Taking underwater pictures is much harder than meets the eye, but you can get some stunning pictures with the right tools and know-how.
You need an underwater camera or an underwater housing for your camera to do this. An action camera is great for video, but an underwater camera capable of recording RAW files provides the best stills. RAWs allow you to extract more detail from the picture in post-processing, and because details are heavily softened by water this is very important.
If you don’t have an underwater camera, many seaside towns have camera rental shops where you can hire various models. I wanted the best image quality to shoot the Great Barrier Reef, so I hired a Canon 100D DSLR with an Ikelite housing and a strobe. The whole setup cost just £45 for the day – not bad considering DSLR housings alone are worth thousands of pounds. The same rental company also had the RAW-capable Canon PowerShot G16 plus housing for £25 per day.
If you do hire an underwater camera or an underwater housing unit, make sure to check all the seals and that everything is in working order before entering the water. When you get in the water, ask someone to hand the camera to you – it’ll be hard to get in with your flippers, snorkel/tank and all the camera gear. It would be all too easy to slip and crack the front element of the housing – and you can forget about getting your deposit back if that happens! Dip the camera housing underwater to check it is watertight. A few bubbles are normal when you first submerge it, but if this continues after the initial dunk it could be a sign there is a leak, so pull it back out and inspect all of the seals are free of dirt, dust and sand etc.
Light travels much more slowly through water than air, and colours also appear more muted underwater. The more distance between you and your subject, the softer and more desaturated your pics will appear. You need to get as close to your subject as is physically possible for the best sharpness and colour. If you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens then you’ll want to be within a few feet of your subject. A zoom is of no use underwater because you’ll be shooting through so much water if your subject is far away.
A strobe (flash) is great way of injecting light when you’re under the water. This will also help you freeze the subject and get sharper shots. I used a combination of natural light and flash to get the right exposure. Photographing a stationary subject like coral is a great starting point to get a feel for the camera. You’ll soon notice that good shots come as a result of your snorkelling or freediving working together with your composition. If you just want to take shots from the surface you can use a float to take off some of the weight from the camera.
The split shot
A split image or 50/50 shot is a fun technique where the lens is half in the water, half out, so you can see under and over the water. It’s tricky to master and the larger your lens’ front element is, the easier you’ll find it to pull off. Stability is key to this technique, so if the seas are choppy you don’t stand much chance. Even if the waters are calm it’s a good idea to take a float or extra life jacket to lean on and keep you more steady as you compose.
Set your drive mode to its continuous burst mode. Aim your camera at the overground point of interest like some land or a boat. Cameras focus more easily here than underwater. Then hold your half-submerged camera as steady as you can and take a bracket of shots. It may be tricky to compose via the LCD when shooting this way, but hopefully when you’ve had a few goes you’ll have a useable image. Persistence is key here!
Dan Mold is a professional travel and wildlife photographer and a regular contributor to Practical Photography and Digital Photo. He has recently returned from an epic adventure around Asia and Australia. See more of his work here.