Underwater photography, even to the seasoned pro, can feel complicated and foreign in this entirely new realm. You know your dry-land gear so well, but now you’ve got to incorporate such rarefied tools as ports and underwater housing. It can get confusing. Throw in learning new lighting techniques and intensive post-processing, and odds are your head will be swimming with new information.
Underwater photography may seem complicated at first, but with a bit of practice, it can become second nature. As you slip beneath the surface, concentrating solely on the moment you’re capturing, my hope is that you’ll feel the same quiet joy that I’ve found in underwater photography.
Before you jump in
There are many things to consider before heading under the surface. Obviously, an underwater camera is a must, and there are many options on the market. When choosing one that fits your needs, consider whom you’ll be photographing (clients versus your own circle), where you’ll be shooting (natural bodies of water versus pools), and the purpose of the images (professional versus hobbyist): An underwater housing unit for a DSLR or mirrorless camera will produce the highest quality images, but you can certainly head underwater with less pricey makes, such as GoPro, Olympus TG-5, and SeaLife. Knowing what you need from your underwater camera will make the selection easier.
The second most important item is your dive mask, which allows you to see clearly underwater. Goggles will also work, but I prefer a dive mask, without which I am unable to see through the water, thus making it impossible to intentionally compose images (both items can be customized for your eyeglass prescription). Investing in anti-fog sprays like Quick Spit for your mask will help keep your underwater views as clear as possible. Underwater, I use an SPL Water Housing, a Nikon D700 or the mirrorless Nikon Z6, and a wide-angle lens. When it’s all assembled, my gear is buoyant enough to pull me quickly back to the surface. To offset this, I wear a 12-pound weight belt. The additional weight gives me the neutral buoyancy to remain submerged until I decide to resurface.
Under the surface
Once I’ve fully prepared myself and my gear, I slip on my mask and quickly survey the scene sans camera. As I swim beneath the surface, I note the quality and direction of the available light. The light I’m most drawn to is the late afternoon golden variety. The angle of the sinking sun’s light sends dramatic long rays streaking through the water, clearly visible to the naked eye. I gravitate toward dappled light underwater, the exact opposite of my typical dry-land approach. The “hot spots” of light underwater serve as brilliant spotlights for your subjects.
After my reconnaissance, I direct my models to where I want them to swim. My underwater sessions are very much un-posed, but it is critical to use the best light under the surface. I ask them to give me 3 seconds to get myself situated underwater before they move. This tiny head start is all I need to be ready when the action begins. Then I work quickly and shoot with abandon. Given the nature of these sessions, subjects truly behave like themselves. Take advantage of that. Change your own angle in the water. Go down to the very bottom of the pool and shoot up. Shoot down from the very top. Through experimentation, you’ll develop your personal underwater eye. It’s important to note that I always have another adult present for water safety. This allows me to focus solely on the creation of the images.
Water is a dense medium to shoot in — roughly 800 times more dense than air! When light waves pass through water, the red and yellow waves are quickly absorbed. The shorter, faster blue waves that remain are what make water look blue. The farther your subjects are from you and/or the surface, the more blue they’ll appear. There are two ways to compensate for this. First, use a wide-angle lens to allow you to get in close to your subject, thus minimizing the horizontal loss of the red and orange light waves. Second, have your subject stay close to the water’s surface to minimize the vertical loss of the warm light waves. If neither of these is feasible, an off-camera flash and/or post-processing will be necessary to restore the warmth in the capture.
Using off-camera light underwater
The amount of available light underwater depends not only on the available sunlight, but also on the clarity and depth of the water. Sometimes these variables are unfavorable for underwater shooting, which is why it’s important to use off-camera lighting when necessary.
I keep the Profoto B10 in my bag at all times in case I need to add or shape the light. By placing the B10 in a waterproof bag (a DiCApac bag works well), I can take this continuous light source below the surface to illuminate my subject in ways that would be otherwise impossible. The Profoto B10 has been a game-changer in my work; its size and portability give me the flexibility to create beautiful light underwater.
4 Tips for shooting underwater
1. Water drops collect on a dome (the curved port covering the lens) when it resurfaces, which causes areas of the image to look blurry. Rubbing a special wax over the dome will minimize the droplets (make sure the product you use is safe on acrylic). In a pinch, licking the dome can help.
2. When shooting subjects who are half above the water and half below, close down your aperture to f/16 to get proper focus on both halves.
3. In public pools, the clarity of the water is usually compromised by sunscreen. If possible, start early in the day before the majority of swimmers arrive.
4. Light is just as important underwater as above, so for stunning rather than mediocre images, be sure to find and shoot in the most beautiful light available beneath the water’s surface.
After your underwater session, properly clean your gear to ensure its longevity, especially if you’ve been in salt water, which can corrode the housing’s rubber seal. Apply a thin layer of silicone gel to the rubber ring to help maintain a perfect seal for years to come. Finally, do not be discouraged when you view your first captures! You were shooting through a dense medium that decreased the clarity and contrast in the images. It’s vital to add those back in post-processing; a simple boost will make a world of difference.
Lighting: Profoto B10