Underwater Photography

The Best Techniques to Shoot Fast-Moving Subjects Underwater

Everyone wants to return home from their diving holiday with spectacular underwater images to send around or share on social media. Many dive schools and liveaboard operators offer an in-house photography service, which is an excellent option if you want a broad range of guaranteed great quality shots.

But it’s often way more satisfying to take your own amazing underwater images.

There’s no sugar-coating the fact that underwater photography can be challenging. It’s a dynamic and constantly changing environment, and marine life is forever moving.

I’ve been an underwater photographer for 15 years. I’ve logged over 3,000 dives, most of those with one of my trusty cameras in hand. Here are my top tips to help you capture great underwater shots of fast-moving subjects.

Rule 1: You and your camera’s settings should always be ready. This Cownose eagle ray came swimming towards me during a night dive.

White Balance

Ok, so this isn’t directly related to how fast underwater subjects are moving. But it will significantly impact the quality of your photos, so it’s worth a quick mention before we get started.

Most divers already know that colors look different underwater because water absorbs wavelengths of light at different rates. Longer wavelengths are absorbed before shorter ones, so red, orange, and yellow are the first colors to disappear – i.e., in the same order they appear in the color spectrum.

The great thing about diving with artificial lights (flash or torch) is that you won’t need to make adjustments underwater as everything lit up will keep its original color, regardless of depth.
This gives you the flexibility to concentrate on getting the best composition, as you can make adjustments for white balance in post-processing as long as you shoot in RAW.

Top tip: If your camera doesn’t let you shoot raw, be sure to adjust the white balance before entering the water according to your strobe light temperature.

Rule 2: Shutter speed is paramount to avoid blurring – Starry red grouper in the middle of fast moving glassfish.

Shutter Speed

To capture sharp images without any blurring, shutter speed is paramount.

Be sure to set your camera to manual mode before you descend. Most photographers dive with either strobes or torches. Personally, I prefer strobes. But either way, the key is to keep them close enough so the light reaches your subject.

With strobes, you will be limited to the max sync speed of your camera, which is typically 1/250 s or 1/320.

However, this is more than enough to capture underwater life to the desired sharpness. If you dive with torches, you are not limited by sync speeds, so as long as they are powerful enough, you can shoot as fast as you want.

Keep in mind that the shutter speed will help you control the exposure of the background as well.

Top tip: The sharpness of your photos depends on your lights reaching the subject, so get as close as possible! And when you think you are close enough…get even closer!

Continuous Shooting Mode

When objects are moving quickly, you don’t have much time to react.

Setting your camera to continuous shooting mode helps increase the chance of getting a perfect shot.

All DSLRs take photos at a minimum of 3 FPS (frames per second), which is enough to catch the peak of action. Your strobes will then be the limiting factor.

Adjusting the ISO to up to 800 can also help, as you will need less power from your strobes and reducing their light output will speed up recycling time.

Top tip: Make sure your memory card has a fast read and write speed, or it could jam and you miss the shot. I use a 400mb/s, but a 280mb/s is good enough.

Rule 3: Raise your ISO and lower your strobe powers to speed up your strobes’ recycling time: swimming Spanish dancer on a night dive.

Focus Methods

The best focus method will depend on what you are shooting.

For wide-angle, I prefer the 3D continuous focus. But the back button can often work equally well if you are shooting macro, as it negates the need to refocus every time you push the trigger, which speeds up the process.

The more light the camera has to work with, the better the focus will be.

In addition to your torches and strobes, using a focus light helps tremendously for macro photography.  However, even underwater, the sun is your ultimate source of ambient light and you should always take into account its position in your photo composition.

So, you will need to adjust your camera’s settings and strobe power according to your relative position to the sun.

Top tip: Always review your images in-water to ensure the focus is sharp before leaving a great subject.

Rule 4: For small moving subjects, use your back button focus method to separate focusing from triggering. Hairy shrimps are so tiny that they move with the slightest water movement making them impossible to capture if the camera is continuously trying to refocus.

Lens Choice

DSLR cameras usually come with a 18-55mm lens, so if you want to get serious about underwater photography, you’ll need to invest in new lenses specific to either wide angle or macro.

These will have various specs for shooting speed, focal length, field of view, and maximum magnification. For your camera, you will have the choice between a few options in each category and will need to weigh up the benefits of each for the type of diving you’ll be doing and the photos you want to capture.

Every lens also requires a different port for your housing. When you’re shooting fast-moving subjects, you need to make up your mind before entering the water, as there will be no time to screw a wet lens on in the peak of the action.

I prefer using the 60mm macro lens for fast-moving subjects as it is easier to keep track of movement.

If your subject is skittish and will not let you get too close, a 105mm macro is a better option to fill up the frame from a little further, but if your water has a lot of particles, you will lose out in image quality.

My go-to wide-angle lens is the 10-17mm fisheye because it allows me to adjust the focal length quickly.

Top tip: Invest in good quality lenses! Lenses are even more important than the camera to achieve good results and if you take good care of them, they will also last you much longer.

Rule 5: Use continuous shooting mode to get the right image. While a Frogfish can’t decently be called fast moving, you better use continuous shooting if you ever want to capture one yawning.

The Human Element

Now that we’ve covered the technical aspects, let’s move on to mindset and anticipation techniques.

This plays just as big a role in underwater photography as your camera gear, and is what distinguishes a good photographer from a great one.

Although it’s possible to get lucky at times, you’re never going to get the best photos unless you give some thought to what kind of shots you want and the best ways to get them.

Observe

Try to identify movement patterns in the fish you are trying to shoot.

For example, clownfish dart quickly in and out of their anemones to check for predators and any passing divers. Yellow Shrimp Gobies are another example of creatures that hide in their burrows and dart out quickly to flash their fins in pretty much the same spot every time.

Stand still and observe your fast-moving subject for a couple of minutes before you start shooting. You will quickly be able to predict where the clownfish will poke out of the anemone next, or where the goby will come into your frame to flash its fins.

Now it is time to position yourself and think about composition with the best angle and backdrop for the perfect shot.

Top tip: Wait, wait, and wait some more. Patience is key! Use this observation period to prep your camera and strobes before you make your approach. Some subjects won’t give you a second chance.

Rule 6: Observe before you shoot. Once you’ve spotted a yellow shrimp goby flashing its fins, position yourself in the same spot and wait for it to come back into your frame.

Anticipate

Some fish are faster than you, plain and simple.

It can be difficult to keep up with fast-moving pelagics like sailfish, manta rays, eagle rays, or even whale sharks.

Especially with wide angle, it’s important not to get caught up in the moment and avoid chasing. A good photographer is always thinking, “what will happen next?”

Essentially, you need to calculate in what direction your subjects are swimming, and whether they are likely to circle around. Once you anticipate where they are heading, you’ll be able to intercept and position yourself for the best possible angle.

Top tip: Stop, think, then shoot. Photos of a fish running away from you are usually a lot less interesting.

Rule 7: Anticipate your subject’s next move. There is no other way to photograph a whale shark facing the camera.

Approach carefully

Let’s imagine you see a turtle grazing on corals in the distance, or a stingray foraging on the sand.

If you swim as fast as you can towards it, chances are it will fly away. It’s worth taking a little time to approach along the reef in a non threatening manner, rather than shooting their escape. No one will be lining up to see your pics of a turtle’s butt!

When deciding where to position yourself, also keep the sun’s position into account before approaching; if you want the sun to light the reef around your turtle, the sun needs to be behind you. If you want the sun to be right behind the turtle for this halo effect, you will need to come from the opposite direction. It might be worth swimming around her, from a reasonable distance, before getting into the right position.

Top tip: Boost your flash power if you take a photo against the light. Or get closer to your subject.

Rule 8: Keep the sun in mind for your composition. In order to get this head-on shot, in the halo of the sun, you need to anticipate both its position and yours! 

Fast moving photographer

Spoiler alert: when taking fast moving subjects, it’s not always the marine life that moves.

Conditions such as currents, waves and surge can add to the challenge, and sometimes it is the photographer that is fast moving. The same principle applies to getting sharp photos, as movement is relative to the camera.

Taking photos on a drift dive:

There are many interesting drift dives to do in famous passes and manta points not to be missed by avid photographers.

May it be a group of sharks hunting at the bottom, or a manta feeding in the current, if you are flying with the water you may only have one chance for the right photo – so having your camera ready is essential.

Everyone knows that buoyancy is paramount to protecting the reef while taking photos underwater, but, in a strong drift, perfect buoyancy control is even more important as you need to focus on your images while drifting, not on your buoyancy.

Taking photos in surge:

Surge also brings its challenge as the photographer is tossed back and forth while the subject is not moving.

In a mild surge, you may not be moving much, but small critters feeding on hydroids will be following the water movements.

Surge is a very regular movement though, so observation and anticipation can solve most of the issues to get the desired shot.

Top tip: Get arm floats, buoyancy arms, and even port float collars to fine tune your camera’s buoyancy.

Rule 9: In current (more than ever), the more neutral your camera buoyancy can be, the better.

Conclusions

One of the biggest learning curves in underwater photography is knowing when to spend more time on a subject and when to move on to the next one.

When marine life moves quickly, we have a very limited time to get the best shots possible. Sometimes, and this can be very difficult for photographers, it is best to just enjoy the moment rather than create a bad photo.

There’s no point shooting if the subject is not positioned in the angle you want, or the background isn’t suitable.

But that will come with practice, which means it’s time to book some more dives and work on perfecting your skills!

In summary, here are my top 9 rules for photographing moving subjects underwater. Hope you enjoyed it!

Rule 1: You and your camera’s settings should always be ready.

Rule 2: Shutter speed is paramount to avoid blurring. 

Rule 3: Raise your ISO and lower your strobe powers to speed up your strobes’ recycling time.

Rule 4: For small moving subjects, use your back button focus method to separate focusing from triggering.

Rule 5: Use continuous shooting mode to have the speed required for fast-moving subjects.

Rule 6: Observe before you shoot. Patience is key! 

Rule 7: Anticipate your subject’s next move. 

Rule 8: Keep the sun in mind for your composition.

Rule 9: In current (more than ever), the more neutral your camera buoyancy can be, the better.

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