How to get started with underwater photography

Romina Bayer

You have been scuba diving for a while and now you want to take the next step and get started with underwater photography? Let me give you a quick introduction and tell you what you really need (and what you don’t) to get started with your new hobby.

1. Camera

The first thing you’re gonna need for underwater photography is a camera (duuuhhh). How else do you want to take pictures on your dives? Don’t get carried away though. You really don’t need a fancy camera and a big set up in order to take beautiful photos underwater. In fact, any camera will do when you’re taking the first steps. And the best choice is probably the camera you already have. 

Compact cameras are usually a really good choice to get started. They offer lots of settings that make it easier for you if you have never been taking photos underwater before. Many compact cameras have a built-in “underwater mode”, however, this is usually not the best choice if you want to get the most out of your pictures.

Even GoPros or small action cameras are a good choice for the beginning. They don’t offer a lot of flexibility when you want to custom change your settings, but they will give you a good idea of how different it is to dive with a camera and to get used to it. If you want more control, pick a compact camera. 

2. Buoyancy skills

Actually, this should be number one. And in my opinion, it is. Good buoyancy skills are a prerequisite to taking good photos underwater. Preferably, you already have several dozens of dives under your belt before you start taking photos.

I know how exciting it is to go on your dives and wanting to photograph and film every fish that comes in front of your lens. But when you just starting out with scuba diving, your awareness and concentration should be on your diving skills, not taking photos. Before you think about taking pictures on your dive, you should be absolutely comfortable in the water and with your gear. For example, controlling your buoyancy with your BCD should come naturally to you, without you having to think which button to press or which hose to lift. As long as you still need to think about what it is you’re actually doing down there and you’re not able to handle your buoyancy yet, adding another element in there (such as photography) is simply not a good idea. 

The good news is, that you can easily train your buoyancy on any dive, or even in a pool. If you focus on becoming a comfortable diver before you start taking photos underwater, you will not only enjoy the process much more but also advance your skills quicker once you do get started. 

3. An underwater camera housing (or “camera case”)

Now, there are some cameras that are waterproof up until a certain depth (like e.g. the Nikon COOLPIX AW130 or the Nikon COOLPIX W300 are waterproof until a depth of 30 meters), and you might be using one of those to get started with underwater photography. Most of the cameras, however, are not waterproof by themselves. And this means that when you take them on your dives, you will need to protect them. This is where your underwater housing (I’ve heard many people refer to them as “camera casing”) come in. There are many different types of housings, ranging from budget to hyper expensive. What you will need to pay attention to, is that the housing you choose actually fits your camera, since every model has its own specifications.

If you know that you will want to use the camera you choose for many years, it might be worth investing in a higher-quality housing.

Getting started with underwater photography: you will need an underwater housing for your camera.

4. Light

As you will realize quickly, simply bringing down your camera in the housing and taking a photo of all the colorful fish will… well, end up in photos that are not that colorful at all. In fact, they will most likely look very blue or green (maybe even brown if you take them super deep), unless you are really shooting right beneath the surface in very shallow water on a bright, sunny day. Why is that? Well, in a very simplified way, it is because water absorbs light way faster than air does, and this means that colors disappear. That’s why light is one of the biggest topics in underwater photography.

Your camera’s built-in flash

Now, there are several ways in which you can bring some light into your photos. The easiest one is going to be using the internal flash of your camera. Using the internal flash comes with a lot of drawbacks, but it can work if you are shooting small subjects (macro photography) that are very close to you. 

Using external strobes

You might have seen underwater photographers going down with their gigantic setups, including some massive arms sticking out from the housing with mounted lights? Those massive lights are called strobes. They are basically flashes made for underwater, that you can connect to your camera. 

Do you need strobes in order to take great photos underwater? No.

Do they make it easier? Yes. 

Do you need them to get started with underwater photography? No.

Do they make you look fancy and upgrade your ego? Absolutely yes.

Strobes have the general advantage that they give you a lot of light. They also offer a lot of control over your shots, since you can move them around to position them exactly where you want them. They are a challenge by themselves. Getting started with strobes can be daunting and frustrating. However, once you understand how they work and how you can make them work to your advantage, you’re gonna love it and see the difference in your shots.

So, internal flash, external flashes, what other way is there to light your underwater pictures? I got two more for you: torches and natural light.

Using a dive torch

Torches, or dive lights, are a very simple (and much more cost-effective) way of lighting up your underwater shots. It might take some getting-used-to to point the torch in the right direction and at the same time control your camera to take the shot, but overall it is a very easy way to shoot underwater photos. You might even add some cool creative effects to your shots once you get a bit of exercise with it. I would definitely recommend using this method when you’re new to underwater photography. Later on, you can start adding a strobe (and then two) to your set up. 

Natural light (also called ambient light)

And last but not least: natural light. Shooting underwater with natural light (sunlight) is probably the “most natural way”. You can create stunning images with a very specific atmosphere. But you are also very limited in what you can do and it is gonna take some time to master this technique. We already mentioned that the deeper you go, the less light there will be available. When shooting with natural light, you are highly dependent on the weather and surface conditions. Generally, you will want to stay shallow on your dives. The colors in your photos will not be as “poppy” as they would with a flash.  

Getting started with underwater photography, you can also use natural light.

But luckily there is editing software like Adobe Lightroom, which is easy to use and can help you bring out the most from your underwater pictures.

Get started

And that is already it. Other than a tank and a dive buddy, that’s really all you need to get started with underwater photography. 

So now that you know all the basics, what are you waiting for? Go and start trying it for yourself! Cause the most important thing is that you practice, practice, practice. 

And if you want to learn more about underwater photography, check out my upcoming courses and webinars that will help you improve your skills!

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