Read lots of reviews of cameras used by keen amateur underwater photographers before deciding on the model of camera to purchase, making sure that it has features such as manual white balance. (Learn how to use this feature in the next article.)
Unless you intend to dive only in shallow clear blue waters, consider buying a camera that has a housing to which you can attach an external strobe.
Buy the largest memory card that your camera will take – not only for its storage capacity but for the speed of processing, to avoid frustrating delay between shots.
Read the manual thoroughly and get to know your camera on land, with and without the housing, until the positioning of the essential buttons and navigating between functions becomes automatic.
Practice with different settings - automatic program or manual, switch between flash on and off, shift between macro and regular distance photographs until you understand the benefits of the different modes in varying conditions and can navigate with ease. Using a camera underwater introduces lots of different things to consider in photography which don't happen on dry land, and a dive camera is very different from the sort you get on cheap mobile phones. However, with enough practice you should get the hang of it soon enough.
Prepare your camera and housing in a clean indoor area, making sure that the O ring is lubricated and properly sited to form a perfect seal.
Don’t expose the housing to hot sunshine before diving as this will cause condensation inside the case.
Don’t subject the camera to sudden pressure changes that can disturb an O ring. Get someone to pass you the camera once you are in the water, and similarly pass it out of the water at the end of a dive.
If possible dive with a buddy who is also into underwater photography. (Or one who has a lot of patience, like me!)
Dive frequently and regularly to learn the limits of your camera, improve your skills, and increase your chances of getting that magical shot. (An Eco Diving holiday is the ideal way to gain lots of practice in warm, clear water with loads of marine life).
Choose sites that are easy to dive and concentrate on one small section of the site.
Try to fill the viewfinder with your subject by getting as close as you can, thus reducing the thickness of water column between yourself and the focal point as much as possible.
Take your time. With a bit of patience, shy subjects will become accustomed to you and will let you get closer.
Try to avoid placing the main subject right in the middle of the frame. Move it a little off center, slightly to one side of the image.
Try to get at least one eye of your subject in the shot, rather than take from above or behind, to make your photos more engaging.
Check the composition of your shot, not forgetting unwanted bubbles in the background. Try to position yourself so that the background is uncluttered.
Practice with sedentary subjects before trying to capture fast moving targets. Scorpionfish are great for sitting still while you snap away and anemones and nudibranchs make good macro subjects.
If you use an external strobe, position it as far out as possible so that its axis points away from the axis of the lens to reduce back-scatter
Information is automatically saved about the aperture, shutter speed, and white balancing in every photo document. Analyse this when you download to your PC, to help you learn what works best for different shots under different conditions.
Most of all – just experiment and have fun. The beauty of digital underwater photography is that you can snap away and learn quickly through trial and error!
Really want to practice and improve your underwater photography?
Take our Ecology and Underwater Photography Course
One of the problems we have when taking photographs underwater is that the water absorbs red light and makes your photos look a washed out blue. The deeper you go, the worse it gets as more red light is absorbed. To overcome the blues, when I bought a new camera, I chose a Canon Ixus 900 IS which has a specific underwater setting. I had seen the colorful shots taken by one of our visiting divers using this feature on an earlier Canon model, and I was looking forward to getting some really natural-looking shots without the need for a cumbersome strobe rig.
Selecting the underwater setting certainly did add the red back in, and I was pleased with the results (although photos turn out too red if this option is left on when taking shots near the surface). But that was before I met Christa, whose camera rig is so heavy that she doesn’t need any extra weight to dive! Christa takes superbly artistic underwater photos, and taught me about the value of using the manual white balance setting. Fortunately my new camera had this feature, although until I dived with Christa I had not understood its significance. Now I use manual white balance all the time and get colours that are more lifelike.
White balance is a function that is unique to digital cameras and video. It allows the colour of a shot to be changed to suit the type of light the camera is receiving in different situations. Most cameras have presets that you can select for sunny or cloudy conditions, and for indoors or nighttime shots, but underwater the light changes with depth. Manually setting the white balance, every 3 meters or so, helps the camera to adjust to make the most of the available light and to restore reds and yellows in what would otherwise be a monotonous blue scene.
Well, I got to grips with the theory and it sounded like a good idea, but I thought that it would be a complicated thing to do underwater. Not so. All you need to do is attach a white diver’s slate to your BCD. Every 3 meters switch off the camera’s flash and select the manual white balance setting, focus the lens on your white slate, and press the button that sets the white balance. It’s easy to do when you know how and you’ll soon find that you get in the habit of resetting it as you descend and ascend on every dive.
An underwater flash has been the traditional means of beating the blues, as the artificial light will restore colour to a subject close to the camera. Once you have set the white balance you can use the camera’s flash to give additional illumination to your subject. When I used an external strobe with my previous camera, I found that it was too cumbersome to get into crannies to light the macro subjects that I love. Even the most powerful strobe will only illuminate subjects within a range of two meters. I found that I often missed shots whilst fiddling with the distance settings, or got my subjects under or overexposed. I love the freedom of diving with a camera small enough to tuck under my arm.
Look up white balance in your camera manual and practice on land, with the camera in the housing, until it becomes second nature. Once you’ve mastered manual white balance, you need never have the blues again.
Articles and photos by Gaynor Rosier, Kenna Eco Diving.
To see some examples of professional underwater photographs check out Christa Loustalot’s web-site www.photograsea.net It’s well worth a visit. Christa is a PADI instructor and top class underwater photographer. She took some wonderful shots, including extreme macro photos whilst on her dive holiday with Kenna Eco Diving in L’Escala.