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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.
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.
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
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.
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.
1) GET LOW, GET CLOSE, SHOOT UP
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.
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.
2) AMBIENT LIGHT EXPOSURE
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.
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
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.
3) USING STROBES FOR WIDE-ANGLE
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.
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.
This shot of a China Rockfish was made with one strobe,
simply because my other one died during the dive.
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
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.
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