Underwater Photography Part 1

While on a recent photography trip to the Maldives I was focused on some of the more technical aspects of underwater SLR photography. With this still fresh in my mind and after what I consider to be my most successful photography trip, I have taken the time to colate the most important aspects and share them with the community.

I hope that they will assist and inspire other photographers out there to capture the images that they desire. There are many aspects to underwater photography and this article goes someway to discussing them, covering my equipment, diving, photography, camera setup, strobes, lenses, capturing the image and post processing.

I believe equipment is a good place for us to start. There are indeed many options out there. The list below is the setup I used on the last trip and it worked very well for me.

  • 1 x Canon 5D Mark II Full Frame SLR – excellent for macro and awesome sensor for post process colour recovery
  • 1 x Aquatica Pro Housing
  • 1 x Macro port
  • 1 x Extender port
  • 1 x Fish eye dome
  • 2 x z240 INON strobes
  • Multiple arms, floats and connectors
  • 1 x 15mm Sigma Fish Eye
  • 1 x 100mm Canon Macro
  • 1 x 16-35L II 2.8 (Fixed at 24mm)
  • Bungees to attach the above to yourself so you don’t lose the camera to the depths!
  • Flash sync speed understanding (for use with strobes, discussed later)

Diving Skills!

15mm Fisheye, twin strobes, 1/200 f/13 ISO400, taken at 20m

Before we get into the nitty gritty photography side let us take a moment to consider the diving requirements. Being comfortable and confident in the water is essential for underwater photography and the following skills form the cornerstone for that: Advanced diving skills and experience; good buoyancy control; patient buddy; air! If you are thinking "but I want to start taking photos underwater immediately and I can learn to dive at the same time,' here is my response. STOP! You are not ready yet!

There are good reasons for being an advanced diver before you start out on your underwater photographic journey. Primarily is the fact that you’ll be totally focusing on the photography so all diving related activities should be second nature to avoid too much task loading and minimise risk to yourself and the environment.

Good buoyancy is required as when diving we work in 3 dimensions and being at the right position without crashing into the environment is essential. The ability to dive upside down is a real bonus too when that is the only way to position the camera where it needs to be. Add to that the weight and resistance the camera creates through the water and one sees why good diving skills are so important.

Moving on to your buddy - a patient buddy or a qualification in solo diving is required as once you find the next most amazing/ winner of the next wildlife photographer of the year subject for your photo you’ll be there for quite some time snapping away.

Obviously we need air to live but also you want to have enough with you to ensure you have the opportunity to capture your photos. Due to the extra effort of moving, exhausting breath to move down, inhaling to go up, holding breath to stay still…and so on I my air consumption goes up by 20% (this is not a common problem for on land photography!) compared to when I am not taking photos. So if you have high air consumption, as I do, I would suggest a 15L tank, which tends to give me at least an hour under water. I also recommend using Nitrox for extra bottom time. Beyond this I would suggest rebreathers, I myself do not have one – the primary benefit for the photographer here is the silence in the water apparently allows you to get much closer to the wildlife.

Photographic Fundamentals
As with the diving requirements there are also essential photographic skills and knowledge that will make the process easier and lead to higher success when capturing your images. Where do you start? I suggest:

1. Thorough familiarity with your chosen SLR
2. Thorough familiarity with your chosen camera housing
3. Understanding of shutter speed, aperture and ISO triangle relationship
4. Ability to use SLR in full Manual mode
5. Appreciation of how the water effects underwater images
6. Flash sync speed understanding (for use with strobes, discussed later).

Close up night shot of Manta Ray, size: 3 meters across!

24mm, twin strobes, 1/200 f/14 ISO800, taken at 10m

Okay, you have chosen to go and take photos underwater, you can dive and you have all the gear - are ready to capture the perfect image? No! So what are your challenges you face? Well here are a few...

You are moving. Your subject is moving. Your subject is shy and not to mention damn fast! Your subject could be dangerous – even if it is a coral. There is a low amount of light. There is a lack of colour (all red light is filtered out by the water from a depth of 5m and other colours rapidly disappear below that). The water is full of particles that reflect the meagre light supplied by your strobes…and then…just as you are about to take your photo…the clouds cover the sun and all the settings you just got right are all out again!

These difficulties are much easier to overcome if you know your camera and housing intimately as the ability to change the settings on the fly without having to look for a button or switch is quite often the difference between getting "the” shot or a shot of - "Oh yeah, you see that space? That’s where the eagle ray/harlequin shrimp/moa moa/insert name of favourite animal here was!” Remember that the layout of the buttons on the housing are not exactly where they are on the camera and that will also take some getting used to.

In the next section I shall continue with light considerations, camera setup and strobes and sync speed. Coming Very soon!!!!



Martin Sean

London, UK