Underwater Photography – Tips from a Total Newbie (Pt. 2)

Last week we looked at some of the equipment you might need underwater as well as issues around light and color. This week, we’ll talk about underwater logistics – how to position yourself, how to manage your movement and how to avoid getting eaten while you’re immersed in your shot.

Know your goal

The first thing to consider is: why are you taking photos? Are you trying to take an amazing macro shot of a nudi’s rhinophores or just quick reference material for identification purposes? Are you focusing on anything specific for that dive? I’ve done dives where I knew exactly what fish I wanted a nice close-up of, or where I was only taking macro shots, or where I was playing with a particular camera setting like the shutter speed or white balance.

Of course, other opportunities may come up (it’s the ocean and crazy and unpredictable things happen there!), but having a goal in mind will help guide you while you’re down there. Once you know what you’re trying to do with a particular shot, there are a few things to consider when it comes to your buoyancy, breathing rhythm and position.

Buoyancy 

Water moves around. That’s kind of its thing. And when you’re in it you’ll move too. It’s a basic skill of scuba diving to learn to control yourself within that motion (and one that can take a while to get the hang of). I found that my buoyancy control actually improved a LOT once I started taking photos. There’s something about the process of setting up a shot that naturally makes me breathe in a different way. When I am taking photos, my breaths are more relaxed and I have a longer gap between an exhale and inhale. Tip: that’s the moment I find best for taking a shot. Once you take a breath, you have just a second or so before you start floating away and lose your position.

The interval between breaths is not long, so I’ve also found that having a tank banger (long metal stick) or something like that to help me get into my position is really helpful. Some people wear gloves so they can grab the reef, but I have issues with that for two reasons: you damage the coral (even if you think you are touching it lightly, you’re still damaging it) and they are hot. I don’t like gloves (or socks or hats) in general, so they’re not really an option for me. I’ve also heard people say they like reef hooks for staying still. I haven’t used them myself but they are meant to keep you in one place (particularly in a current) while keeping your hands free, which seems quite helpful for photos.

Get close

Probably the most important thing you’ll do in the water to improve your shots is to get close. Really close. The closer you are the less water there is between you and the subject. That means less scatter (the bits of stuff floating in the water. Poo, basically – and some plankton). Less scatter means your shot will look more like you took it in a swimming pool than a stagnant pond. Also, the closer you get, the more detail you will see through the water. It seems obvious, but it’s one of those things we forget about for some reason.

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Closer shots are also better at highlighting your subject – it makes it more obvious what you’re trying to show. I’ve taken some shots I thought were great and got home to find that there really isn’t a clear point of the photo. This goes back to knowing your goal. If you want a close up – get close. If you want a reef shot, make it clear. Don’t go halfway. It’s hard to do wide-angle and macro at the same time.

I got in the water with a baby whale shark last week and it swam right at me. I was staying still taking video and it got so close I had to swim up not to touch it. Super awesome moment.
I got in the water with a baby whale shark last week and it swam right at me. I was staying still taking video and it got so close I had to swim up not to touch it. Super awesome moment.

To get nice, close shots, do it the same way you do on land: move you and your camera closer or zoom in. Depending on your subject, you can sometimes get incredibly close without zooming at all. For creatures like mantis shrimp (they can break your camera) and morays (they can bite your face off), you might want to consider zooming. Remember though that, just like on land, when you zoom in you’ll lose stability. The buoyancy issues we talked about before are magnified immensely when you’re zoomed. It’s a lot harder to get a stable shot.

Shoot from below

If you look at most of the photos that really wow you, you’ll notice that they tend to have a monochrome background (usually some shade of blue or black). Fish stand out much more against a single color than they do against the reef. They are built to blend in with the reef and they will disappear in your shot if you’re not careful about the background. The worst angle to shoot at is from above. Not only will the background confuse your composition, but for most fish this angle gives them the smallest (and often least interesting) profile.

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The best way to get that gorgeous blue behind your model is to get low. Drop down to their level (or lower if you can) and shoot up to get the perfect background. They’ll pop out beautifully.

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…

Fish like to move. And move. And move. They don’t stay still. You’ll get into a good position and then they’ll swim away. Because they are bastards. Often times if you are patient they will come back. Sometimes they won’t. Such is the fate of the underwater photographer. If you want to limit this fact, there’s not much you can do other than focus on corals and sponges. Nudis are pretty good too.

If you’re determined to get a perfect photo of a juvenile sweetlips (notorious dancer – see video above), you’re going to need patience and a lot of room on your SD card. But no matter how much they move and wiggle, no matter how tempted you are, be careful about this:

Don’t chase a shot

There are several reasons for this, most of which include your safety. If you suddenly start chasing a turtle for the amazing photo you envision, you can end up in the blue (harder to get reference points for where you are), away from your dive buddies (not a good thing) or in a current that you did not expect (very bad). These are really serious problems underwater. No shot is worth it.

In Nusa Lembongan, three tourists died while chasing a Mola into the blue. They ended up leaving the relative safety of the bay and found themselves in Ceningan Channel, a notoriously ripping current that flies around in every direction. The recovery divers (collecting the bodies) couldn’t even get to them for a while because the site was too dangerous.

Don’t chase a shot.

The other, non-safety reason not to chase a fish is this: they swim away (see section above). They know when they are being followed and that instinct tells them to skedaddle. You are MUCH better off taking the opportunities that come to you. And they will! There’s a lot to be said for dives where you just sit there and see what passes you by. Chris had to play dead once (for my Rescue course) and in the few minutes while he was parked by the rock waiting to be “rescued” he saw a sting ray, reef shrimp, milk fish and a few other odds and ends. Try stopping sometimes and see what comes to you!

Look around you. First. 

I should have probably put this first as it is really what you should do before you start getting in position for a shot, but as it is the last thing I usually do or think about (much to my detriment), it is the last thing I thought to add. Last week, I very nearly sat on a VERY large moray eel while I was focused on a gorgeous little seahorse uphill. I had no idea he was there. Or that he had THREE eel friends right next to him. Why? Because I didn’t look. At all. I just went straight for the photo-op.

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But the seahorse was so pretty!

Just because you are focused on one creature it doesn’t mean that others aren’t around, in fact they almost certainly are. Not all of them can hurt you and not all of them are interested in it, but it’s wise to be aware of your surroundings. Even a moray doesn’t want to bite you, but if you stick your knee in his face, he might see that as a threat. More importantly, if you’re not looking around you can also end up damaging part of the reef, which is what every good diver aims to avoid as much as is humanly possible every time we’re underwater.

Also, don’t forget to look around you occasionally for the underwater friends you want to keep close: your dive buddies. They don’t all have the patience needed to sit around while you take photos of slugs (even though they’ll want copies of the photos when you get back on land). They get distracted by other things and swim off to follow their own curiosity. Safety is paramount in the ocean. It may seem like the shot of a lifetime, but if your lifetime will end in five minutes by going for it you might reconsider that photo’s importance. Make sure you stay near your people or that they know to stay near you. Work out a system before you get in the water to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Last point on safety, look at your air consumption regularly, particularly when you first start with a camera. Some people say they go through 20 bar more when they’re taking photos. I actually go through less. It will vary from person to person. When you’re just getting started it is really important to keep an eye on this so you don’t have a horrible surprise of reaching 30 bar while you’re still 20 m deep.

It takes time!

All this is to say that taking a good photo underwater takes some time. You have to get in a good position close to your subject and a little bit below it (without sitting on any eels or breaking any coral) and time your shot with your breath all while hoping your fishy friend doesn’t swim away right at the last second. If he/she stays, you’ll likely still need to take several shots to get a good one. This all takes time and focus. It’s an engrossing operation but one that is definitely worth while.

It also takes time to get good at it. I am by no means an expert but I have improved a lot in the last few weeks just trying out these little tips. The most valuable thing I have done is talk to any other photographers I can (there’s usually lots of time on the boat to chat). They all started once and they will LOVE to talk about taking pictures (if they don’t, they’re taking it far too seriously and we all know that’s not what diving is about). You’re sure to get a tip or two you can use on your very next dive and you’ll be amazed how quickly the little changes can make huge differences.

Speaking of getting advice….I’d love to see some of your photos and hear what other tricks you are using. Please post any links to where we can see your photos in the comments below!

Happy snapping!

It made me giggle a lot when this seahorse scooted right over the rhinopias' nose. If I'm not laughing or smiling when I take a photo, it's not the right shot.
I giggled a lot when this seahorse scooted right over the rhinopias’ nose. I much prefer taking photos while I’m laughing or smiling – though it does often flood my mask 😉
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