An Introduction to Underwater Photography

While land has a ton of photograph-able subjects, the ocean has subjects you would never even in your wildest dreams think about hanging out with. Imagine coming home one day saying, "Hey, I hung out with a white tip shark today and here's the evidence," presenting a picture with you right next to the shark in the water. Underwater photography isn't too terribly difficult, but there are a few things you need to consider before whipping your credit card out and getting excited.

 

Get wet and wild with your photography

Get wet and wild with your photography

 

 

Myth: If you're an ace photographer on land, you'll be ace underwater
This holds true only to a certain extent. On land you need to play with factors like light, shadow and colour, and believe it or not, the biggest gift you have is gravity. When you're underwater, the biggest skill you need to have isn't framing or light manipulation, it's bouyancy. You need to be a certified scuba diver, or at the very least, be comfortable with scuba equipment. You also need to be able to control your ability to hover at the same level (usually done by controlling your breath. Note that it's not about holding your breath, but controlling it). Of course after you master your bouyancy, framing abilities kick in.

 

Hovering to get non-overhead shots needs bouyancy control - courtesy Tascha Eipe

Hovering to get non-overhead shots needs bouyancy control - courtesy Tascha Eipe

 

 

The other big difference between shooting on land and shooting underwater is of course, the way light acts in water. On land, we are constantly surrounded by light, and usually we can get white light pretty easily. Underwater, however, works on VIBGYOR, albeit backwards. As you first start to descend, you start losing red light, then orange, then yellow and so on. At a depth of just 20m the majority of your shots are going to start appearing blue. The other thing about light in water is the principle of refraction. Objects appear 25% larger and closer in water, which makes a difference when you try to apply artificial light to your subjects underwater.

 

Light refracts in water, objects look 25% closer and bigger

Light refracts in water, objects look 25% closer and bigger

 

 

Myth: You need to have an expensive, waterproof camera to shoot underwater
There's one word missing in that statement. You need to have an expensive, waterproof camera HOUSING to shoot underwater. When you dive recreationally, you're going to go to depths of at least 10 meters if not more. You can use your regular digital camera as long as you are able to find a decent housing for it. Housings are generally camera specific and when searching for one for your camera, make sure you specify your model number in the search. Typically, consumer level Canon, Nikon and Olympus digital cameras are pretty easy to find housing for that you can dive with. Kodak and other brands are a little trickier and sometimes impossible. Good websites to source housing for your camera are Backscatter and Underwater Photography (their website is a little cluttered, but they're pretty comprehensive) or if you have slightly higher end cameras, Seacam.

 

A typical Canon G9 housing

A typical Canon G9 housing

 

 

When you're buying housing for your camera, make sure that you buy housing that can be used up to 40 meters since as a recreational diver, you're usually only allowed to go as deep as 40 meters (although, when you're first starting out, your limit will be 18 meters). Housings do get expensive though, sometimes more expensive than the camera itself, for instance housing for the Nikon Coolpix L19 (which costs approx Rs. 7,450) can cost $260 (approx Rs. 11,800). 

 

When using SLR cameras, you need to consider the movement of your lens as you shoot for when you buy your housings. Most housings for SLR will come with extension ring ports that you attach onto your housing that will facilitate lens movement as you zoom in and out. 
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Myth: You can only use sunlight as a light source when shooting underwater

This is where fun starts. Yes, when shooting underwater sunlight, if available, is a blessing. However, you can use flash underwater. The flash you use can either be from your camera or you can even buy additional flashes and strobes, which you attach to your camera housing. When you're shooting in macro underwater (or rather you think you're shooting macro), your subject is most likely a little further away and a little smaller than how you're seeing it. Therefore, if you want to light it, you'll be more accurate if you use an additional flash, rather than your camera's flash (which is more focused).

 

Besides lighting your subject, using a flash also helps balancing your colours underwater. As mentioned earlier, when shooting underwater, most of the light that you can work with will be in the VIB area of the colour spectrum. When you add a flash, you're adding your own white light which, if used properly (particularly in macro shots), colour balances your image decently. Flashes, and flash packages usually can come along with the housing you buy. More advanced photographers will usually use two strobes, one on each side of their camera with double arms to hook both the lights onto the camera housing.

 

Balancing colours: Shot without flash

Balancing colours: Shot without flash

 

 

 

Balancing colours: With flash, notice the colour difference in the polyp and fish

Balancing colours: With flash, notice the colour difference in the polyp and fish

 

The other way to get around blue light underwater is by using red filters. These filters attach directly to your lens and they neutralize the otherwise blue-heavy image that you capture. A basic package of filters usually comes for $55 (approx Rs. 2500) and you need to be a little extra careful with these while diving. A little snag on a coral can scratch your filter, rendering it useless (unless you like scratch-like marks on your pictures of course). 

 

Myth: You need to shoot up close to get the best shot
If there was ever a myth that needed a bullet in the head, it's this one. Yes, the up close and personal shot of a clown fish is sometimes more impressive than one if it further away floundering about. However, underwater photography, especially when you're first starting out, is essentially best shot wide. This way, you're not constricted by lighting and focus issues. Of course, sometimes when shooting wide, your flash might work against you. When there is a lot of back scatter (when you're diving closer to a looser ocean bed), the flash will actually light the back scatter more than the subject (since back scatter bounces light better than humans and fish), and you're left with a picture of you diving in muck that will make people wonder why you're diving there.

 

Myth: Underwater life hates being photographed

While fish don't particularly pose for photo ops and are usually shy and defensive, you're not harming them by photographing them, especially with flash. In fact, underwater photography is a little more dangerous for the humans diving than underwater life because humans tend to get so wrapped up in taking the best shot that they forget about their dive buddy (big safety mistake), to check how much time they've been underwater and how much oxygen they've used up. This is why it's absolutely essential to get your diving skills down to near perfection before you begin photographing. That being said, once you take your first few shots and you come back to land and upload your photos to your computer, you might just be hooked.

 

Pictures courtesy: Anees Adenwala of Underwater Film Service and Orca Dive Club. If you have any questions about camera housings, flashes and filters, or would like to order them, get in touch with Anees at info@orcadiveclub.in.


Published Date: Jan 21, 2011 02:26 pm | Updated Date: Jan 21, 2011 02:26 pm