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Shallow underwater photography tips for non-scuba divers
Got a phobia when it comes to getting too deep in the water? You can still shoot great photos while barely breaking the surface.
When you think underwater photography, the first thing that comes to mind is most likely going to be stunning deep-dive photos of exotic fish, coral, and plant life, or maybe sunken treasure or close encounters with swimming things that could sting or eat you. If you are risk-averse but are interested in the possibilities of underwater photography, fear not: There's a whole new world waiting for you, and you don't have to dive deep. You barely need to put your underwater camera below the surface. In fact, you don't even need to snorkle to get these photos!
Here's a guide to shallow underwater photography, because if you're like me, you'd rather not be under the sea. You want a shore thing.
Buying Guide: Cameras You Can Bring Underwater...Deep Dives or Otherwise!
First, let's look at several cameras, available from Adorama at reduced prices as of this writing. They are all very well suited for low-submersion underwater photography. Any camera that's rated for underwater photography should be dunkable down to at least a few feet. Caution: "weatherproof" or "water-resistant" cameras should not be submerged--they're only protected against rain or the occasional splash.
The following cameras can be safely submerged any where from 5-50 feet, depending on the model.
Nikon AW1 with 11-27.5mm AW lens
It's the only interchangeable-lens compact digital camera that is also waterproof (drop-proof as well) when used with the 11-27.5mm AW lens. It's light and compact, it floats, and is loaded with features for beginners and experienced photographers alike. If you get brave, you can take it as far as 50 feet below the surface.
Nikon Coolpix S32
A fun ultracompact point-and-shoot with a 4x zoom lens, the S32 is priced for any budget and designed for casual shooting. Want to bring it into the pool? No problem!
Nikon Coolpix AW120
Submergeable down to 59 feet, the AW120 is a shirt-pocket-sized camera that will also work on land or in shallow water. You can also take it on cold weather adventures as well as extreme outdoor activities (some folks are daring, just not underwater daring). It's built to be roughed up.
Canon PowerShot D30
Capable of diving down to 82 feet, this rugged camera has GPS so you can add info about where you were...even if it is the shallow end of the kiddie pool.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS5
Conveniently small enough to fit in your shirt or bathing suit pocket (but not Speedo's), the TS5 is Wi-Fi enabled, can be submerged down to 39 feet, and has an anti-fog coating on the lens, which is useful when you're diving into the pool frequently.
A budget-priced pocket camera, the XP-70 is waterproof to depths of 33 feet. It has Wi-Fi so you can transfer your images to your smart phone or tablet (which we definitely don't recommend bringing into the water). It also has 240fps slow-motion video capture, which can be cool. Do a study of someone blowing bubbles underwater!
You can also take your existing compact digital camera and house it in an underwater case. Nikon and Canon offer plenty of underwater housing options. Be sure to bring swim goggles so you can dunk underwater and compose using your camera's LCD monitor.
Barely Underwater Picture-Taking Tips You Can't Drown With
Sun, sand, and blue, blue water
So, you're on a tropical beach, and shallow water over beautiful, pristine white sand goes on forever. What are you waiting for? Put down that Pina Colada and stick your camera in the warm, wonderful, and totally safe water! This image was shot in calm, relatively shallow water, and shows the interplay of the sun, the ripples of the waves, and the projected light on the sand for a pleasing near-abstract photo that would make a great screensaver. Photo © GoodOlga/iStockphoto.com
A half-underwater shot, or a "halfie," is a photo where the image is divided by the surface of the water. These shots can be tricky, because positioning a camera so the surface of the lens is half in, half out of the water depends on how calm the water is. Use the live view in your viewfinder to make sure you've got the shot, and be prepared to take a lot of pictures to get it right. If you're shooting manually, choose a small aperture so you can get the most depth of field. If you are focusing manually, focus on the "above-the-surface" subject, and let the underwater half focus fall where it may. As you can see here, water changes things optically, so you can combine far above-surface subjects with near below-surface ones, and both will remain in focus.
How to make it easier: Use an underwater housing, which separates the lens from the surface just enough to get better control over the edge of the water. photo © SerrNovik/iStockphoto.com
The View From Below: Here's The Upshot
Some subjects look totally different when shot up from below the surface. These water lillies, shot in a lake in New York, are transformed because of the angle, the reflections off the surface of the water, and the angle of the sunlight. From above, these probably look plain and uninteresting, but from below, the image is much more compelling. Even better: You can shoot this with a simple point-and-shoot camera in an underwater housing, or with one of the cameras listed above. Photo © marck140/iStockphoto.com
Break On Through
Another variation when shooting up towards the water's surface is to have your portrait subject stick her head partly in the water. In this case, it creates an alternate-universe image. The camera was held less than a foot below the surface of the water and was set to a relatively large aperture for more selective focus...or, is the head sticking out from below the water's surface and the image is upside down? Either way, it works!
photo © shadrin_andrey/iStockphoto.com
Blue in the Pool
Don't worry, pools are safe. The only danger is that anyone you photograph is going to come out looking a bit blue. The deeper they are, the bluer they'll be because water filters out the warmer range of the color scale...and pools are painted blue all around, and that dominant color bounces into faces.
You can control that by changing your white balance settings. If your camera has an underwater WB or an underwater scene mode, use that. You can also try using the flash, but it may also illuminate particles in front of the camera, which can reflect light into the camera, messing up the shot. If you have a Nikon AW1 and the matching underwater flash, you can use the flash off-camera to create more neutral light on your subject.
Finally, you could apply color correction after the fact. Using Adobe Photoshop Elements, I applied Auto Color Correction to the above photo, and got this pleasing result. Photo © intst/iStockphoto.com
On-Camera Flash? Be Careful Down There!
What if you did turn on your flash? If you're in a pool, and the water looks fairly clean, it will probably come out like this shot. Skin color is accurate, but notice all the little white dots? That's called Backscatter, and it's the flash reflecting off particles in the water. In this image it's not so bad, but if you're shooting in a dirty pool (which you probably should have second thoughts about swimming in) or in a lake or ocean, the backscatter will probably obscure your subject. Photo © albello/iStockphoto.com
Group Portraits? Hold Your Breath and Smile!
You can shoot a fun family photo and add an element of surprise by doing it underwater. This may take a few tries, because everyone should smile and keep their eyes open—a challenge for some in chlorinated water. Use hand signals to indicate when you're taking the picture so everybody is ready at the same time, and make sure you don't take longer to shoot than the weakest breath-holder in your group can handle. Photo © albello/iStockphoto.com