Underwater Photography Composition Basics, Part 1

What works on land also works in the water

Underwater photography is not just about getting the right camera, underwater housing and lights. You need to know the basics of composition to tie it all together.

LeisurePro the Divers EmporiumNow that you have started to master the technical side of digital underwater photography including exposure, strobe use and focus, you are probably wondering why your images still do not have a “wow” factor. That is because it’s now time to start using the creative side of your brain to  compose your scene. It’s not just about capturing a good fish identification shot but one that may help to tell a story about the subject.

Composition, in basic terms, is the arrangement of the elements of an image to make the whole scene. Since this is an  art form, and not a  science, composition can be quite subjective. Yes, there are rules to help guide you, but it all comes down to your artistic interpretation – and this will differ from one photographer to another. As Ansel Adams said, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

Let’s start with some basic guidelines that will help you to develop your own style. Using these techniques will encourage you to consider your subject more thoroughly the next time you are in the water. Think it is different for underwater photos rather than land subjects? Think again. These are tried and true guidelines for any genre of photography that will help you come home with an outstanding image rather than another run-of-the-mill one. (If you're a land-based photographer getting your feet wet with underwater photography, some of this might be familiar. Bear with me, and read on!)

The First Rule

Although you may frequently hear, “rules are made to be broken”, especially in the artistic world, the Rule of Thirds has been tested time and time again. It is basically a rule that if followed, will keep you from photographing all your subjects directly in the center of the frame. This is also known as a bull’s-eye shot. Interesting to view? Not really. It works well for marine life identification books, but not for a more artistic image.


Underwater Photography Composition tips

A topside landscape image is the easiest way to get an idea of how images with horizons are photographed. Unless you are doing a “mirror” image, the horizon is better positioned in the top or bottom third of the image to create visual interest.

Just use your imagination to see the division in the frame. Better yet: If you have a grid screen in your camera, use it! Two vertical and two horizontal lines spaced evenly apart will do the trick. It is more easily achieved using static subjects when starting out. Try placing the point of interest in your subject at one of the intersections of the grid, and take more than one shot! Experiment by moving the subject point to different parts of the frame and you’ll begin to learn just how much placement can have an impact on the image.


Underwater Photography Composition tips

Try not to bull’s-eye the main subject. Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro lens shot at ISO 100, 1/50th second at f/13.

There are also viewpoints to avoid! As divers, we tend to swim over a reef with our view looking down. Fish backs and butts are never interesting. It is easy to start shooting right when you get in the water, but try to resist this urge. You’ll be editing a lot more out of your collection than you will be keeping. An eye-level shot is a good place to begin, but also try to get low to the subject and shoot upwards.

Underwater Photography Composition tips


Underwater Photography Composition tips

No butts about it: There is nothing interesting about the first shot, top, with everyone swimming away. But if you just wait, they may come back (above)! Mantas near Socorro Island, Mexico are one of my favorite subjects.

I find that I still get overexcited about a subject and start shooting without thinking about the composition. What happens then is that I get lots of photos of fish butts. They swim much faster than you, so take a deep breath out of the regulator and wait. Don’t try to catch them because chasing will only scare them away. Be patient: I have found some fish and marine mammals will circle around and provide the face shot you actually wanted in the first place.

Pieces and Parts

Since marine creatures tend to move fast and unpredictably, it is easy to unintentionally leave part of your subject out of the frame. Generally, this will not evoke the viewer to see anything other than a chopped up version of the animal. That is not to say that a well-planned composition where you crop your subject is unworthy. Once again, it needs to be deliberate and strategic. This is a useful tool when shooting macro images. A beautiful image of the eye of a parrotfish can be very dramatic. A shot of the same parrotfish with its tail missing from the frame leads the viewer to see a photo that is incomplete.

Underwater Photography Composition tips


Underwater Photography Composition tips

This is certainly not a parrotfish, but cropped out parts often happen with fast moving sharks (see top shot). This leads me to address how your subject comes in to or leaves the frame. To the viewer, an image of a fish, turtle or dolphin with its face at the edge of the frame is awkward since the creature has no space to move forward. Provide enough area in front of the animal and he now has somewhere to go. Both images were shot with my housed system using a 15mm fisheye lens.


Underwater Photography Composition tips


Underwater Photography Composition tips

Same turtle, different composition. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II, Seacam housing, 15mm fisheye lens and dual Ikelite strobes at ISO 200, 1/40th second at f/8.

Which Way to Turn: Camera Orientation

When you hold your camera, it’s obvious that you can turn it two ways. Horizontal, also known as landscape, is the most common format that new photographers utilize. That’s because handling the housing plus positioning the strobes is quick and simple. I recommend that you take the time and shoot a vertical, or portrait, image of each scene you shoot horizontally. Yes, you now have to reposition the strobes and it might feel like you will miss the fish that is swimming in and out of the frame, but do take the time. I often become over-anxious and, when looking at my images later, wish I had taken that few extra seconds to recompose.


Underwater Photography Composition tips


Underwater Photography Composition tips

Photographing the same scene vertically and horizontally gives you the ability to utilize the shot for print or web layouts. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens in Seacam housing with dual Ikelite strobes shot at ISO 200, 1/40th second at f/8.

Using your dive buddy as a subject in a scene?  Then consider making their eyes a focal point of the image and align close to an intersecting line. It makes the image a lot more interesting. The vertical format of this shot could be used as a cover!  


Underwater Photography Composition tips

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, Seacam housing with dual Ikelite strobes shot at ISO 200, 1/80th second at f/9.

Diagonal Lines

Now that we’ve gone over the fundamentals, an even more interesting image can be produced by utilizing a diagonal line that runs corner to corner. This diagonal flow of your subject or your background can create more interest for the viewer and be more dynamic.


Underwater Photography Composition tips


Underwater Photography Composition tips

Whether shooting wide angle or macro, diagonal lines can make the image more compelling.

The image on top was shot with the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens while the macro, above, was taken with the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro lens. Both images used dual strobes to light the subjects.

These diagonally composed images are an essential part of creating eye flow-that is the path the viewer takes when looking at an image. A photographer will dictate where the viewer starts to look at an image and where their eye is drawn to from that original point. Try not to make this arbitrary and instead plan where the viewer enters and exits the image. It will leave a lasting impression on your audience. Use the rule of thirds intersections to help you align these leading lines.

Non-Diagonal Lines

Lines can be used not only to arrange your images, but also to highlight characteristics of your subject. One that is tall, such as a large barrel sponge, can be emphasized by photographing it vertically to imply power and strength.


Underwater Photography Composition tips

The intent of this shot in the Cayman Islands was to show the immense size of the barrel sponges. The best way was to do this was to photograph them vertically, and with divers! Canon 5D Mark II with Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens and dual strobes shot at ISO 200, 1/100th second at f/8.

Horizontal lines can indicate rest or leisure. A fish sitting on a coral branch or a colorful sponge covered rock says, “I’m not moving”.



Underwater Photography Composition tips


This long-nosed hawkfish photographed in the Indo-Pacific was quite happy resting in a colorful stand of soft coral. 5D Mark II with Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro lens and dual Ikelite strobes.

Leading Lines

I love using leading lines because they draw the viewer into an image. They are essential in creating “eye flow”. If you look at a photograph and immediately find the starting point and follow to an exit point,   then you’ve succeeded in creating visual interest.

Underwater Photography Composition tips


Underwater Photography Composition tips

Both wide angle and macro images can have leading lines. In the wide angle shot, you start at the colorful whip coral in the corner and exit the opposite corner of the frame with the dive skiff on the surface. In the macro shot of the scorpionfish, you start with the face at the bottom of the frame and leave from it’s tail at the top.


Not everything comes in a straight line. Think of the last time you saw an image of a forest with a lovely curving pathway and what a restful image it was. The same principle can apply to the underwater world. Think about the lovely lines of red whip corals swaying in the current or of a kelp forest and create that pathway by composing the curves gracefully through the image. Not only can this “S” curve be used when composing corals and kelps, but it can also be used when photographing large schools of fish. Think about the last time you had a huge school of jack or barracuda around you. The next time you have this opportunity, try applying an “S” curve composition and see just how pleasing the image turns out.


Underwater Photography Composition tips

You can’t get a better “S” curve than with a natural subject like this seahorse. Don’t stop at getting a full frame photo of the animal. You will have plenty of time to try out other compositions as well, since seahorses certainly don’t move very fast. 100mm macro lens.


Underwater Photography Composition tips

This wide angle shot was seredipidy, and waiting for just the right moment for the fish to circle. Canon 15mm fisheye lens shot at ISO 320, 1/80th second at f/8.

We’ve certainly covered a lot of material on composition – but there’s more!!  Go now to Underwater Photography Composition Basics, Part 2!

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