Deep Focus

Learn the basics of underwater photography and you expand the experience of scuba diving and snorkeling. Our ten tips will help keep things crystal clear.
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STAR POWER: Taking picture while snorkeling or diving can amplify the underwater experience (Nathan Borchelt)

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Much like the fisherman's story of the one that got away, divers have more than their share of big-fish tales. But with the advent of digital photography, more divers are producing magazine-worthy pictures to back up their claims. Underwater photography, however, requires a bit more skill than the point-and-shoot ease found on solid ground.

"The biggest mistake an intro-level underwater photographer makes is not mastering their diving skills first," says Budd Riker, a veteran diver and contributor to Digital Underwater Photographer Manuel, published by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the globe's leading dive-certification program.

So heed Budd's advice—get comfortable under water. Then, take a look at our list of our ten diving photography tips, which will help you hone in on getting the best visual evidence of your time beneath the waves. Better still, pair that with an underwater photography course like PADI's Underwater Diver certification specialty, which includes classroom time and in-water training with a series of tests that focus on learning particular techniques that will last for a lifetime of diving.

Ten Tips for Underwater Photography

1. The rules of above-ground photography (proper composition, the use of contrasting colors, the "rule of three," etc) apply under water. The more comfortable you are with taking photographs on terra firma, the better.

2. Learn to control your buoyancy (the ability to float in the water without unintentionally rising or sinking). It will let you concentrate on framing the photography, and also make it easier to approach skittish sea life.

3. Be aware of your surroundings—if your fins or hoses are smashing into a reef or stirring up sand and sediment from the sea bottom, your picture will be filled with debris floating in the water, known as "back scatter."

4. Get close. Everything looks bigger under water. So if you think you're close enough, move in an additional three to five feet and then take your picture.

5. Be patient. We know it's a photography cliché—but it's even more vital while underwater. From a fish's perspective, you're camera is a huge eye moving directly at it, so it typically zips away. Rather than chasing, rest and wait.

6. Use the sunlight to create dramatic silhouettes out of reef formations, coral, and fellow divers by pointing upwards. Up angles also create a greater sense of drama.

7. Adjust your light meter. Since the water refracts certain colors in the spectrum, most point-and-click shots come out muddy. But most digitals these days come with a variety of scene (or white balance) pre-sets like landscape or portrait—and some even come with underwater settings that tell the camera what white looks like underwater (white being the color from which the sensor judges all other colors). Better still, learn how to set your camera's white balance manually, and then carry a white slate and set the balance about every 15 feet. You can also use a gray slate for white balance to produce warmer colors.

8. If toying with your camera settings sounds like too much of a hassle, use this trick: First compose your shot, then aim the camera up at the sky and half-depress the shutter button to set a light meter reading. Then, with the button still half-depressed, return to the subject and shoot the picture. This should give you a warmer overall print, with more vibrant colors. And don't forget to review your pictures and make adjustments to the composition and lighting until you get what you want.

9. Narrow your focus, and this we mean figuratively: rather than jumping into the ocean and shooting everything, try to concentrate on one type of shot per dive, like close-up shots of coral and small fish, silhouettes of divers or reef, or wider, landscape-style shots. You'll hone in on what's needed for each type of photo—composition, lighting, etc.—and then you can progress to the next type of photograph.

10. Remember a good diver is a no-impact diver. Take only pictures, and leave only bubbles. For more information, please refer to the non-profit Project Aware Foundation's ten tips to eco-friendly diving photography in a handy, printer-friendly, PDA-ready PDF file.

Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for

Published: 6 May 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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