The Basics of Underwater Photography
September 9, 2014
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Nowhere else on earth is there a natural environment so electrically colorful as a healthy coral reef surrounded by tropical fish. While underwater photography combines the wonders of swimming around these places with the artistry and joy of taking beautiful pictures, it also presents plenty of challenges.
You can shoot underwater with a simple snorkel, but this can be extremely limiting. If you're serious about underwater photography, take a beginner's scuba diving course through a Professional Association of Diving Instructors-certified program. It is important to take your time getting comfortable diving; scuba diving is complicated and can be dangerous if you don't follow proper procedures. For a novice diver, messing around with a camera adds distractions that can lead to mistakes.
Once you are comfortable diving and have your Open Water certification, take a digital underwater photography course. However, it is also possible to teach yourself underwater photography with some general tips and a bit of trial and error. The following are some important technical aspects to consider:
Water distorts light and reduces sharpness and contrast. These effects are amplified by impurities such as silt or plankton in the water. The more water between you and your subject, the more distortion. For this reason, shooting close to your subjects is very important for clarity. A wide-angle or even a fish-eye lens allows you to shoot large objects up close. Try to avoid using your zoom underwater if you don't have to.
Combating the Blue
The ambient light underwater usually has a blue tint because water absorbs red light and the blue sky. To avoid excessively blue photos and to bring out the colors of the coral reef or tropical fish, you need to use either a strong flash or adjust the white balance on your camera.
Flash Photography Encouraged
When shooting up close — within three to four feet — using a flash is the best option. This adds white light, which brings out all the vibrant colors.
However, using a flash underwater can create spots and speckles in the photo known as backscatter. Backscatter is caused by impurities in the water reflecting the flash back directly. The closer you are to the subject, the less backscatter you will get. Underwater camera housings should include a flash diffuser to make the light softer and reduce backscatter. This may be built into the housing or come as a separate attachment.
The best way to reduce backscatter is to use a separate external flash or strobe. This way, the particles that reflect light from the flash are mostly outside the frame of the photo. Using a strobe requires a camera with manual control of the aperture. Also, be sure to get an adjustable-strength strobe. With a high-quality strobe setup, you can bring out vivid color in your shots without ugly splotches.
Adjusting the White Balance
If you're shooting from more than a few feet away, backscatter will usually outweigh the benefit of using a flash, even with an external strobe. In this case, you can compensate by adjusting the white balance. Many cameras have an underwater setting that will adjust the white balance for you, but you should only use the underwater setting without the flash. Once you have some experience, try adjusting the white balance manually. The Underwater Photography Guide offers some good tips on manually setting the white balance, along with other settings tips.
Underwater photography takes years to master, but with these basics, you can quickly start to get great results.
Photo credit: Flickr