Below The Surface

Outdoor Photography

Seven-tenths of our planet is covered by water. For many nature photographers, it’s instinctive to want to explore what images lie beneath the water. That intrigue set me on a course to explore the world’s oceans. Here’s what I’ve learned about underwater photography along the way.

Underwater photo of kelp and sea creatures

I approached this photograph as a conventional landscape, so I knew I needed a strong foreground element (the anemones) and an environment to create context (the kelp forest). I made sure I had enough depth of field for the scene and a shutter speed fast enough to keep the swaying kelp sharp before dialing up my lights a bit to add some pop to the foreground and reduce the shadows.

Where Did My Colors Go?

When you take your camera underwater, the first thing you’ll notice is how the colors change. The deeper you go, the weirder things get because water does an incredible job of absorbing light. Reds start to disappear around 20 feet deep. Yellows at 50 feet. After 100 feet, things are pretty much monochromatic. This will obviously change the way you think about making photographs, but thankfully, you have options. I’ll cover these in detail, but your choices are:

  • Staying shallow. The easiest option is to stay in shallow water, where you have plenty of light and an abundance of color.
  • Opting for black & white. You can go monochrome and completely ignore the colors.
  • Using lights. Artificial illumination can help at greater depths, but this is where things get complicated—and potentially expensive.
Photo of kelp and a few small fish

I was at a medium depth while making this image but didn’t need any artificial light as the only colors I cared about were the greens and blues. Setting my ISO to Auto allowed me to get a deep depth of field and a shutter speed fast enough to stop the motion of the fish in the image.

Shutter Speeds For Underwater Photography

Underwater, everything moves—you, the fish and the water are all moving. The perpetual movement adds up to one necessity: a higher shutter speed. Unless I’m using strobes, I never go below 1/500 of a second.

Annoyingly, your lens aperture is often important as well for depth of field, so my preferred approach when using natural light is to switch to Manual exposure mode, set my shutter speed and aperture, and let my ISO float by using Auto ISO. If I need to change my exposure, I use the exposure compensation dial to increase or reduce light.

Focusing Underwater

When you begin taking photographs underwater, you’ll notice that autofocus struggles. The deeper you go and the less light you have, the worse autofocus performs. Find that Manual Focus switch on your camera or lens and embrace it.

Photo of a wolf eel

Get close. This wolf eel’s den was in deep, cold water in British Columbia. Given the depth, I knew I needed my lights to capture the color, so I got them ready as I set up my shot just outside the entrance to the den. Then I just waited for this strange creature to get curious and poke his head out.

To manually focus underwater, I rely on two techniques:

  • Zone focus. Setting your focal distance and aperture to cover a specific range before you get in the water is known as zone focusing. This works well because you usually use wide-angle lenses for underwater photography, so you have a wide depth of field if you stop down your aperture.
  • Focus peaking. By detecting the edges of highest contrast in a scene, focus peaking highlights those edges, allowing you to see what’s in focus in the zone you’ve set up when composing your photograph.

Color Natural Light Photography

I recommend you start by grabbing your camera or phone, putting it in a housing, and staying shallow, around 20-30 feet maximum. Most of the good stuff to photograph is close to the surface, and if you’re scuba diving, the air in your tank will last longer.

Photo of a Pacific sea nettle jellyfish

To photograph this Pacific sea nettle jellyfish, I used the available light on the surface of the water to give me not only a full color spectrum but also to allow me to incorporate the beautiful underwater reflection on the water’s surface.

You also have a greater range of compositional options when you’re in shallow water. You can get close and shoot fine details or animal portraits, or you can get further away and photograph grand landscapes. Shooting underwater gives you an amazing ability to move in three dimensions, and the creative possibilities are seemingly endless.

Black & White Natural Light Photography

The deeper you go, the fewer colors you have. Why not eliminate color altogether and shoot in black and white? I find something mysterious and compelling about black-and-white underwater shots that allows the viewer to use more of their imagination.

In post-processing, try adjusting the conversion of each color range independently. For example, using the blue luminance slider can allow you to make the ocean dark and moody—or light and airy. Your choice.

Black and white photo of fish and a shark

Composition is just as important underwater as it is on land. The s-curve of fish leading away from the shark tells a more interesting story than just the fish or the shark alone. Because both the shark and the fish were further from my lens, I shot only with available light since the flash wouldn’t carry that far. No flash meant very limited color in the photograph, so I opted for black and white, adjusting the blue channel in post-processing to brighten the scene and create a more graphic image.

Using Artificial Light Underwater

As great as natural light photography is, sometimes it just doesn’t give you what you need, and you have to take artificial lights with you. This is where things get complicated.

Water is a dense medium that absorbs light, requiring that you get very close to your subject—which is why most underwater photographers use close-focusing, wide-angle lenses. Getting close also helps deal with this crazy thing called “backscatter,” where the artificial light bounces back toward you off particles in the water, creating speckles all over the image. I won’t cover backscatter in detail in this article, but if you choose to use artificial light, do a Google search to learn how to avoid it.

The traditional approach to underwater artificial light is to use strobes, just like in the studio. Strobes can stop motion and make your subject pop—but they are also incredibly hard to use at first.

Photo of anemones

I treated this image just like a studio still life, using the same technique I’d use to photograph a flower on land. I began by choosing my composition and setting the base exposure, underexposing the background by two stops to retain just a bit of context while making sure the subject popped. I then carefully placed my lights to illuminate only the anemones before pressing the shutter button.

Some manufacturers have a through-the-lens (TTL) setting for underwater strobes that controls the power of the flash based on exposure settings determined by the camera, but I’ve never really found it that effective. In practice, TTL is overkill; for the flash to work, you must be close to your subject, and you can set the strobe power manually based on how far away you expect your subject to be.

To shoot using manual flash, keep your aperture and ISO fixed. This means shooting in either Aperture Priority or Manual mode. I tend to shoot in Aperture Priority to balance the natural light easily. To get everything dialed in, the first thing I do when I get in the water is to take a photograph of my fins to make sure the flash power is correct. This lets me know that a subject approximately 4 feet away will be well lit and in focus. When I then go to make a photograph, I can dial my strobe power up or down, depending on whether the subject is closer or further away than 4 feet.

Having said all of this, I rarely use strobes anymore. I now use video lights for stills. This makes everything so much easier, and it also works with smartphones. Combining continuous video lights, a high ISO and mirrorless cameras has been a revolution in underwater photography. There’s no more guessing where the light will go or how far away the subject is. What you see in the viewfinder is what you get. With video lights, I shoot just like I do for ambient light: manual focus, a fixed shutter speed and aperture, and Auto ISO.

Finding Compositions

Photo of a California sea lion underwater

Compelling photographs are often the result of patience. When I found this beautiful arch framing a kelp forest, I settled in and waited for an interesting subject. A few divers came and went, producing an array of perfectly mediocre frames. But then this California sea lion finally appeared and did two quick flips before disappearing into the forest, making the wait for this shot the best 30 minutes I spent that day.

The first rule in underwater photography is to get close and then get closer. Fill your frame with the subject and take your time finding interesting compositions. This last point is super important. Since you have limited time underwater, it’s tempting to try and see everything and zoom from subject to subject, taking snapshots. Instead, go slow and explore. Take a photo, look at it, check the focus and exposure, and then decide what to do next. Maybe you got the perfect shot. Maybe you see things that could be better, so it’s worth exploring the subject more deeply. I find that a single good image is always more valuable to me than a whole card full of snapshots.

Underwater Photography Gear

As with every genre of photography, there are so many things you can buy, and it adds up quickly. My current underwater setup cost about as much as a small car. And while you may eventually end up with a big setup like mine, you shouldn’t start out there.

You likely have a perfectly serviceable underwater camera with you right now: your phone. Smartphones have come a long way, and companies like SeaLife and AxisGO make fantastic underwater phone cases and housings. You can either use your phone in the shallows (up to 25 feet) or, if you want to go deeper, purchase a fixed video light that attaches to your housing.

The next step up in underwater gear is a compact camera like the Sony RX100 and a housing. For around $2,000, this system can synchronize with strobes and has a large enough sensor to capture available light at medium depths. Its close focus allows you to shoot anything from whales to tiny nudibranchs. It’s also a physically compact system that’s easy to travel with.

The final step is a full DSLR or mirrorless system with a housing and lighting system. I’ve settled on mirrorless because the electronic viewfinder allows me to visualize how the light and shadows fall, especially when using video lights. There are great housings and lighting options for all of today’s modern cameras, so it’s likely that you’ll be able to find a solution for the camera you already have. The combination of housings, domes, lens ports and lights can be complicated, so I recommend that you work with a store that specializes in underwater photography to help you build your kit.

Be A Good Underwater Citizen

Like all nature photography, underwater photography has a few dos and don’ts that will help make the experience better for you, the people you are diving with and your wild subjects. The underwater world is exciting—there is so much to see, and it’s tempting to zip from place to place and snap away. Because you are always diving with other people (never dive alone), zooming around can kick up sand and debris and ruin your companions’ shots—yet another reason for the “go slow and be deliberate” approach.

Remember to keep your hands to yourself. With just a touch, humans can be lethal to the living things on reefs. And if you’ve ever had sea urchin spines embedded in your skin, you know how painful that is.

Photo of a giant manta

As photographers, we should never lose sight of why we go into the extraordinary underwater world. This giant manta zipped around and amongst us before hovering above, dwarfing us as it displayed its vast grace and size and treating us to a momentary glimpse of the majesty that lives below the surface.

Without a conscious effort to be aware of your surroundings, the camera can isolate you from everything going on around you. It’s easy to get so caught up in making a photograph that you lose track of important things like your depth, your remaining air supply or your dive buddy. Whenever I’m photographing, I make sure I pause every 30 seconds or so to be sure all my bases are covered.

Better divers tend to be better photographers. Because we are land animals, going beneath the water’s surface puts us in an environment where none of our natural skills work. Organizations like the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) provide excellent training for both scuba and free diving that will allow you to feel much more comfortable and in control. I also dive a lot without my camera, so I can concentrate on being a better diver and get to know that underwater landscape more deeply.

Getting Wet

So, you have a camera and something to keep it dry—now go and find something to explore. A swimming pool is a great place to practice. Once you’re comfortable there, put yourself into one of this blue planet’s natural bodies of water. I’ve dived in lakes, rivers and oceans. All are different, and all are beautiful. Be safe. Have fun. And embrace the words of Jacques Cousteau: “The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish.” 


See more of Jon McCormack’s work at jonmccormack.com.

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