The answer? Harder than you think.
About 2 years ago I started learning to Scuba Dive at my local dive centre at Capernwray. This year for the first time I was lucky enough to have a weeklong diving holiday in the Red Sea on board the good ship Snap Dragon. Having just purchased an underwater housing for my Canon G9 camera, this was the perfect opportunity to take it for a test drive.
I already knew some of the basics with on land digital photography and knew my way around my camera, so I thought the transition would be easy (not the case!). I have by no means mastered the art yet, but I did manage to get some good results in the time I had. This is a summary of what worked and what didn’t for anyone else interested in taking the plunge.
Introduction and Equipment
The first thing about digital underwater photography which can be a little daunting is the choice of equipment available. Every diver you meet has a different setup, from their choice of camera to underwater housings, strobes, filters, focus lights, gels and lenses. It is very easy to spend A LOT of money on this (and still take terrible pictures). As a beginner I decided to keep it as simple and as cheap as possible and so used my existing camera and a water proof case. My Setup was as follows:
The main thing to check before buying a camera is to ensure that there is an underwater housing available for it. The other consideration is to make sure the camera has the ability to be manually white balanced in order to put some colour in your pictures.
Setting up the Camera
My initial dive was all done with the camera set in full Automatic Mode. This produced terrible results as manual white balance is not an option in this mode. I changed the camera into programme mode for all dives thereafter. Programme is essentially a semi automatic mode, somewhere between full automatic and the manual mode. Programme allows you to set the ISO, Exposure levels and change the shot options in the cameras function menu (ND Filters, Colour levels, RAW/JPG selection etc…) whilst keeping the focus, shutter speeds and apertures in automatic mode. Most importantly it allows you to white balance the camera manually and this function can be bound to a ‘quick button’ on the camera making it easy to do at depth. The importance of white balancing is to compensate for the reduced light underwater which results in a loss of colour. Although not eradicating this problem, white balancing does reduce its effect and is the best method for those without strobes and filters attached to their cameras.
From the people I spoke to, it seems like full manual mode is the ultimate goal for getting really high quality pictures but for a beginner there is an awful lot to think about and by the time you have it right you may well be out of air!
All cameras are different but the setting I had luck with were as follows:
• Set the camera in Programme mode.
• Set the camera to shoot in RAW. If this is not an option shoot in the highest resolution possible.
• Test your housing (without the camera in it) to make sure it is water tight.
• Bind the manual white balance function to a key for quick white balancing when under water. I have no experience with strobes and filters but if you are using these things then white balance should be set to auto (or apparently ‘cloudy’ works well).
Most people use cameras to photograph friends, sights and attractions, all of which are usually quite well behaved! Fish however are not quite as photogenic and seem to go out of their way to ensure you never get a decent shot!
I found that patience was the key. Pick a subject and stay with it (within reason)! Try and anticipate where the subject will move and set your shot up accordingly. If the subject is not playing ball then move onto something else. I started trying to take shots of static elements (hard/soft corals, fans etc..) to get a feel for how the camera focuses and processes photos underwater. This gives you a good chance to tweak your settings in a relatively controlled environment.
Rules which helped me get good results are:
• Get as close to your subject as possible. Make the approach as stealthy as possible to avoid ending up with a memory card full of fish backsides.
• Get comfortable with your buoyancy, maintaining neutral buoyancy is crucial in order to hold for a shot.
• Do a manual white balance every 3 metres (ascent or descent).
• Try and angle the camera upwards to get the maximum amount of light into your shots.
• Shoot in RAW (not jpg) to give you more options in post production.
• Experiment with different settings.
Post production is the process of taking a good photo and making it better; not trying to make every photo you took passable. I took around 600 photos in one weeks diving and cut this down to 12 which I have kept. Good quality post production can be time consuming and trying to adjust a poor photo can often be fruitless, so don’t waste your time.
Although I use Photoshop nearly every day in work, for simple photo retouching, I have been introduced to Adobe Lightroom which is a great tool for making corrections to your images and making it easy to publish your finished images to the web or into a slideshow. I processed all the images on this page using Adobe Lightroom V2, although V3 has since been released.
The Lightroom interface is very easy to use which makes it very ‘playable’ as an application. Move the sliders, work out what does what and have a bit of fun with it! You’ll soon find yourself making positive improvements to your photos. The Reset button allows you to quickly switch back to the original when you ‘go too far’ and the split screen mode allows you to compare the edited photo to the original.
A big Thanks to Duncan and Pete from Red Sea Snapper for an excellent trip. Karim, for being a great dive guide and Adam Hanlon for organising the trip.