World renowned underwater photographer David Doubilet knew what he wanted to do from the age of 10. When the young Doubilet told legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau that he planned to become an underwater photographer, Cousteau replied, “Why not!”
Two years later, at the age of 12, Doubilet started taking underwater photographs, and sought to learn from the best photographers in the industry. In the 1960s there were far more limitations in both diving and camera technology, and there was certainly no snapping away with a DSLR until you nailed the shot.
The industry has changed a lot since then, and a new generation of underwater photographers have grown up in Doubilet’s shadow, adapting old techniques to new technology. We’ve spoken to some of the best underwater photographers working today to help you figure out the best way to shoot beneath the surface.
1. Safety first
The first rule of underwater photography is safety – you’re dealing with an entirely different set of issues as soon as you step off dry land and you need to be aware of how to keep yourself and the wildlife around you safe.
Richard Carey is a certified PADI diving instructor and an award-winning underwater photographer. He says that buoyancy control is key, and that diving skills are more important to learn than photography skills, at least in the beginning. “You will need to get close to your subjects without touching and harming marine life such as corals, so learning how to hover is a good start.”
2. Start with simple gear
All of the photographers we interviewed agreed that you don’t need the most expensive gear to start with. A simple compact camera with manual settings in waterproof housing will be enough for your first foray into underwater photography. If you already have a camera, using something you’re familiar with can make all the difference. Photographer Matt Draper says that just because professionals are using gear that costs more than US$10,000, it doesn’t mean you have to.
3. Pack the right lens
Lens wise, it’s important to know what you want to shoot. You’ll need a wide angle lens for larger subjects and a macro lens for the small stuff as distortion in the water means that the closer you are to your subject, the clearer the shot. Waterproof housing means you’ll be unable to switch out lenses, so know you’re photographing and what shot you want before you get in the water.
4. Know your camera’s settings
Getting settings that work for you underwater is a personal preference. Some photographers prefer to set their aperture first, and others shutter speed. One thing to consider is not only how fast your subject will be moving, but how much you will be moving in the water as well. Aperture priority mode is not your friend if you’re shooting a fast-moving subject.
In terms of colour settings, many underwater photographers will use Auto White Balance settings and correct their RAW files later. This will work in certain circumstances, but Helen Brierley cautioned photographers: “When shooting in ambient light this may not be the best choice.”
5. See the light
Water acts as a massive filter that eats up the entire spectrum of reds. The deeper you go, the more blue your shots will be. To maintain the correct colour tones of your subject, you’ll either need to be close to the surface or use external lighting.
Many underwater photographers lean heavily on strobe or flash lighting, which helps to bring the colour back into the photograph. “Strobes will only light the foreground so in order to achieve the black background seen in so many great macro shots, ambient light needs to be excluded by using a small aperture and fast shutter speed,” Helen Brierley says.
Also remember the further you are away from the subject, the more particles the strobe will pick up increasing the haze of your shot.
6. Know your dive zone
How you dive is up to you. In some places you’ll be able to simply walk into the water from the beach, but other locations will require you to dive from a boat. Check in with local underwater photographers and divers if you’re in a new location to find out about the safest places to dive. Remember, reading about a location and diving there are two different things – talking to someone with experience is always best.
7. Time it right
When budgeting time, not only will you need to consider your oxygen levels and dive capabilities but that every element of photography takes longer. Framing, adjusting your settings and dealing with wildlife will always eat up more time than you’d anticipate. Benjamin Von Wong advises to budget at least three times longer than you usually would to get things done. “Normally takes you 30 minutes to nail a shot? Don’t count on it when playing underwater,” he added.
8. Get to know your subject
If you’re going to be photographing animals in any setting you need to do your homework. Know what kind of creatures are lurking beneath the surface, how they behave, and how much of a risk they pose to your safety. Each animal will behave differently, some are timid and will shy away from you, others you’ll be able to get close to without difficulty.
Knowing the difference between a manta ray and an eagle ray will will not only help you get better shots, but it will also keep both parties safe. Matt Draper warns to never sneak up on an animal and added: “If I feel unsafe I always take myself out of the water.” We recommend you do the same.
9. Stay comfortable
Don’t forget yourself. As important as your shoot may be, being comfortable will make your job much easier. Staying warm in the water can be a challenge, for example, and shooting while your teeth chatter isn’t fun. Your best bet for staying comfortable is to invest in an entire scuba kit. If that’s out of your budget, you can rent a wetsuit to stay warm, as well as some fins (or flippers) to increase your mobility, making it easier to grab the shot you need.
10. Be unique
Depending on the type of creature, there will already be thousands of images of them. Matt Draper recommends trying to capture a feature of the animal that hasn’t been seen before. To do this you’ll need to research the animal and as Pier Mane says: “At the end the day creating really outstanding images is really difficult because they need to be innovative. All subjects have been photographed so finding a unique perspective is key.”
Remember that getting the shot isn’t enough, David Doubilet adds that you also need to be tough on the editing. “I look back in the archives and say “What the hell – Why did I keep that frame?”. Be ruthless so you can find the best shots in 10 years with ease.
Copyright is also a big issue, Doubilet explained: “stay on top of paperwork – copyright – cross the t’s, dot the i’s.” You don’t want it getting out of hand. It’s also worth making sure your metadata is complete and you have a way to search and store photos.
Take these tips into account, do your own research and just keep swimming.
To see more from the photographers mentioned, click the links below
David Doubilet is a world renowned underwater photographer. He is has an Honorary Fellowship of The Royal Photographic Society and a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. You can see more of his work on Instagram, Facebook or his website.
Pier Mane, a South African photographer, travels the world capturing unique perspectives of underwater activity. To see more photos click here.
Cover photo David Doubilet. All images used with permission