diving adventure with captivating images.

Good luck and enjoy the adventure!

Visit Brook's website

Brook Peterson is an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer who enjoys capturing the beauty in the world’s oceans. A member of the Ocean Artists Society, her award-winning work has been featured in many publications. Brook is the author of WaterdogPhotography.com, a resource for underwater photographers. She leads expeditions to diving destinations worldwide where she coaches photographers of all levels.

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