As divers we are constantly amazed by the underwater world. We see breathtaking photos shared on social media, magazines and other publications. We see how passionate other photographers are when traveling to the edge of the world and back for a single photo.
And we want in!
So we start to do our research and become overwhelmed with all the options, the price tag (Why does the housing cost 3 times more than my camera???) and we may become discouraged before we even start.
Here are some of my tips to help you get started on the right foot:
1. KISS Principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid!
Many of the amazing underwater photos you’ve seen, can be taken with a simple compact camera, housing and one light. Seriously.
You can take beautiful, vivid photos with just those 3 things. Compact cameras today are very high quality, so they produce great image quality both above and under the water. Quite often people think they need a big fancy camera, 2 lights, lenses and more accessories, but when starting out it’s actually easier and better to start SIMPLE. Overwhelming yourself with gear right from the beginning is a recipe for failure, or at least a steep and painful learning curve.
If you’re that type of person that wants to purchase once and get it over with, that’s fine. But when going on your first dives with the camera, don’t take everything at once! Keep it simple and take just your camera, housing and one light. Practice with that until you get the hang of it, then add more stuff.
2. Having a GoPro does NOT make you an underwater photographer!
Ouch. I know this one is a bit harsh. Sorry folks.
While a GoPro is a great all-around imaging tool, and can probably capture some amazing scenes while being compact and travel friendly, it lacks a lot of features that underwater photographers need. In other words, it’s not a “real camera”.
The main feature it lacks is the ability to trigger a flash (AKA strobe). Since it cannot trigger a flash, it will always be difficult to get true, bright, vivid colors in your underwater photos.
Second, your lens is fixed to a fisheye / wide angle field of view. You cannot shoot true macro, you cannot zoom in for a nice fish portrait with blurry background and you really can’t control much other than simply pressing the shutter button.
That being said – IT DEFINITELY CAN MAKE YOU AN UNDERWATER VIDEOGRAPHER!
Video is very different from photography in many ways. You don’t need to trigger strobes, editing, capturing the right moment, holding the camera steady and composing is what it’s all about and you can produce some really impressive videos with just your GoPro.
So I mean no disrespect for GoPro shooters, it’s actually an amazing camera, but not for underwater photos. For videos? Absolutely!
3. A Strobe Is The Most Important Accessory
Once and for all – the best thing you can get for your underwater photos is a strobe. Or underwater flash.
When we go underwater, colors are lost. They are gone. The lightwaves don’t reach and they get absorbed in the water, never to be seen again. This means you cannot bring them back with White Balance, Filters or any other tricks.
The only way to bring back the natural colors underwater is by introducing new, artificial light! In the form of a strobe or video light. Since video lights are still far weaker than strobes and cannot freeze motion, strobes are really the only way to go!
Triggering a strobe is easy – usually you use the camera’s built in flash (AKA pop-up flash) to send the signal via a fiber optic cable to the input of the strobe. Any camera that has a flash can trigger a strobe.
Leaving budget for a strobe is more important, in my opinion, than getting a better camera, assuming your budget is limited (and it always is…). If you are really just a beginner, then having TTL (auto flash) is useful, but you might quickly “grow out” of TTL so it does make sense to have a strobe that has manual output as well. Not crucial though.
Some might say that they prefer using a constant light (AKA video light). That’s fine, but remember that a strobe is 5-10 times stronger than your average video light, and strobes help you freeze motion. So for photos, strobes are always much more useful and most importantly – It is easier to get good photos with a strobe than with a video light!
So if easy and fun is what you’re looking for – get a strobe!
4. The One Skill That Improves Your Photography More Than Anything is… Buoyancy!
Yep. It’s not photography knowledge. It’s not your camera or your strobe. It’s not where you dive. It’s all about buoyancy!
When you took your OW course your buoyancy was crap. It might have improved a little by the end of the course. After that you went diving more and more and your buoyancy improved. Eventually you got to a level where you thought you had pretty good buoyancy and was even proud of it.
Then you try diving with a camera…
Taking photos underwater requires buoyancy at an entirely different level. Your goal is to reach the point where you can shoot a macro photo of a tiny blenny, without touching the reef, while swimming against the current. And get the eyes in focus!
Your goal is to reach the point where you can shoot a macro photo of a tiny blenny, without touching the reef, while swimming against the current. And get the eyes in focus!
Until you reach that level, I recommend you actively work on your buoyancy skills, by taking lessons, starting each dive with 5 minutes of buoyancy exercises, constantly trimming your weights as needed and being mindful about how you use your fins, your lungs and your entire body while diving.
Great buoyancy skills will allow you to get closer to subjects which is the key to great underwater photos. It will allow you to position yourself in the right place for that eye level shot, while making sure you’re not harming the reef or kicking up sand. It will make your shots sharper, ensure you get proper focus, allow you to free your mind for photo taking considerations and most importantly – make your dive a whole lot more fun!
I’m not saying you should hold off buying a camera until you have 1000 dives under your weight belt. I am saying that when you get a camera, regardless of your current buoyancy skills, be in a constant mode of improving. Always strive to be better with your buoyancy, more stable, more in control, ask for tips from your instructors, apply those tips and practice during the dives.
5. Taking a Course Dramatically Improves Your Skills
Going on even just 2-3 private dives with a good uw photo instructor, or taking a photo workshop, is equivalent to countless hours of learning yourself and dozens of “regular” dives trying to figure it out on your own.
Underwater photography is hard! Sure you can snap some photos for fun or get a lucky shot once in a while without knowing squat, but doing it right isn’t easy. Having someone show you the basics and put you on the right track is insanely helpful.
The thing is that most “regular” diving, is a group of divers jumping in the water, rushing across a dive site while actively swimming above the reef or around a wreck, pausing only for a couple of seconds at best. Also, they would want to see ALL the sites so you almost never return to the same dive sites.
“Photography” diving on the other hand, could be spending one whole hour in one spot (current allowing) and trying to get the best shot out of a single subject, or at least staying with a subject for a good 10 minutes until you’re happy with how it came out. It often means returning to the same dive site twice or more, so that you already know what to expect, which angle is best, how to position your strobe and you can get the perfect shot much faster.
This method exponentially improves your photography skills as opposed to regular group dives.
Since you already plan to invest quite a bit of money in your camera gear, and the trips you plan to go on to use this gear will be expensive, you might as well invest a few hundred dollars in a proper online course, or plan your next dive trip as an underwater photo workshop.
I hope this article will help you make the transition to become an underwater photographer easier and quicker.
Here at Mozaik we love introducing divers into the exciting world of underwater photography and we have dozens of years of experience serving thousands of divers around the world and helping them capture the beauty of the underwater world.
So if you have any questions, please reach out to us and ask! We’re here for you.