I’m no pro at it, but shooting underwater is one of the most amazing and toughest environments to shoot in. There are countless things that can go wrong, poor water visibility, equipment malfunctions (thankfully that didn’t happen to me), nothing in the water to shoot, the list can go on. But, when things are just right, you can pull off some pretty amazing frames.
Here are some tips that you should keep in mind, especially if you are beginning underwater photography, or will have the chance to do it in the near future.
Housings do matter
I am not a gear head, trust me. I only purchase what I need. So, when the opportunity to shoot photos in the Galapagos came up, I could not spend $3000 for an underwater housing (a water-proof case), that would cost me more than my Canon 5D Mark2. Unfortunately, I was also not in a position to rent a housing, as there was nothing available in my area (if you are in the U.S. a great place to rent from is borrowlenses.com, they have everything). What I took though did the job, but will make most pro underwater photographers scream. For my needs, rather, for what my bank account said, the Ewa-Marine DSLR bag made perfect sense. Very light, and easy to use. My only knock, the dials are harder to use. Oh yeah, and test the bag before you jump into the water. Put a piece of paper in the bag, and make sure it stays dry.
Get as close as you can to your subject (without getting in their way)
It’s very hard to maintain the same contrast and sharpness you may normally be used to when shooting on dry land. The reality is that water acts like a defuser, gradually softening the light that is provided by the sun (unless your using lights underwater). For most of us, the sun will be our main source of light. Getting closer allows that light to travel a shorter distance to your sensor, thus allowing for a clearer photography.
For the most part, shoot in manual mode
Very important when your only light source is the sun above you. Believe me, this is not always easy, bumbling with dials underwater with the chance of missing “the shot”. The reality is a lot of times, the sunlight is just not enough to light up your subject. We can’t all afford housings and lights that cost more than the camera itself (wtf!). So the trick, try shooting with a fast aperture (try not to stick between 1.4f and 4f), which allows more light in. You’ll also need to dial down your shutter speed, but not too slow, other wise your subjects will be blurry. Aperture is also a mode you could try.
Know how to swim, or at least stay a float
Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “D’uh”. But the reality is that most professionals that shoot underwater have diving certifications. Now, I’m not saying that you need it as well, but know this, when you’re in the water you are essentially trying to swim with one arm or none, as you’ll be pointing your camera in front trying to track your subject. It’s worth your while to take a couple of refresh swimming lessons if it’s been a while.
Always, always shoot in raw
If your camera function has it, use it! RAW files are essentially exactly what the sensor sees, uncompressed. So, when time comes to do post-processing work, you’re working with unprocessed files. Remember, your camera sensor is not a human eye. Our eyes have much higher dynamic range than that of our senors. RAW format also allows you to easily change your white balance, which can be a big issue when using the sun as your only source of light. Many times I’ve seen friends underwater shots, shot in JPG, with tints of red and orange. Shooting in RAW will allow you to fix that and many other things like exposure, fill light and recover highlights, especially when shooting underwater.