Simple Tips for Better Underwater Photos

A dive pro offers good tips on watery photography. A special review from our August 2010 issue

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Randy Lincks, Courtesy Of The Moorings

Don't Exceed the Depth Rating
When choosing a camera, one of your first decisions will be whether or not to go for a housed model or to buy one with integral waterproofing. Both have their advantages. Simple, rugged waterproof systems such as the SW series from Olympus may be rated for depths of 20 feet or more, but I've had several fail when I wasn't paying attention and went just a little bit too deep. If you're an accomplished free diver or if you plan to use scuba, a compact housed camera such as the SeaLife DC 1200 or one from Sea & Sea might be a better option. Or, if you'd like the best of both, you can often find compact, cost-effective housings for the waterproof models. Use it unhoused when knocking about on the beach or in the shallows, then place it in the housing for deeper dives to gain an extra degree of insurance: Even if the housing leaks, the camera won't be ruined.

Use the Underwater Mode
A number of manufacturers have created proprietary software programs that compensate for shifting underwater light levels and color balances. By putting one of these new-school cameras into the dedicated "underwater mode," you can greatly enhance the quality of your underwater photos without having to fiddle with the variable mechanics of white balance, ISO, aperture adjustment, or any of those other complex concepts. The camera does the calculations, leaving you free to concentrate on getting the shot.

Close the Distance
Beneath the waves, distance is the enemy of good imagery. It's like shooting in a heavy fog: Objects more than a few feet away from the camera become indistinct and lose their color. The first rule of underwater photography, then, is Get close. And forget using the zoom to close the distance. Zooming in results in fuzzy photos. Instead, swim as close as possible before pushing the shutter. This is particularly important as you get into the higher-end cameras, because to maintain image quality, manufacturers often incorporate a wider-angle lens, like those found on the average above-water camera.

Use the Sun, Not the Flash
Small built-in flashes can degrade the image via backscatter, the illuminating of in-water particles. In shallower waters with ample sunlight, turn the strobe off. When the sun is your primary light source, you need to note its relative direction. If you shoot into the sun, the subject will be backlit. Faces and details will be in shadow or even silhouetted, and there's a good chance that the bright sunlight behind will fool the camera's light meter into taking a bad exposure.

Placing the sun behind you can cause your shadow to fall into the photo; remember, you're shooting close-up. The best thing to do is to put the sun over your shoulder. Using sidelight will keep your shadow out of the frame, and can also add detail and a sense of dimensionality to the subject.

Check the Distance
Most of us aren't good at judging distances underwater, and objects also have a way of appearing closer than they actually are when viewed through a dive mask. So as a rule of thumb, your best shots will be the ones in which the subject is within touching distance. A long shot would be one in which you could reach the subject with an outstretched fin. Most things beyond that distance won't show up clearly.

Level Out
Position the camera at the same depth as the subject. This provides the most natural perspective and helps the camera's light meter get the most accurate reading. If you shoot upward on a subject, the camera tries to expose for the bright water above, leaving the subject dark or underexposed. Shooting downward can also create problems: A white-sand bottom, for instance, will reflect too much light, while a patch of reef could make things too dark.

Pierce Hoover, the founder of Sport Diver, is a seasoned diver and photojournalist.