Making Your Underwater Photos Better

Article on basic underwater photography

by Sandy Lindsey
published 1995

Taking excellent underwater photos isn't difficult if you know how to compensate for the photo- altering effects of the water. The following tips will help you get more than your share of compliments for your underwater artistry:

If you're planning on taking photos of large subjects, such as your fellow divers, which will have to be taken from a distance, you must keep in mind that sea water absorbs red light and other warm color lights. This will reduce the effect of any available sunlight, causing your photos to become proportionately bluer and less distinct as the gap between you and your subject increases. This problem can be easily corrected with the color-restoring properties of a strobe. Although you will increase your shooting distance with a strobe, sometimes considerably, there will still be a point at which your photos begin to turn blurry and blue. The furthest distance from which you can safely shoot will depend largely upon the strobe purchased. A reputable camera dealer should be able help you purchase the correct equipment for your needs. If you're a new to underwater photography, four feet should be the maximum distance from which to photograph your subject. For best results, a camera with a 15mm or 20mm lens is recommended for these shots.

If you're photographing a small subject, such as a tiny fish, you will need to get as close to your subject as possible. The larger the object you wish to photograph is in your final picture the better your photo will be. A colorful fish photographed at a distance with a background of sea fans and other plant life will be lost amongst the scenery. Keep your photographs tight and simple.

Another important item to consider before taking any underwater shots is the proper camera lens. Wide-angles lenses have a larger scope, which means the picture area will be larger and you can focus in closer. Some high-end cameras have optional close-up macros kits available which allow you to focus a few inches from your subject -- this is vital if you wish to photograph extremely tiny objects or creatures. Ideally, a 28mm or 35mm lens will function best for standard close work.

If you're worried about the possibility of your photos becoming overexposed due to the combination of available sunlight and the light of your strobe unit, or you've encountered this problem already, a TTL (through the lens) camera with accompanying strobe is your best bet. A TTL strobe will be signaled by the camera unit to shut off when there is enough existing light for proper exposure.

Backscatter -- the faux snow formed when your strobe light reflects off small particles floating in the water -- is another problem an underwater photographer can run into. To successfully eliminate backscatter you might want to consider purchasing an accessory strobe. An accessory strobe is one which is a separate unit from the camera body. Not only does the detached nature of the strobe unit give you the necessary flexibility to position your light so that you eliminate backscatter, but accessory strobes are normally more powerful than built-in flash units.

Another important detail to keep in mind while shooting underwater photos is that while underwater subjects appear three-dimensional to your eyes, they'll appear two-dimensional on your film. This means that two fish that are actually a distance from each other will appear right next to each other in a picture. Keep an eye on every aspect of your photos or you might find yourself with photos with insignificant background items that are closer than you expected and now overshadow your subject. Don't be afraid to drastically change your camera angles in order to eliminate unnecessary background items and get exactly the shot you want. Shots taken from underneath your subject should give you an uncomplicated blue background.

If the sun will be in your photo, as it will be if you're in a moderate depth and shooting upward on a sunny day, you'll want to keep it behind or at least near your subject. Anywhere else and it will detract from the subject of your photo.

Oval creatures, such as fish, are easier to photograph than rectangular creatures, such as lobsters. If you're a beginning photobug, you should start with ovals, they're easier to fill the photograph with and usually more colorful.

If the object you wish to photograph is horizontal, hold your camera horizontally. If the object is vertical, hold your camera vertically. This will give you the opportunity to stay as close to your subjects as possible and make the most of the tips above.

Now that you've got an idea how to take simple but impressive underwater shots, you will need to acquire, or rent, the appropriate equipment to shoot with. Below is a brief overview of the underwater systems currently available:

Despite the popularity of diving, there are only two major manufacturers of true underwater cameras -- Nikon and Sea & Sea.

The Nikonos, manufactured by Nikon, was the first true underwater camera and to this day remains the industry standard. The Nikonos V offers you full control of your shutter speed, a TTL strobe, and five optional lenses of varying size to choose from. There is also a manual aperture control and a manual rangefinder. Plus, due to the popularity of the Nikonos V, most strobe manufacturers carry sync cords which will work with its TTL strobe connection port.

The most impressive Nikon to date is the Nikonos RS, introduced in 1992. The RS is the first underwater camera to offer the impressive features of the Nikon line of SLR land cameras in an underwater form. In addition to the enhanced photographic freedom offered by the SLR capability, the Nikonos RS also has a full-function viewfinder with a LCD display. The viewfinder itself is designed so that the photographer gets to see an impressive 92 percent of the picture area before snapping the shot. This all-but-guarantees a higher quantity of "keeper" photos out of each roll. The Nikonos RS is rated to 320 feet/98m.

Nikon's #2 competitor, Sea & Sea, makes two popular underwater cameras, the MX10 and the Motormarine II. The MX10 is a fixed-focus camera with a built in marginally wide-angle lens. Although it possesses a fixed shutter speed, the aperture control is adjustable, leaving the photographer some creative freedom.

One interesting feature of the MX10 is its accessory strobe. It is the only synchronized underwater strobe that uses a infrared beam and not a sync cord. The Sea & Sea Motormarine II comes in two models, a standard yellow easy-to-find- if-dropped casing and gray professional model. Although it comes with a built-in 35mm lens, there are four attachable lenses available which can be installed on top of the fixed lens. In addition, the Motormarine II can be manually focused on an object as near as 18 inches. Like the MX10, the Motormarine II allows for aperture adjustment.

An underwater housing is a specially designed watertight case which permits you to submerge a land camera safely, while allowing you access to the necessary camera controls. All underwater housings are rated to a certain depth. The type of diving you will be doing must be taken into serious account before purchase.

Below is a brief summary of the more popular housings:

At the budget end of the spectrum, is the Ikelite Aquashot, a compact plastic housing designed specifically for Kodak and Fuji single-use land cameras with built-in strobes. The Aquashot II fits both the old 24 frame and the new 27 frame rolls. The Ikelite Aquashot is rated to 100 feet/30 meters, and an accessory strobe and an optional macro kit are available.

EWA Marine manufacturers several models of flexible plastic bag-like housings that will fit just about any compact or SLR land camera. Most are rated to 100 feet/30 meters.

Acrylic and metallic housings for high-end SLRs are also available. While most are designed for a specific model camera, the Ikelite clear Lexan cases come in three designs which are designed to suit almost any SLR camera. Most rigid housings come with a connection port for an accessory strobe. Some have interchangeable domes to fit a wide variety of lenses. Tussey, Stromm, Aquatica (Aqua Vision) and Nexus (Anthis) are other popular manufacturers you might want to consider.

Another way to purchase an underwater camera and housing is as a package. By selling the camera and housing together, the manufacturers are able to reduce cost. If you're into a high-tech camera system, Sea & Sea has the SX-1000, which combines six lenses with corresponding interchangeable lens ports. The package works with all Sea & Sea's strobes, including the TTL versions. The package is rated to 197 feet/60m.

For the average user, EWA Marine makes the Sealife 35, a focus-free automatic camera in a flexible housing. The package is rated to 60 feet/18 meters, with a point-and- shoot lens guarantees clarity in every shot. Plus, if the SeaLife 35 is accidentally dropped overboard from a moving dive boat, the air in the waterproof case will cause it to float, while the high visibility yellow camera case makes it easy to find.

If you wish to merely wish to snap a few photographs near the water's surface, and you aren't planning on going below 15 feet you should consider a shallow water camera. The Minolta Weathermatic Dual 35 is rated to 15 feet/4.6 meters. If you simply want an underwater camera for a day, you might want to consider either a Kodak or a Fuji single-use camera. Both are pre-loaded single rolls of film enclosed in watertight plastic housing. Both are designed to be good to 8 feet/2.6 meters.

One final tip: Don't be shy about using food to lure non-dangerous fish into your camera range. No one said your nature shots had to be entirely natural!

-- Sandy Lindsey

Outdoor writer Sandy Lindsey covers scuba diving, fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities for over 50 internet and traditional magazines nationwide. She also has a self-syndicated humor column on those same subjects, and is currently working on a book of fishing humor.