Introduction to Underwater Photography—Skills & Etiquette

Before you immerse yourself, soak in these essential tips

If you're interested in the wonders of the underwater world, and taking home images of the amazing reefs and the creatures that inhabit them, follow this advice before you dive in.

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Longfin Bannerfish (Heniochus acuminatus) on healthy reef, Milne Bay Papua New Guinea
Appears in my book “Ocean Duets”. Shot on Fuji film.  Canon body, 17-40mm lens, dual Ikelite strobes.

 

For years, I have purchased equipment from Adorama and today, I’m asked to share my expertise in underwater photography with you.  Thank you, Adorama, for a wonderful opportunity to build on our relationship!  Matt Weiss from Dive Photo Guide will be collaborating with me on this series. He has an amazing wealth of information, especially on all things technical including gear.  Between the two of us, we hope to bring you all the best techniques and pointers to help you get started or improve your underwater photography addiction.  —Michelle Westmorland

 

Model Released diver in healthy reef system, Dominica, West Indies, Caribbean. Canon 5D in Seacam housing. 16-35mm f2.8; 1/50 second at f/8, ISO 200. Lit with dual Ikelite strobes.

 

Addicted???  If you aren’t now – you may soon be.

If you are already hooked on underwater photography, let’s get back to basics.  First, you started with diving and being in wonder of the underwater world.  Now your attention is turned to taking home images of the amazing reefs and the creatures that inhabit them.  It is simultaneously fun and frustrating.  Let’s try to take as much frustration out of the picture as possible.  If you are an experienced diver, and you have already been introduced to underwater photography, forgive my starting from scratch but a little reminder never hurts.

 

Balloonfish (Diodon holocanthus) hiding in sponges and tube worms. Photographed in the Caribbean Island of Dominica. Gear: Canon 5D in Seacam housing. 100mm f2.8 Macro lens.  1/60 sec at f/22 and  ISO 200. Lit with dual Ikelite strobes.

 

 


“If you can’t be proficient in the water then how in the heck can you pay attention to your camera system and get anything worth keeping?  I dove for a year before I even picked up a camera.”


 

 

Model Released diver in healthy reef system, Dominica, West Indies, Caribbean. Gear: Canon 5D in Seacam housing. 16-35mm f2.8 lens. Exposure: 1/50 sec at f/10 and ISO 200. Lit with dual Ikelite strobes.

 

Are you comfortable in the water?

It was 25 years ago when I took my first underwater photograph.  Yes, I know I’m dating myself.  The advantage I had was that I lived in South Florida, so practicing and getting a lot of diving under my belt was not difficult.  The most important thing to remember (if you are a new diver) is to become comfortable and skilled in the water.  It’s hard enough getting used to the dive tables, computers, buoyancy, depth, currents, visibility, sharks – oops! Did I say sharks?  You know what I mean. 

If you can’t be proficient in the water then how in the heck can you pay attention to your camera system and get anything worth keeping?  I dove for a year before I even picked up a camera.

 

Longfin bannerfish (Heniochus acuminatus) on healthy reef system, Fiji Islands. Canon 5D in Seacam housing. Gear: 16-35mm f2.8 lens. Exposure: 1/60 second at f/10 and ISO 200. Shot with dual Ikelite strobes.

 

Ask yourself, how are my buoyancy skills?  This is probably the number one problem I see with most divers wanting to shoot images.  Good grief, it gets embarrassing: fins kicking up silt, elbows and legs bashing into the reef, hands with a death grip hold on coral.  This is not pretty and it is certainly not acceptable.  Practice your buoyancy skills before picking up the camera.  Once you have your camera in the water with you, find a place to see what additional weight issues you will have and adjust.  You can give up one dive to make sure you are balancing and moving through the water without causing damage to the reef.  It will also make you much more productive and confident when you do start taking your first images.

 

If you have the place and opportunity, think about practicing in a pool setting.  Learning all the functions of your camera, getting used to looking at your camera screen through a mask and directing your strobes will be immensely helpful to you when you finally get to a location where it is important to also pay attention to your dive surroundings.

 

Reef cuttlefish (Sepia latimanus)  Lindenhaven area, Southcoast New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Shot with my first housed digital camera, a Canon Mark II, in a Seacam housing, with a 100mm f2.8 Macro lens. Lit with dual Ikelite strobes.

 

Be a considerate diver

There is also a little thing call ethics.  In the past, it was common to move a creature to a different location for a better background.  It was common to see images of a puffer fish all blown up as a defense mechanism but we know that all too often, it did that because the diver agitated the poor animal so much that it didn’t have any choice but to respond.  Another big one was to take an image of someone holding on to the dorsal fin of a large pelagic animal or “riding” a manta.  Today, you will not find many images published in periodicals endorsing this kind of harassment.

 

Longnose hawkfish (Oxycirrhites typus) in red gorgonian sea fan - Papua New Guinea.  This image appears in my book “Ocean Duets”. Shot on Fuji Velvia film. Canon body, 100mm f2.8 Macro lens, Ikelite strobes.

 

How about those dive buddies?  Look around underwater.  There may be another underwater photographer who is just as fascinated with the same subject you are shooting.  It is polite to share, so take a few images and let others have an opportunity.  If you are that interested in the animal, you can always wait and shoot again.  Oops! It swam off!  Oh well. 

 

Two pinnacles starting in about 75 feet of water rising to within 12-15 feet of the surface.  These are two of the most prolific coral structures in Fiji. Schools of colorful anthias hover in the soft coral and hard coral branches while the jacks and other predator fish comb the top looking for prey.  Ned's Head, near Namena Island, Fiji. Canon 5D in Seacam housing. 16-35mm f2.8 lens  1/50 @ F9  ISO 200 with dual Ikelite strobes.

 

 

Also observe if you are in someone’s way.  I can’t tell you how many times I have spent an enormous amount of care setting up for a wide angle shot and someone swims right up to my camera to see what I’m shooting.  If a photographer wants you in the picture, he/she will certainly let you know.  Some of these issues can be resolved by having friendly conversations on the boat before entering the water.  Maybe that “intruder” is new and just as excited to dive as you.  People are generous and wonderful if you make an effort to share your dive plans.

The world of digital has opened the doors to many people who are hooked on photography, especially in the fascinating water world.  Both Matt and I welcome you to the Adorama Learning Center's Underwater Photography department, and hope you learn and enjoy the new discovery.

 

Spotted moray (Gymnothorax moringa) with arrow crab (Stenorhynchus seticornis) in healthy reef system, Dominica, West Indies, Caribbean.

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