0
TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY

Beginner’s Guide to Underwater Photography

learning underwater photography

When it comes to learning a new skill, especially if that skill has to do with technology, I’ve found myself easily intimidated. Underwater photography definitely fell into that category for me, and from plenty of other people too, if my DM’s are any indication. 😉

I have wanted to learn to shoot underwater since I “dove” (sorry) back into photography in 2014, but I didn’t really know where to start! Last year, I decided to learn, and jumped in the deep end (heh) by booking a trip to Tonga to swim with humpback whales. The experience was amazing, and a fantastic first experience for me with underwater housing on my main camera body. Camera housing can feel bulky and a bit cumbersome, but you get used to it with time and practice.

I wanted to compile a basic beginner’s guide to underwater photography. This isn’t meant to be 100% comprehensive, but to cover the biggest questions I had personally while I was preparing and learning. Here are my tips for those who might be in the same boat (ok I’ll really stop now), and what I’ll be considering moving forward as I shoot underwater more.

Charyse floats in the water, black & white image
My friend Charyse floating in the shallows.

1. FIGURE OUT WHAT GEAR YOU NEED

First, let’s talk about your camera. What do you normally shoot with? What kind of images are you looking to get underwater?

Before getting into specifics for underwater camera housing, if you’re just looking for something that will do a decent job at capturing your adventures underwater, you can save lots of money by opting for a GoPro or a waterproof camera like the Sony RX0II. Keep in mind that these are wide-angle, and not necessarily the best for wildlife or macro. But they get the job done in many cases and may be worthwhile to consider, depending on your needs!

Another option is using a compact camera like the Sony RX100VII, and getting housing for it like this. Housing for compact cameras is smaller and less expensive, and it’s less bulky underwater. Make sure that the camera itself has a full manual mode, and that there is underwater housing available for it in the first place.

Overall, I found that it’s unavoidably expensive to get into underwater photography. The cost of the gear adds up so quickly! I’d recommend considering your needs and thinking about what aspect of the experience or the result is important to you, and go from there. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. I ended up choosing Ikelite housing with a dome port for my Sony a7RIII and 16-35mm f2.8 lens. Since I was only shooting in shallow water, I didn’t use strobes, but for low-light or Scuba diving, look into these.

One of my first shots underwater.
One of my shots from my first real swim with housing.

Let’s talk about housing. Underwater camera housing is a watertight case that holds your camera. Unless your camera itself is waterproof, you will need housing.

Surf housing is made for surf photography and shooting closer to the surface. It is made to be lightweight and withstand the waves. Surf housing units do not have much button functionality on the back panel, which means you can’t change many settings in the water. Brands include AquaTech, Liquid Eye, and SPL.

Diving housing is made for going deeper, and has more button functionality so you can change settings underwater. It’s also bigger, heavier, bulkier and can get pretty darn expensive with all the extensions, ports, and strobes. Brands include Ikelite and Nauticam. Generally more expensive than surf housing, though of course there are exceptions.

One part in particular worth pointing out: the port is the part of the housing where the lens goes. Underwater, a flat port will result in a zoomed in image (usually not ideal). A dome port will avoid this, as it accounts for the refraction of the water. A dome port also allows you to get over/under shots (bigger dome = easier to get those types of shots). Depending on the housing unit, you may have to order the port separately, so it is good to know which kind to look for. The housing manufacturer should have some kind of documentation listing the extensions/ports that fit certain camera and lens combinations. Be sure to get all the parts needed for the camera & lens you are wanting to use.

freediver underwater photography

What about a mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit? You probably need at least some of these items, and will want to buy backups if you are planning on going somewhere remote! The gear you buy totally depends where you are going and when, and of course, your budget. When it comes to buying a mask, the important thing is that you get something that fits your face. The best thing to do is go to a dive shop in person to try on masks, and to make sure you get a good seal. Snorkels can come with a few bells & whistles; some have valves to prevent water from getting in during wavy conditions. I bought a couple of flexible snorkels (with valves) from a local dive shop when I bought my masks.

There are plenty of fins on the market, varying in length, weight, and color. Find something that fits you well, and ask lots of questions in the dive shop. My fins are negatively buoyant, meaning they don’t float. There are also tons of wetsuits available in different styles and thicknesses to account for water temperature. When shopping for a wetsuit, be aware that neoprene is not particularly environmentally friendly–– it is often made using petroleum (unless it is specifically limestone-derived neoprene, and even that is nonrenewable). If this matters to you (I hope it does), buy from companies that prioritize eco-friendly practices. Patagonia makes Fair Trade Certified wetsuits from renewable natural rubber, and may be worth considering.

juvenile humpback whale diving down

2. LEARN YOUR GEAR

Upon opening the box of my Ikelite housing, I felt like I was looking at a robot that I had to assemble. Luckily, it got easier. This is one situation where you should definitely read the manual and follow the directions that come with the product! Set aside some time and be patient. It’s easier than putting together IKEA furniture.

With my camera in the housing, I felt like I was learning how to use a whole different device. The buttons I was accustomed to using were all in slightly different places, and it felt like a different camera altogether at times. I took on the mindset that I was learning a completely new craft, and it helped me tremendously along the way. Giving myself a clean slate from which to learn from was very helpful.

In putting together my housing for the first time, I learned that one of the most important parts of my set-up was also one of the smallest: the O-rings. O-rings are rubber rings that seal the housing together, preventing water from getting in. They have to be lubricated with special lubricant (the brand matters). If the O-rings get dirty with something like sand, hair, or lint, a gap can form which could cause flooding.

I’m lucky to have a specialty shop (BlueWater Photo) where I live, and the specialist there told me that there is some debate when it comes to O-ring strategy. He, an avid diver, uses a kind of “set it and forget it” method, where he sets up his O-rings at the beginning of the trip and then tries not to mess with them much. When I was in Tonga, I cleaned and re-lubed my O-rings a couple of times. Whatever method ends up working for you, the #1 rule is to take care of your O-rings!

You also want to have a good understanding of how to change the camera battery, should you need to do that on the water. My Ikelite housing required that I detach my lens in order to access the battery compartment (very inconvenient). I did find that with more practice, I learned how to do this more quickly and with less fumbling.

Once you’re ready to try out your housing in water, submerge your housing in your bathtub (with no camera in it at first) and see if you get any bubbles. Afterward, inspect the housing and see if any fog develops, which is a sign of a leak.

showing how to review images underwater
Reviewing images on the surface of the water

3. CHANGE YOUR SETTINGS

Part of this is personal preference, but I’m going to share the settings I used.

I always shoot RAW, and for my trip to Tonga, I shot on Shutter Priority mode most of the time, set at 1/400 sec. I set my ISO to Auto, with a maximum of 6400. I used Continuous Auto-Focus, and used a Zone Focus Area. I set the burst mode to the middle setting. I use back-button focus so that my focus button is separate from my shutter.

What do all those settings mean? They mean that the camera prioritized the shutter speed first, and adjusted the aperture and ISO to make up for that. I find that the Continuous AF is pretty good at shooting what I want it to on the a7R III, but it would occasionally focus on the particles floating in the water, so I always shot multiples to be safe.

If you shoot mirrorless, you need to turn off the Electronic Viewfinder so that the screen is always on (that’s what you’ll see underwater). This uses more battery, so I made sure to only have my camera on when I was actually using it.

humpback whale juvenile swimming alongside its mother

4. PRACTICE

There’s only so much you can learn in your bathtub. Eventually, you have to get in the water with your gear. And it will be terrifying the first time. I was so paranoid when I actually used my underwater camera housing underwater. You know, for its intended purpose and everything. 😂

When you’re shooting underwater, it will probably feel like there is just… a lot going on. You’re breathing out of a snorkel or regulator, or maybe you’re holding your breath, and you’re wearing fins, and you might be fighting against your own buoyancy… there are just more factors to think about than when you’re on land. It might be awkward. Remember, you’re learning something completely new! Embrace a beginner mindset.

On one of my first swims with my housing, I had my friend Charyse model for me. I also worked on diving down to get closer to different sea life. It was helpful to have a variety of subjects to play with. Going on a few practice swims was very helpful and helped me feel more prepared once I got in the water with the whales. I was able to get comfortable with my settings on my practice swims, and develop muscle memory fairly quickly.

Keep in mind that the light, water, and weather conditions are not always going to be ideal. Work with what you’ve got, and make sure to treat the water itself as a subject too. You can create beautiful shapes with just the water and the light. Remember that art is experimental! Play with the water as it moves across your lens.

bubbles in the water

5. POST PROCESSING

One difference you’ll notice between your underwater photos and all the others, is that the white balance is particularly wonky. Though it is possible to capture a near-perfect raw image, there will usually be a blue/green tint to your images. Get super familiar with the white balance panel in your editing software (I use Lightroom). You also find it beneficial to adjust colors individually in the HSL panel, especially Blue and Aqua.

Editing my underwater shots, I found myself hitting some of the sliders pretty hard! Depending on the water clarity, the weather, the depth and the light, you may have a lot or only a little editing to do.

An example of one of my images before & after. I increased the contrast, adjusted the white balance, and brought down the saturation in all colors.

My first experience with underwater photography was ridiculously fun. Of course, I was swimming with whales, and that’s a bucket list experience in and of itself! But beyond that, having a new way to practice my craft was very refreshing. If you have the opportunity, even if it just means borrowing a friend’s gear and getting in the water for 20 minutes, I’d highly recommend it.

Throughout this learning process, I found that preparation is key. I am typically someone who jumps and builds the plane on the way down, meaning I figure it out as I go. This is not a situation where I’d recommend that! Not knowing how to work your housing could result in destroying your camera gear! Make sure to take the time to understand the basics of how your gear works before you leave for a trip.

Underwater photography may feel daunting. My advice? Let it be fun! Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t understand your housing right away, or if you aren’t nailing your first edits. You’re learning a new craft. Let your previous knowledge of photography help you out instead of judging yourself for not being perfect right away.

If you have any resources to add, comments that expand on any of the above, or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below. Hope this was helpful!

FURTHER READING & RESOURCES

You Might Also Like

3 Comments

  • Reply
    Kelly
    March 8, 2020 at 6:17 pm

    Such great info! I found the axis go from aquatech a few years ago. It relatively inexpensive compared to underwater housing and still allows beginners to get into underwater photography.

  • Reply
    Mat
    April 15, 2020 at 5:59 am

    Thanks for the tips, I own a Sony A7III but I would be too scared to take it underwater so I’ll buy a second hand a6400 (if I can find one).

  • Reply
    Zubida Khatoon
    August 7, 2020 at 3:00 am

    Thanks for your incredible article. Underwater photography is hard! Sure we can snap some photographs for entertainment only or get a fortunate shot on occasion without understanding nothing, yet doing it right isn’t simple. Having somebody show us the nuts and bolts and put us in good shape is madly useful.

Leave a Reply