Underwater Photography

What to Photograph if There’s Nothing to Shoot

We’ve all had those trips where we cruise around looking for that cool thing to photograph and we find nothing.  After a few dives like that, you start getting depressed and wonder what’s going on when everybody else seems to find something.  The doubts start up and you wonder what you are doing wrong. I think every photographer, whether an underwater or land shooter, goes thru this process.

I’ve had my share of “what should I shoot when I can’t find something” and I have to say, it has actually made me become a better photographer.  I no longer just look for that “big thing” to take a shot of and I’ve started looking for subjects that I would’ve normally not have given a second glance and I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  I’ve even started trying out new techniques to those subjects to add variety to my shots.

on where and how to find subjects to photograph that may not be obvious:

So where do you find things to shoot that may not be as obvious? That’s the beauty of this little assignment, everywhere!


1. Sand

Sandy areas are a breeding ground for all sorts of subjects. My buddy JR Sosky and I spent almost an entire year looking in the sand for critters to photograph and oh boy, there was so much to see!

Octopus, nudibranchs, goby, fish and sometimes the occasional pyrosome floated by so don’t disregard the sand bottoms that we frequently run across and move away from immediately in search of that great shot. 

2. Rocky bottoms and kelp

I’m a predominantly California diver so my critter hunting involves me poking around rock reefs and the kelp where things could be hidden inside the twisty stalks. 

A few years ago I started really paying attention to kelp, the root systems, the stalks, the leaves and even where it attaches to the sea bottom and was pleasantly surprised how colorful some of the holdfasts are, bright purples and pinks! Add to that, sometimes in the surge the bottom portion just above the holdfast, the “skirt” of the stalk, will almost do a hula dance gently swishing back and forth which is fun to figure out how to best showcase that, slow shutter speed or fast to capture the motion.


3. Why not a snail

My latest subject where if all else fails and I can’t find something to photograph is a snail. It’s surprising how detailed and actually cute snails are, from the little ones in between the rocks and cruising the sand to the ones hanging out in the kelp and can be kiwi sized with brilliant mantles.

They have little eyes they’ll show you when they take out their feelers and many times the swirls on their shells are very fancy and colorful. Try finding a snail and just watch what it’s doing and you’ll be surprised how its behavior is photo worthy.

4. Slow your roll

Slow down, take some time and pick a spot on the reef and you may be surprised the different looking organisms that are not an initial WOW at first glance but just have something like neat symmetry or it looks fluffy when it shouldn’t.

These organisms are great because they tend to not move at all which gives you some time to take a few shots from different angles or even try some new settings and see if something catches your eye.  

5. Bring along a light

My buddy, JR, had the best advice for critter hunting and that was always you should always carry a light. I previously never did and I’ve been amazed how my level of critter hunting has increased by carrying a bright light. 

So many of the critters that are missed are normally very camouflaged and their color blends perfectly with their surroundings so that you would normally miss them but you flash a light beam on the area and bam, that little crevice kelp fish that looked brown suddenly turns brilliant red and you can follow it while it slithers around thru the shrubs.   Even little colorful nudibranchs dull as you get deeper and the light just brings back their brilliance popping reds, pinks and oranges.

Using new techniques to add to a not-so-wow subject

Finding things to photograph can also entail combining those not-so-often shot-subjects with changing your technique. 

Take that subject you see all the time and try your hand at panning and spinning to see what you can get. You can also pack your props to change your shots like glittery slates to work on your bokeh technique and that basic snail would now have a celestial background.  Underwater photos are even fun switching the photo to black and white.

Shallow depth of field is a fun way to change up your photos. Shallow depth of field is having the subject in the foreground in focus but everything behind it is out of focus.  I love this technique because it focuses your viewer’s eyes on what you want them to see in the picture as the main subject so they know what your subject is.

If I’m photographing a nudibranch, I want the animal’s habitat to show in the picture but I don’t need it to be detailed or it will distract from my subject so I can set my setting to a wider F stop like F2.8 or bigger, and with my 105mm lens, I’ll get that nudibranch’s rhinophore or face nice and sharp but have a blurred background.

Taking pictures with a slow shutter speed has been fun trying out. There are many settings you can try out, from a really slow shutter of 10 to 30 seconds for heavy movement to a faster speed of 1/10 to 1/20th for a subtler blur in the photo.

The fun part is the opportunities are endless when you start playing with different techniques and you no longer have to worry about not finding something to photograph.  Yes, you won’t have that token shot that you think you need and there will be a lot of not so good shots and even some frustration and cursing underwater, but all it takes is that one photo when you nail it trying out something new and now you have opened the door to a fun new way to photograph.

Do you have any other ideas for creative photos or interesting subjects when there’s nothing else to shoot? Tell us in the comments! We’d love to hear 🙂

Michelle Manson
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