Underwater Photography – Lessons from a total newbie

Let’s just clarify something from the beginning. I am not a photographer. That is to say, I rarely take photos (on land or in the water) that I would see as sellable or of much artistic merit. I do love taking photos though, and diving into the underwater world has been a really fun adventure. It takes all the difficulty of photography on land and adds the elements of movement (of both you and the subject), unpredictable light and inconsistent colors. Yay!

Needless to say, there’s been a steep learning curve, but in using tips and tricks I’ve been shown along the way, my shots have improved a LOT in just the few weeks I have been doing them. In this series, I want to show you the progress from my first underwater shot to my best and all the tips I learned along the way. Hopefully it will help you with your practice too!

Equipment

I use a Canon G7X, which I bought to use as my normal, every day, point-and-shoot camera. I’ve used a couple of their other earlier models and I love the flexibility it allows, giving you a lot of really good manual options while still having some great automatic features. Like I said, I am not a photographer. Chris (bless him) has tried many times to explain f-stops and ISOs and shutter speeds (that one I kind of get, to be fair) and it’s just not stuck. I know I can pick it up if I apply myself, but I also know that my camera is really good at doing a lot of that for me and I am lazy. So this camera is great for me.

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Being a standard camera, I needed to get it an underwater case (also, it makes my simple camera look way cooler). We went with the Ikelite housing and it’s been fairly good so far. I have had some problems with the buttons getting stuck down, which is a little annoying. I’ve tried different recommendations for sorting that out and none seem to be long-lasting, so that’s been my only complaint. Other divers have recommended the Canon housings, so if you’re in the market it might be good to ask around and read the reviews thoroughly.

Color

Right! You’ve got your camera. You’ve got your housing. You’re ready to dive in. This is going to be awesome!! Here’s the thing. I don’t want to burst your bubble, but you probably won’t immediately take amazing photos. Even if you are good at it on land, the underwater realm has SO many other factors to deal with. One of the greatest obstacles we have to deal with is color.

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My very first underwater photo compared with my best (left: March 18th – right: June 26th)

Why are the oceans blue? Because that’s the only wavelength of color that can move through large distances of water to reach our eyes. If you are diving with a camera, you have (I certainly hope) taken a scuba course and are aware that the range of colors we see underwater decreases as we get deeper. Here’s a really good graphic representation:

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Image credit – floridadiveconnection.com. For a really good explanation of the science of color underwater, visit Connie Imboden’s site.

Red is the first to go, followed by orange and yellow. Green stays for a while longer to accompany the blue but eventually fades out as you approach 37 meters. Put in practice, that means we get underwater and our photos look like this:

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It’s not awful. Things are in focus. We can see what it is (purple-edged ceratosoma, for you nudi lovers). The background isn’t distracting. And we’ve even got a little bit of yellow going on in the spots. At a quick glance, however, you can clearly see that we are missing something. The range of color is very limited. There are a few ways we can get around this problem.

White Balance

The best editing tool I have found for fixing inaccurate colors is white balance. White balance is a really awesome thing that I never knew existed until I started taking photos underwater. Forgive me if you’ve heard it all before, but allow me a minute to quickly explain it for the other newbies out there.

The basic idea of white balance is this: when you take a photo, your camera senses all the different wavelengths of light and creates the color scheme of the image based on that range. You can, however, give the data a new point of reference to use which will instantly adjust the rest of the picture accordingly. We use white as that point of reference. Let’s look at an example.

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While staying on a small, remote island with limited access to Walgreens, I tweaked my finger in a freak motorbike accident in which I was traveling at zero mph. Not diving was out of the question, so this was my solution.

The photo on the right is what the camera sensed and produced without any alteration by me. After I took the first photo, I adjusted the white balance and took the one on the left. You can see that the yellow has been tamed to a more normal level and my hand no longer looks lobster-claw red. The tones are all much more natural in the lefthand (pun appreciated) photo now.

So how did I adjust the white balance? How did I give the data a new frame of reference? There are two choices here: set the balance before you take the photo or do some post editing.

Manually (in camera)

You can manually set the white balance in your camera before you even shoot. This means you stick a white piece of paper or plastic or your English boyfriend’s leg in front of the lens and push a button that says “Dear camera, this is white.” Then the camera says, “Cool! I gotcha *wink*,” and adjusts all the wavelengths it sees to be relative to the white you just showed it. To figure out how to do this with your camera read the instruction manual (if you’ve thrown it out thinking you’d never need it, you can find it online).

The biggest downside to this method is the need to adjust the white balance again each time you change depth by a single meter (up or down). This means you either need to stay at a constant level to avoid fiddling around with it too much or accept that you will spend some time with your camera making adjustments before every photo (not always ideal as our subjects tend to move around a lot and can be gone by the time you’re ready).

Post editing

If you don’t have an English boyfriend (or, like mine, he’s annoyingly tan), you can also adjust the white balance after the fact. I have a Mac (because apparently I had a first born child I didn’t need and could donate to the cause), and have found that the built-in Photos app is really amazing at this. Here’s a side-by-side showing the pre and post edited photos.

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The change is amazing and it couldn’t be easier. I used the auto white balance (in the edit tools) and it is instantly a much better photo. If you want more control, you can click the little dropper tool (in the white balance section) and select either the whitest spot in the image or a neutral grey. I usually play with both options and see which result I like best.

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You can also adjust loads of other things if you want, like the intensity of the colors, the light levels, the crispness of edges, etc. Play around and see what you like! If you’re using different software, just read up online or watch a quick YouTube video about how to adjust white balance. It’ll take five minutes and make a world of difference to your images.

*A quick note on editing: it’s not cheating. I felt like it was cheating because I don’t usually like to edit my land-based photos (my own issue to deal with). But unless you have a really, really expensive, cumbersome rig with loads of lights and stabilisers and a crew to help you, you will almost certainly need to do at least a minimal amount of editing when you’re first getting started underwater.*

Filters

I took our example photo at about 12 meters. That’s why I still have the yellow dots instead of it all being blue/green. Had I been deeper though, the post-editing might not have made as much of a difference. This is because the camera simply has less information to work with. The deeper you go, the fewer wavelengths are around for the camera to detect. This is when filters start getting really useful.

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Depending on the color of the water you are diving in there are two basic filter options. For blue water you want red. For green water you want magenta. I’m usually in blue water, so I use red. Contrary to what you might think, according to this great article about filters, they work by limiting the wavelengths of other colors rather than adding in their own. Regardless of the mechanism, the result is that your camera has much more red data to work with (aka a wider range of wavelengths and therefore colors). Here’s an example:

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Considering the fact that these fish are blue and black, you wouldn’t think a red filter would really make much difference. As you can see, however, there is just a wider range of colors, which makes the image richer and gives the subjects more interest.

A word of warning: one thing to be careful about with red filters is your depth. They are GREAT when you’re below 7 or 8 meters and out of the range of the natural red wavelengths. They are AWFUL when you are shallower than that and can make your photos look like a horror show.

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Left to right: the day the seas bled (a terrifying in-camera white balance setting), a shot at a shallow depth with a red filter, no red filter at about 5 meters.

Here’s another spread I found that gives some really good examples of the different options.

Photo credit: lafcpug.org
Photo credit: lafcpug.org

Lights

Perhaps all this white balance stuff is just too much of a faff for you or you’re not interested in doing much post editing. Then you might be interested in looking into lights (or strobes as they prefer to be called). If the problem with getting colors at depth is that the light can’t reach you, then a simple way to overcome that problem is to bring the light with you. The moment you shine a light on something ALL the colors come back at exactly the place you need them for your photos.

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The left and bottom photos were taken with lights while the top was just with natural lighting. You can see a big difference in the color range as well as the crispness of the edges and ability for the camera to focus.

I’ve not played around with lights much, so I’m not really the best to give advice. On a recent dive, however, we used flashlights a lot to look into nooks and crannies and the photos that I took were a lot more colorful and had much sharper edges than the ones without. It’s territory I feel tempted to start wandering into, but things start getting bigger, bulkier and more expensive once you go there. So I’m holding back for now…

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Ready to go!

Right!! You know all you need to know about color and your options for managing it underwater. You’ve got a red filter and know your way around a photo editor. You’re shots are going to be GREAT now, right??! Right???

Maybe. It’s a big start and will make a huge difference in the quality of your images, but there’s still a lot that you can do to get the shot that will make you (and your facebook friends) say “WOW!!”

Next time we’ll look at techniques for how to take your photos: your position relative to your subject, issues around buoyancy and remembering to check around for eels and scorpionfish before you belly up to your next frogfish.

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Another example of how red filters are detrimental at shallow depths. Each small tweak can make a big difference even in the same shot. Play around with white balance options, filters and lights and see what you like best!
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