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Underwater Photography

by Andrew Dawson, 2003

Underwater photography can be incredibly rewarding. There are countless bizarre, colorful animals, shimmering coral reefs, and towering kelp forests that beg to be photographed. It is also very equipment-intensive, often involves travel to remote locations, and can be totally aggravating. Like many people, I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau specials, and scuba diving was something I always wanted to do. Once I tried it, I was completely hooked. I also knew from the very first dive that it wasn't going to be enough to just be there, I was going to have to photograph it too.

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Giant Sea Fan, Aquatica F4 housing, Nikkor 18mm/3.5

You may notice, both in the images and the equipment used, that there are only two kinds of underwater photographs. They are wide-angle, usually with the main subject in the foreground, and close-up/macro shots. The reason is simple: underwater, your biggest enemy is the water itself. Even crystal-clear tropical water is not as clear as it seems. More importantly, the greater the distance light travels through water, the more warm colors (reds, yellows) are absorbed. If you dive to a depth of 50 feet, virtually everything will appear blue/green, and the same applies horizontally to a subject 50 feet away. (Your own eyes compensate to an extent, but you won't have that benefit on film.) One famous shooter compared u/w photography to shooting everything through a bowl of Jello. The solution is to eliminate as much water between you and the subject as possible. Wide-angle lenses allow very close focus on large objects (reefs, whales etc.) and still provide a view of the environment around it. Macro, of course, works well since you are within inches of the subject. Telephoto lenses are completely useless underwater, as is any lens that forces you to work more than a few feet from the subject.

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Damselfish, Aquatica F4 housing, Nikkor 105mm/2.8 Micro

Most nature photographers would agree that with a decent P&S or cheap SLR, and under the right conditions, you could still make some outstanding images. Unfortunately, there really is no equivalent to that underwater. It's not that u/w photography is harder than other specialties; more that there are some very specific optical problems that have to be overcome. For that reason, the various cheap u/w outfits (Bonica Snapper, Ikelite Aquashot, some of the Sea & Sea cameras) are going to give marginal results at best. I've never used any of those cameras, although I certainly see them around, and I've seen the results they give. It depends on what your goals are; if you just want some snapshots of snorkeling in Hawaii, then those cameras are fine. But if you expect sharp, saturated, publication-quality images, there really aren't any shortcuts. You don't have to sell off your children to do good u/w photography, but cheap P&S cameras are going to be a disappointment.

Something to keep in mind: underwater flash units, often referred to as strobes, are not optional equipment! The loss of color through the water column is a problem that will never go away. It would be safe to say that over 90% of underwater images were made with strobe. In theory, if you were less than 5-10 feet down in clear water it might not matter, but this will severely limit what subjects are available. Even at shallow depths, small amounts of strobe will help with saturation and detail. The problem is much too severe to be simply fixed in Photoshop. Color filters won't cut it either. For a given filter, there would be an ideal depth/subject/distance/exposure that might work, but your chances of bringing all those things together are mighty slim.


By and large, serious underwater photography is a pursuit that requires scuba diving. There are some specific subjects--notably dolphins and whales--where you are better off snorkeling. This is mostly because marine mammals tend to be bothered by noisy bubbles from scuba gear, so you leave it on the boat. Even this requires more than just snorkeling to be really successful. Known interchangeably as free-diving, skin-diving, or breath-hold diving, you dive as deep and long on one breath as your body can handle. I would classify myself as a pretty average free-diver, but I've seen people who can hold their breath for 1 or 2 minutes, or even more. Physical fitness is a big part of it. In theory, you could get some good shots of shallow reefs this way, but you're limiting your subject matter significantly.

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Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, taken while free-diving

I would highly encourage anyone to learn how to scuba dive! Unless you have some serious phobia about the water, it is not that difficult to learn. A few days of training and you can learn the basics, and then decide if it's something you want to pursue further. There have been volumes written on scuba instruction and I won't re-hash them here, but in short: find a good, patient instructor who will help you learn at your own pace. I was never a champion swimmer (and I'm still not), but I took to scuba pretty easily. I don't consider it an especially dangerous activity. Modern gear and techniques are a far cry from the daredevil days when Cousteau and others pioneered it, and if you actually follow the rules, it is very safe. I have two young boys who I plan to see grow up; if I thought scuba was that dangerous, I just wouldn't do it. I definitely worry more about battling roads surrounded by crazed, caffeine-laced commuters than I do about diving. Even if you don't pursue the photography, scuba is a wonderful way to see and experience the ocean.

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Yours truly, shooting macro in Fiji

For photography, having good skills and a high comfort level underwater is a must. Aside from making it more enjoyable, it will have a huge impact on the type and quality of your images. Encountering wildlife underwater is often quite different than any experience on land. Most terrestrial animals have a natural fear of man, and flee at the first opportunity. Thus, nature photographers use long lenses, build blinds, tiptoe through the woods, etc. Underwater you are much more of an alien visitor, and are not necessarily viewed as a threat. Without sounding too New Age, I think fish and marine mammals have an almost Gaian sense of their surroundings, one that we can't even approximate with only our vision. They know you're there, and what you're doing, long before you even see them. This is where your skills pay off; animals underwater are very, very tuned in to body language. If you're uncomfortable, kicking and thrashing around, every creature within 100 feet will bolt into the blue. On the other hand, if you move slowly, and breath lightly to create fewer bubbles, marine life will often come over to investigate you. As you get close, animals react differently: some are afraid, rarely they are aggressive, most often they don't seem to care. Keep in mind: the slowest fish in the sea is still faster than a scuba-laden human, so don't bother chasing anything. Good diving skills also impact the environment less, as coral and other marine life can be quite fragile and easily damaged.


Wide-angle images underwater can be many things: coral reef or kelp forest "scenics", large animals like whales, shipwrecks, diver portraits, or schools of fish. The unifying feature is the wide lenses, whether with an amphibious camera like the Nikonos or a housed SLR. Which lenses and other equipment to use is covered in separate articles, so here we'll talk about general techniques.


This is not a Timothy Leary slogan encouraging recreational drug use, but a mantra for any underwater photographer. It comes back to the general rule of eliminating as much water as possible. Whatever the subject--coral, fish, dolphin--get as close as you can, less than a foot if it's feasible. Getting below the subject and shooting at an upward angle will put open water in the background, which is almost always better. Downward angles will be more difficult to expose, and tend to have less aesthetic impact anyway. If this seems like it's dictating what kind of shots you should make, it won't seem that way in the end. With the unfamiliar size and geometry of many u/w subjects, most people will be unaware that this was part of your technique.

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This picture of French Angelfish may not seem like an upward angle, but it was shot at about 45-60 degrees
up from horizontal.If it hadn’t been, the sun and surface would not have appeared in the image.


This is the technique that I found, both when I started and when I see other beginners' work, to be what gets done wrong the most often. If your ambient exposure is correct, a lot of things fall into place. The shot will have a more "natural" look to it, and the use of fill-flash becomes much easier. If you're making a silhouette of an animal with blue water in the background, ambient exposure is about the only thing you need to get right. If you're shooting something like a giant shipwreck, you can't possibly light the whole object, so getting the correct ambient exposure is crucial.

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How do you get the right exposure? The trick comes from knowing how to meter the water in the background. In an image like this one, there is a huge range of light values, from the bright sun to almost black at the bottom. Knowing that your camera's meter is trying to create 18% gray out of this mess, you need to help it make the right choice.

Why not use matrix-metering with some automatic mode and let the camera figure it out? The theory seems good, but in practice it isn't very reliable. I can attest that I went this route when I first started, and results were mixed. For whatever reasons, automatic modes tend to be confused by these wide ranges underwater, and will get it right only some of the time. You will do yourself a favor by learning to meter the background water manually, and it isn't that difficult.

Looking at the whole water column, you need to decide which area represents 18% gray, and set your f-stop/shutter accordingly. Obviously the extremes won't work: if you meter off the sun, the image will be underexposed, if you meter the dark rocks, it will be overexposed. Water is blue in the tropics, blue or green in California, or deep green in places like British Columbia, but the principle is the same. It takes some practice, but in your mind you learn which area of the background water matches 18% gray. Personally, I use the center-weighted meter in my F4, scan the water and bracket from there. Some people use a small spot meter and do the same, although I think this makes it a bit more difficult than it needs to be. There are external meters made by Sekonic and Ikelite, both of which work very effectively. Once you get the hang of it, it really is easy and much more reliable. Of all the pro u/w shooters I've talked to, they all do some variation of this technique.

Naturally, you need to adjust exposures this way often during a single dive. The sun goes behind a cloud, you reposition yourself, whatever; just scan the water and re-set. With enough experience, you almost don't need to meter all the time, as the settings can become routine. For example, in clear tropical water with ASA100 film, I know a typical exposure looking up at the surface is about f/5.6 or f/8 at 1/250. This can be a lifesaver when those rare mating Coelacanths happen to swim by, and you don't have time to meter.


As mentioned, strobes are an integral part of u/w photography, not an option. Most of the time you will use them as fill-flash, restoring the color and contrast that is inherently lost as you descend underwater. Sometimes there are wide-angle shots that are 100% strobe, such as at night, or the interior of caves and shipwrecks. Along with getting the right ambient light exposure, learning how to use strobes effectively is crucial.

Strobe technique isn't necessarily that hard, but there are fair number of choices in equipment and approaches. For that reason, they will be covered in a separate article. In a nutshell, you can use the automatic TTL functions of the Nikonos or your housed camera, or expose manually using guide numbers. Both techniques are valid, although almost all pro/serious amateur shooters use the manual approach for wide-angle.


Doing macro underwater shares many of the same concepts as shooting on dry land. The main difference would be that ambient light is often not part of the equation. Use of tripods is almost unheard of; that's not to say it's never been tried, but it would generally cause more problems than it would solve. Most macro shots that include open water will appear with a black background, since there isn't enough ambient light to balance with the flash. The only way to effectively get ambient light into u/w macro images is to angle the shot toward the surface, in much the way you would with wide-angle.

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This shot of a Salp was shot straight up at the surface, with the sun backlighting the animal.
When it's feasible it makes for a nice effect, providing a blue/green background instead of the usual black.

Beyond that, u/w macro is about learning how to light with 100% strobe. Which strobes and lenses to use is covered in other articles, but the concepts are simple enough. You can use only one strobe; personally I think two is far better, if only for the options it gives you. Utilizing 2 strobes, you can experiment with different ratios, shadow effects etc.

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This shot of a China Rockfish was made with one strobe, simply because my other one died during the dive.

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Shots such as this anemonefish would be difficult to achieve with only one strobe since it is more evenly lit with few shadows.
Some people go as far as using three strobes, although this strikes me as overkill.

Personally, I shoot most of my macro with the Nikkor 105mm/2.8 Micro, often at f/11 or f/16. I feel this is a good compromise between depth-of-field and optimal sharpness. Many people shoot at f/22 all the time. One of the biggest challenges of macro u/w is controlling the background elements. Depth-of-field preview is difficult to utilize, so you have to rely on experience and your best guesswork. Coral reef environments are very crowded and complex places, so finding "clean" backgrounds is not easy.

The payoff of course, is that marine life makes for fantastic macro opportunities. The possibilities for strange and colorful photographs are endless. Most of my absolute favorite images, both of mine and other u/w photographers, were done in the macro realm.


Not every camera store carries underwater equipment, but two of photo.net's sponsoring stores do. They are ADORAMA and B&H PHOTO. Purchases made from these stores via these links result in support for photo.net and help keep this site running, so check them out and see if they can help.

Other links which may be useful are:

The major u/w manufacturers:
Some u/w photo shops:

All text and images ©Copyright 2003 Andrew Dawson

Article created 2003

Readers' Comments

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Erb Duchenne , November 08, 2003; 01:05 P.M.

Great article. Serious underwater photography indeed is extremely expensive. Unless you're using a top of the line SLR, the housing alone usually is double the cost of your camera.

But before you even go out and buy one you really have to consider your diving skills. I wouldn't advise any diver who hasn't very good buoyancy control, or who paddles up sand, or loses sense of depth or has the occasional uncontrolled ascent to try photography. In many tropical marine parks or zones, the law is very strict on accidental collisions with corals... something unexperienced divers are prone to when concentrating on their subject or composition. This is because coral damage can take years to recover. Multiply the damage by 20,000 divers a year and extinction of certain species becomes probable.

Some serious underwater photographers have moved on to rebreathers... which essentially is a bubble-less system. It makes a world of difference in approaching underwater life. It also extends 'bottom time' significantly.

Andrew Dawson , November 08, 2003; 09:33 P.M.

U/W photo is never going to be super cheap, but there are more options these days than in the past. Some of the "mid-price" digital cameras & housings can give very good results, even if not quite as good as a Nikonos or SLR. I'm planning to write another article soon for photo.net about housing choices and techniques.

Yes, you can't stress good diving skills enough if you plan to do u/w photo. There is some debate about just how much damage divers actually cause in the long run. Certainly there are some dive sites that get thousands of divers, esp. students, and they look trashed. Some scientists are starting to say that the occasional broken bit of coral etc. is not really a big deal, and is just cosmetic damage. And diver damage pales next to problems like pollution and overfishing. Still, the goal should be no damage at all. And it's important to note that divers are often the most outspoken about preserving coral reefs, so there are some definite trade-offs.

I'm still waiting for rebreathers to get cheaper and easier to use. I've heard from some pro's that the increased time underwater is the biggest advantage, and that the lack of bubbles is a nice bonus.

Vandit Kalia , November 09, 2003; 09:44 A.M.

Two comments:

1) Re. rebreathers: while it is true that a rebreather does help you get closer to your subject and lack of bubbles helps with photography, I strongly suggest that only experienced divers look at the rebreather option. Rebreather diving is a lot more complicated and is closer to tech diving than recreational diving. Also, for full redundancy, you'd ideally want a buddy who is also on a rebreather.

2) For those who want to get into U/W photography at a level that is better than than the P&S film cameras but not in the housed SLR/Nikonos price category, a digicam + housing is a nice alternative. Olympus and Canon both make inexpensive (<$300) housings for their digicams, and these work quite well.

As always, remember to follow the buddy system when you dive. U/W photographers tend to be very careless when it comes to buddies and that's how things go wrong.

Vandit (PADI Instructor and Trimix certified)

Claude R. - Luxembourg / EU , November 10, 2003; 04:02 A.M.

I agree with the above poster, that rebreather diving is NOT recreational diving and should not be done by inexperienced divers... a rebreather dive needs much more rigorous planning and technical and medical background than a normal scuba dive... This being said, it has the big advantage of longer bottom times (but your max depth will be reduced), and makes no noise (almost, excet when the overpressure valve opens), which allows you to get MUCH closer to the animals, as they are not afraid of you! instead of swimming away, most of them just stay around you, as you are just another fish to them... BIG advantage


Will Riddle , November 10, 2003; 04:50 P.M.

I have to agree with both of the above comments. Rebreathers should be left to those certified for it. I do a lot of diving as I am a PADI certified Assistant Instructor. I have found that to get good pictures of fish usin normal SCUBA equipment it is just a matter of patience. I dive a lot around the Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Channel Island areas and usually when I find something worth taking a picture of I find myself hovering and waiting for the fish or sea lions to take an interest in me and come check me out. One of my favorite pictures I took is of a sea lion that swam up to me and barked at me just before turning back. I use a Sea & Sea MX10 with strobe and fiber optic conector. I think it works great. If you take time to learn to perfect your diving skills, bouyancy in particular and add some patience I think you will be surprised at the results you could get with a point and click MX10 or one of the canon digitals as stated above.

Will Riddle

Jorge M. TreviƱo , November 11, 2003; 08:58 P.M.

When I took up SCUBA some 18 years ago, I thought it was a photographer's paradise. What you know next I was buying a submersible camera, strobe and macro and wide lenses with dreams of being another Norbert Wu. When scale focusing became my Nemesis, I dumped the submersible for a housed SLR system that lasted me until the camera gave the ghost (I still have the widowed housing, the camera is no longer made, they are *dedicated*, you know). Reviewing the more than 1000 exposures I made underwater, I cannot find more than a dozen that don't belong in the trash can. UW photography is, as Andrew says, in the great majority of cases one of two themes: Documentary macros of some strange animal or a wide angle depicting an underwater feature of the landscape, sometimes with a diver included. Gets extremely boring after a couple of years of doing it. Now, after three or four years of not shooting underwater, I'm tempted to get a Nikonos again. This would be the simplest I can find, probably a IV, no strobe. I plan to experiment B&W available murk by means of very high speed film (TMZ probably). This is the only type of UW photography that I feel has not been done ad-nauseam. Wish me luck.

Kevin Quinn , November 12, 2003; 04:19 A.M.

Good article, just wanted to point out that depending on how much your kids are worth, you may very well have to sell them off to get into UW photography. A novice would be looking at the very least at $2000 if he has to buy scuba gear and even used/non-ideal photo equipment. If you're going to avoid cheapo shortcuts like I have (add-on lenses/extension tubes for macro and w/a), the photo equipment cost alone is close to $2000 itself. Want a housed SLR- considered worse for wide angle but far superior for macro? Think $3k and up up up, diving gear not included.

Nice to see that correcting a typo in my comment moves me to the end of the stack. This had a bit more relevance up near the top...

Andrew Dawson , November 12, 2003; 09:52 A.M.

Jorge--good luck with your b&w idea; you might check out the work by Ernest Brooks and Carlos Eyles. Not alot of people do b&w underwater but it can be interesting. I certainly don't agree with the idea that u/w subjects have been done ad nauseum. I think we haven't begun to tap the possibilities. Granted, there are certain shots you see over and over, just as you do on land. For every grizzly-bear-fishing-for-salmon shot, you have the equivalent underwater (pygmy seahorse in coral, diver looking at sponges, etc.)

My point about the "types" of shots you see from u/w is that the technical limitations force you to use certain lenses, not that we all end up with the same images. Who says macro is only documentary shots of small animals? That isn't true on land, so why would it be u/w? As for your "keeper" ratio, if you shot 1000 images, that's about 30 rolls of film, and you said you kept about 12. That's a bit low, but nature photographers deal with number like that all the time. Especially if it was your first 1000 shots u/w...

David Weaver , November 19, 2003; 12:17 P.M.

Expensive? YES!. So far everyone is dead on about being a capable diver before trying this. People like Flip Nicklin and David Doubilet can get away w/ rebrethers. (extremely useful around aquatic mammals to keep bubble noise down and because bubbles are very annoying when shooting up.) I taught u/w photography for a couple years in the 80's. This is a VERY expensive hobby and some of the best u/w photographers I've know were either teaching this professionally, fairly wealthy, or did work for National Geographic. When I went on a Red Sea trip I took 2 Nikonos V bodys. 2 macro set ups. 3 standard lenses, 2 fisheyes, 4 Ikelite strobes, 1 extra set of recharables for each strobe. 3 extra sets of strobe cables. 80 rolls of film, 20 camera batteries. Also a houseing for my 8008, 2 8008 bodies, about 200 AA batteries, a dozen nikonos camera batteries, a small tool kit, and a buch of other little must haves. Did I mention all my diving gear too? Keep in mind that I was not near any place that I could buy supplies and that equipment failures do happen so have backups and backups of those backups.

Now, the recreational diver that has good diving control can get a lot of good shots with a simple single strobed Nikonos system. Moving to housed cameras is a big step. When you flood a nikonos (everyone eventually does) you can frequently repair it or have it repaired at a resort area. When you flood a good digital (coolpix 5xxx series) you're out almost a grand!

Tip: Put a small diaper baby side down in the bottom of your housing.

On-On! David

Sasha Stojkovich , November 19, 2003; 03:06 P.M.

being an avid UW photographer and doing for pure sense of joy, i wanted to share some experience of mine. I am diving only for past 5 years and I am trimix certified. I own a MX-10 kit and even if I feel missing a lot from the system, since I am used to my Dynax 7, it has a lot of advanteges. The possibility of changing from wide angle to macro underwater, infrared flash control (less points to flood), small system,.... you can make pretty nice pics (http://www.pbase.com/dvas/gallery/underwater). A lot of divers are using more and more digital setups, especially C5050 with IKELITE housing that is very popular and it is rated to 60msw. THe zoom range of the basic setup is not so good though. But with the digital setup you need an external strobe and the price is getting higher already for those that are looking for el cheapo. Regarding rebreathers, I agree that it is totally out of recreational divers, but it does offer another advantage: when using CCR, the fact that you have counter lungs, your buoyancy is not changing when you inhave and exhale, thus enabling you to take pictures much easies, since you don't move up and down with every breath you take.

just my 2c, and dive safe Sasha

Fernando McSoto , December 16, 2003; 09:29 A.M.

As an entry level underwater camera for a non-pro is Minolta Weathermatics APS (not the 35mm old version) an unexpensive solution? I have heard that the autofocus works underwater. I just bought a second hand Canon Sureshot A1 and the results underwater have not been good. The autofocus does not work when underwater. I just paid a few Euros, so I'm not ungry.

I guess that alternative I'll have to buy an UW housing for my Nikon and pay some bucks. What are you views?

Andrew Dawson , December 24, 2003; 12:42 P.M.

There are two problems with those P&S cameras you mentioned, and they are the reason you didn't get great results. The built-in lenses really aren't wide enough, so it's forcing too much water between you and the subject. Also, the built-in flash is not nearly powerful enough, and is so close to the lens that you end up lighting the crap in the water (known as backscatter). Some P&S kits have external flash units that help with the latter problem, but still have lenses that are not great.

As far as housing your Nikon, you'll have lots of choices, some of which aren't too expensive. I wrote an article for photo.net about u/w housings that you might check out. Cheers...

Richard Bray , February 21, 2004; 09:07 A.M.

Take only pictures, leave only bubbles........

Buoyancy control is a must, both to catch that special shot and to avoid damaging reefs or other structures, leave something for your kids to see. It can also protect you from cuts, scratches and stings, when you find yourself losing awareness of your surroundings.

On many dive boats and live-aboards, the usual dive is a tour of some area, but for photographers, rushing around from place to place is no fun, as it leaves little time to plan shots and experiment with apertures and lens settings. Hanging around in the one place is usually better. Emphasise to the divemaster what you want to do, and buddy up with someone of similar interests, and diving capability.

In my case, my wife and I are both Master Scuba Divers; she takes video, I take stills; we both use the same technical rigs-wing style BCs and long underarm regulators, important for support; and we both did specialist cave and wreck diving courses, as well as buoyancy control. Streamlining your gear also helps to avoid snagging.

Make sure there is a big bucket of fresh water for rinsing and soaking cameras after the dive, make sure it is changed frequently too! Take a couple of bottles of pure distilled water too, (water for injection 500ml bags are ideal) so in case you have a flood, you can rinse as soon as possible with pure water.

Change o-rings frequently, store and travel with your camera with them off. Flying with cameras sealed up can cause o-rings to burst out, not the main ones, but the smaller ones used to seal film winders and ASA speed adjusters.

Plan your dive, and plan for the unexpected. I usually take 2 cameras with me, a twin-strobe, big-armed Nikonos with 15mm or close-up rings, AND a smaller package of a second Nikonos V with 400ASA film and a 20mm lens. This is ideal for those shallow water shots, or at the end of the dive when your are performing your safety stop, and thoses mantas or whale-sharks go by. The new Sony DSC-T1 in its marine pack is a handy digital alternative to this, and takes excellent photos with its built-in flash.

Remember to get as close as you can to your subject. That 1m of water between you and those delightful clown fish represents a 1m tube of potentially distorting, darkening, particulate-laden liquid, that will do its best to ruin your photograph. Minimise the interference, get close.

Nikon do make a set of leads with an IR transmitter/ receiver unit, enabling you to connect and disconnect your strobe from your camera underwater. TTL metering is maintained. Strobes typically have enough charge for 60-100 flashes, whilst cameras have 36 exposures. Using these connectors, which are available in both twin and single strobe configurations can double or even triple your underwater capability.

Learn from your mistakes, and analyse or ask a friend why a shot did not come out. Read other photographers' books, and get ideas from them. Do not be shy of showing your photos to others. Anyone who can go down and take pictures underwater with heavy gear, cold water and limited visibility will get respect!

And remember, you are a diver first, and a photographer second. Do remember to breathe! And never hold your breath.

PS David Doubilet was seen diving for National Geographic with 14 cameras and 5 assistants - no wonder he gets a few good shots.

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