Underwater Photography

Why Marine Biologists should take Better Underwater Photographs

Marine biologists can have a lot to think about when working underwater. It may seem like a career full of tropical snorkels and dolphin encounters, but marine science comes in a huge variety of “flavors”, from mud microbiome research to satellite tracking sharks.

In fact, “marine biologist” rarely covers the scope of what most researchers working in the ocean do in their day-to-day professional life–it almost always involves other (and sometimes exclusively) disciplines like chemistry, physics, or engineering, and nowadays, usually some computer science.

But, despite the enormous diversity of work lumped into the term “marine biologist”, many (but not all) researchers in this field do share one common element: physical work that takes us into the ocean.

This is, obviously, one reason many marine biologists choose to pursue their particular careers, for their love of the ocean and its incredible beauty and diversity.

Photo by Morgan Bennett-Smith, Red Sea Research Center

As a direct consequence of this time spent in and around the ocean, we have an unusual opportunity to share the wonders of the underwater world with others.

In addition to just generally being an immensely rewarding experience, there are a number of additional benefits to improving underwater photography for marine biologists and researchers.

Read on for a few examples of how underwater photography can benefit your career in marine science, followed by some starting points to begin building new skills.

Good Underwater Photography makes your Science Better

Photo By Morgan Bennett-Smith, Red Sea Research Center

Transparency and repeatability are essential components of good scientific research.

Things can get a little…murky…underwater. Literally. Producing good underwater media (photos or videos) can add a lot to your publications, lending support to your materials and methods.

In many sects of marine science, underwater photography is a direct part of the methodology–coral reef photo transects and benthic surveys, 3D structure-from-motion, morphological descriptions, behavioral quantifications, the list goes on.

And yet, while many students in the field take extra courses on statistics or rescue diving or GIS (all of which are definitely important!), far fewer take courses on underwater photography or approach photography as a tool in their researcher’s toolkit.

Instead, photography is often seen as a hobby and/or a way to show family and friends “what their work is like”, as opposed to “part of their work”.

I think changing how you approach underwater photography, if the above applies to you, can be well worth the extra effort when it comes time to submit the work you’ve spent so much time on.

Good Underwater Photography helps Promote Good Science, after Publication

You’ve done the hard stuff. You’ve worked long nights and weekends at your computer, pushing and pulling data in RStudio. You’ve written the manuscript, you’ve wrangled all of your co-authors from different institutions across the world, and you’ve submitted to a journal. And, they’ve accepted it! Congratulations are in order.

But, now what?

Researchers take a blood sample from a pelagic thresher shark in the Red Sea, the first one tagged in the region. Photo By Morgan Bennett-Smith

Science in a vacuum is less effective than science that is heard and discussed, and hopefully, used for action. This doesn’t apply to every study, and that’s ok. But, when possible, communicating your findings and important science to others can be a great benefit to your own career, and, hopefully, your study system.

So where does photography come in?

Photography is just one way to convey your work after it’s finished, in a more powerful way. It’s my favorite tool, because it’s quick and accessible. But short videos can be great too, and achieve similar results.

The rise of social media platforms, especially Twitter and to a lesser extent now, Instagram, has made it easier than ever to reach broader audiences with different content–even journals and research institutions use these platforms to communicate findings.

Effective visuals perform better on these platforms, and help direct audiences to your work.

As such, projects that have been carefully documented throughout, with eye-grabbing visuals, are easier to promote through communications channels by yourself or by your institution. Simple!

Photo by Morgan Bennett-Smith. An interesting image can draw in an audience, conveying a secondary message. In this example, viewers may be drawn in by the image of the clownfish, and then introduced to the concept of symbiont bleaching in a sea anemone host.

Underwater Photography and Marine Conservation

Outside of typical field work goals and publication processes, marine biologists working underwater often run into situations that allow us to convey conservation messages.

Sadly, some of my most effective images are also my most depressing–photos that tell stories of human impacts on marine species.

While hard to look at, images that show the “bad” side of our species’ interaction with the ocean can help us promote change for the better, and we should take these opportunities to document them when they occur outside of the scope of our normal work, if possible.

The same is true of unique and positive encounters we may run into; an unusual interaction between species, a breathtaking behavioral display–in capturing and sharing those moments, we can also encourage people to care and think more about the ocean.

So, bring your camera into the field, and use it!

OK, underwater photography is more useful than I thought. How do I improve my photos?

First (after deciding it’s worth it to take good photos underwater!), start by investing in an underwater camera.

“The best camera is the one you’ve got” is a cliche, but still true–there are underwater cameras for every person and budget. If you are completely new to underwater photography, and looking to buy your first setup, this is a good place to start: https://www.housingcamera.com/blog/guides-tutorials/choosing-your-first-underwater-camera.

Photo by Morgan Bennett-Smith

Sometimes, work in marine science prohibits carrying a big bulky camera on every dive, so a small compact camera or mirrorless can be a good choice. If you’re determined, there’s often a way to even attach a larger camera rig to yourself in a way that lets you go about your other business underwater–just make sure to not do anything that might compromise your diving safety.

On some dives in the past, I’ve left my camera on the seafloor on a tripod while I completed other tasks. This way you can snap a few shots of whatever you’re doing, put your camera down, and pick it up before you surface. Just make sure it’s very secure, in a safe place, and, most importantly, don’t forget where you left it!

If you have a limited budget, there are plenty of ways to save when investing in your first setup. Check out some of these tips from Rachel Schreck on the subject, my favorite of which is, “Don’t be intimidated by the huge underwater photography equipment”. https://www.housingcamera.com/blog/buying-guides/getting-into-underwater-photography-without-breaking-the-bank

After you’ve bought a camera, spend some time with it before taking it into the field

A lot of people take their camera straight into the ocean, and “flame out” after their first foray into underwater photography doesn’t produce amazing photos.

If you haven’t spent much time taking photos above water, chances are pretty good your first photos underwater won’t pan out the way you think.

Learning the basics of exposure and focus and composition, while dealing with breathing and moving underwater, is a lot to handle at once.

I bought my first mirrorless camera as an undergraduate in a marine science degree program, with the intention of taking good underwater photographs.

It was 3 years before I was ready to take it underwater!

Some of that time was spent saving for underwater equipment, but in the end, I benefited immensely from having a strong grasp on the fundamentals of photography before ever taking my camera for a dive.

When you’re ready, take your camera with you underwater at every single opportunity

You might dive 1000 times and see that one amazing thing just once. So, bring your camera as much as possible!

Create a camera setup personalized to you and your work, in a way that is as accessible as possible.

If you’re diving off little inflatable Zodiacs in rough seas, a giant DSLR rig with dual strobes probably wont work. But, a compact camera in a housing, clipped securely to your BCD probably still would.

And, most importantly, work at getting better.

There’s more info on tips and techniques than I could ever even summarize in a blog post. My favorite way to learn new skills is to dream of a type of photo I want to take, and work backwards into the techniques required to achieve it. As you improve, you can add equipment that grows with you.

Photo by Morgan Bennett-Smith

Strobes, for example, will be the best thing you add to your underwater kit as you improve.

Post-Production is also critical, and many blogs are dedicated to this topic alone. For example: https://www.housingcamera.com/blog/guides-tutorials/lightroom-for-underwater-photographers-how-to-start

Here are some more nice resources: https://www.housingcamera.com/blog/guides-tutorials/5-absolutely-crucial-things-you-must-know-before-starting-out-with-underwater-photography

Summary

There are many tangible benefits to improving your underwater photography as a marine biologist, at every step in the scientific process. If you have the option, think of adding an underwater camera to your kit as a career-building investment as opposed to a hobby.

Morgan Bennett-Smith
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2 comments

  1. Vincent May 5, 2021

    Hi Morgan, thanks for this insight.
    Could you also tell us how pictures and videos can be used by marine biologists and how photographers can contribute to science?

  2. Morgan Bennett-Smith May 6, 2021

    Hi Vincent, thanks for the comment! Marine scientists use underwater media in a really wide variety of ways. I didn’t get into too many background-level points on these, because it could deserve an entire article by itself, but just a few examples of these are: remote underwater camera surveys (a standardized method of evaluating which organisms are in an area, based on analyzing video footage, often with bait attached), “structure-from-motion”, or SFM, also known as 3D reconstructions–a technique that involves taking many photos and generating a 3D reconstruction of an area underwater, which can then be used to evaluate changes over time, “Photo ID”, which is a very common tool marine biologists use to track individuals, especially marine mammals and bigger ocean fauna like mantas and even sea turtle, based on spots or other patterns which are analyzed in specific software. I love your question about what photographers can do to contribute–it’s really easy, and fun! Contribute to citizen science projects! This is my favorite method. Sites like https://www.inaturalist.org/ or https://www.zooniverse.org/ allow photographers to upload photos they’ve taken, and a little info, and scientists use this data in real projects. It’s a huge help to a lot of different projects!

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