A beginners guide to underwater photography

A beginners guide to underwater photography

When you think about it, a mask, snorkel, a set of fins and the ability to hold your breath is all you need to jump in and check out the underwater world. Add a waterproof camera, and you have a simple, yet affordable way to create incredible and unique underwater pictures to show your friends and family.

Whether you are just starting out, using a point and shoot camera on your tropical holiday, a GoPro for your next Instagram selfie, or a heavy housing and strobe setup, you hold in your hands a tool to create great images and leave your audience ‘breathless’.

Here are my five tips for getting started…


Be comfortable in the water

Much like scuba diving or any other marine activity, it is essential to be comfortable.

To begin with, you must be comfortable with your equipment. If your fins are too big, you don’t have enough weight, or your wetsuit doesn’t keep you warm, adding a complicated camera into the mix will leave you feeling frustrated and wishing you never brought a camera, to begin with. So, get it right from the beginning.

I don’t mean go out and buy the latest and greatest gear you can find, but get a reputable brand that is comfortable and fits well. I cannot express enough how important this is when it comes to masks – I suggest getting one that is black and has a decent field of view. Your mask is what allows you to see under the water – without it you are blind, so make sure it’s a good one as there’s nothing that ruins your day quicker than a mask that continually fogs up or leaks.

Other essential kit includes a warm wetsuit and fins that fit. The only thing worse than a leaky mask is fins that are so small your feet cramp up, or so big they flop around and rub your ankles raw.

Underwater photography takes time, and the only way to get better is to practice, and that means being in the water. Having the right gear will keep you warm and comfortable, which will, in turn, increase your patience and allow you to stay in the water for hours at a time perfecting those techniques and hunting interesting subjects.


Get creative

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One of the most common questions I get asked is: “I’m not the best swimmer, but I really like the idea of underwater photography. Should I give it a go?” My answer to this is YES, absolutely!

Some of my best photos have been taken in a few metres of water, so if swimming is a problem, get creative – wade in the shallows and explore deep rock pools or any other safe and accessible bodies of water.  Of course, if you want to take your underwater photography to the next level, being self-reliant in the water is an important skill, so enrolling in swimming lessons is advised.

One way to create unique images in shallow water is by shooting ‘over-unders’ (when the camera lens is half in and half out of the water). If you’re using a pole cam to do this,  you don’t even need to get in the water!

If you decide that underwater photography really is for you, enrolling in a reputable free-diving course will teach you to dive safely and efficiently, making your underwater photography adventures that much more enjoyable.


Light is your friend

Much like land-based photography, the key to shooting a great photo underwater is light. Unlike on land, water blocks and absorbs the light so as we descend we begin to lose colours in the colour spectrum. Red is the first to go, which is why many photos you see may have a blue or green tinge or have no colour at all.

For beginners, the best way to get good shots is to learn how to use natural light to your advantage. Using solely natural light taught me very quickly about camera settings and framing shots. Using natural light can be challenging. It takes time and patience. However eventually you can get very artistic and creative, and in my opinion, when everything comes together for that perfect shot, it is the most rewarding feeling.

To prevent your photos or videos from having the typical green or blue tinge, a filter is the way to go. A red or orange filter over the lens of your camera will help to bring colour back into your shots.  If you’re using an action camera, filters are easily found online and are inexpensive. It is, however, important to remember that filters are only effective at constant depths, so a red filter used in one or two metres of water will give your pictures an undesirable reddish tinge.


Choose your location

When embarking on a photography trip, choose your location and timing carefully. Although dark skies can make for moody shots on land, they really do nothing for underwater photography. Calm, clear water and bright sunny skies make the best images, especially If you’re not using artificial lighting. Jumping into the middle of the ocean on a dark, cloudy, stormy day is unlikely to give you an enjoyable photography experience, so pick your conditions and your locations.

Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, I highly recommend visiting a marine reserve. The fish are usually friendly and used to human interaction. There is typically a lot more life there as well, from the smallest of nudibranchs to the largest of stingrays. Marine reserves are a photographer’s paradise!

Of course, the fish are still wild, but the sheer number of them means you spend more time practising your photography and less time looking for them. It will also help you learn how to approach them.

Once you have learnt how to approach fish without scaring them away, you can transfer these skills to different locations away from reserves where fish are usually flightier and less likely to hang around for a photo.


Know your camera

The first time I won a photography competition I used a $300 point-and-shoot camera, beating professional photographers with cameras worth more than a car.  So, don’t think that because you have a cheaper camera, you can’t take good images! If the conditions are right, your subject is interesting, and you know how to use your equipment, it is likely that you will get some fantastic shots. In reality, the best camera to start off with is the one you already own.

The most important thing is that you know your camera. It is super-exciting to get a new toy, and it’s tempting just to turn it on and jump straight in, but it is a lot easier to figure out how to turn it on and off, take a picture and change the settings above the water than under it.

If you have got a camera to take on your overseas holiday give it a good water test and familiarise yourself with it – a lake or pool is a great place to do this, especially in winter. Whether you’re using a simple GoPro, a point-and-shoot or a complicated DSLR, failing to understand the way your camera works will lead to extreme frustration while the consequences of not knowing your gear or how to set up your camera’s housing can be very costly! Take the time to get to know your camera equipment and read the manual – you will see how much it pays once you’re in the water.


   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

October 2018 - Dan Westerkamp
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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