Underwater Photography – The World Beneath the Surface

If you have never done underwater photography, this will challenge your skills compared to other types of photography.
Underwater Photographer

What you will immediately notice is not only do you have to be concerned about your photography equipment getting wet, but you also have to focus on the snorkeling or diving itself.

And depending on where you are shooting, you will also have to watch out for things in the water that can hurt you, such as:

  • Man-of-wars
  • Jellyfish
  • Coral
  • Certain types of fish
  • Boats, personal water-craft and bogie boarders to name a few

Since I’m assuming this will be your first underwater experience, I will limit the scope of the article to snorkeling in less than twelve feet of water.

If you are unsure of your swimming skills, snorkel in shallow water while wearing a snorkeling vest – a personal flotation device just made for snorkeling.

Equipment You Will Need

Your equipment can be as simple as a one-time-use camera to a compact point-and-shoot in a waterproof housing to a sophisticated, waterproof Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera with interchangeable lenses costing several thousand dollars.

Since all of them have auto-focus and auto-exposure, those are two less things to worry about, allowing you more time to focus on your image composition, a topic discussed next.

Before going in the water the first time, you should thoroughly understand how to operate your equipment as it is impossible to look something up in the owner’s manual while underwater.


Many of the composition techniques used underwater are the same as those used above water.  One of the biggest problems new underwater photographers have is not getting close enough to the subject.

Under Water World

Filling the frame is good advice. With a mask on though, objects look 25% closer than they really are. Since you want your subject to be between three and seven feet from the camera, your subject will look really close with your mask on. Also, keep in mind that a flash underwater is only good for two-to-eight feet, as they don’t reach out as far when in the water.

After awhile, it will become second nature to have subjects close. You will get used to the subject appearing close to you, as close is the correct distance away.

Because underwater cameras have a 35mm-equivalent lens range of around 32mm to 96mm, ideally your subject should be one-to-two feet in size and three-to-seven feet from the camera for the best images.

Another problem you never had photographing on land is backscatter.  Shooting using a flash causes particles suspended in the water to show up as white spots on your images.  Two ways to minimize backscatter is to use available light only and stay off of the bottom.

To start with, try shooting stationary subjects, such as sea anemones, sponges and coral. Your best photos will have a background contrasting to your subject.  This contrast will make your subject stand out in your photo.

Once you start photographing fish, try not to photograph them swimming toward or away from you.  Instead, try to position yourself parallel to them and let them swim by you.

Underwater Photography

The best time of day to shoot is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. During these times, the sun is overhead providing maximum light penetration. Outside of this range, the sun is lower and the light doesn’t reach down as far.

The key to good underwater pictures using natural light is crystal clear water three-to-seven feet deep. Underwater photography is very challenging, but also very rewarding. There are so many beautifully-colored subjects just waiting to be photographed.

 Photo credits: “Prionurus laticlavius” by LASZLO ILYES ; “Underwater World” by Fascinating Universe 

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