Underwater Photography

Tips for Getting Started

Underwater photography? Sure, you've thought about it...who hasn't? A whole new world to capture; fascinating creatures in exotic locations; adventures in paradise. Okay, we're getting carried away, but the attractions are obvious and the potential for incredible images is practically unlimited.

It is, of course, photography that requires specialized training and equipment, including SCUBA diving experience and gear, waterproof camera housings and underwater flash.

Or you could just get a COOLPIX AW100 and shoot stills and Full HD movie clips in your backyard pool or while snorkeling in the Bahamas or diving to 33-feet in the ocean of your choice. The AW100 is by far the easy way to test the waters.

But if you've set your sites on the wider, and deeper, world of underwater photography, there's some serious business to consider.

First and foremost, you've got to be an experienced diver; there's no way around it. "Competent, relaxed, with at least a hundred dives to your credit and open water qualifications," is how David Doubilet, whose images accompany this story, and who is one of the world's renowned underwater photographers, puts it. The thing is, those qualifications aren't out of reach. Here's a quick story:

About 15 years ago, John Conn, an indomitable and intrepid photographer of our acquaintance, wanted to add underwater photography to his list professional pursuits. Problem was, he didn't know the first thing about diving. In fact, he didn't know how to swim. But on vacation in Cancun, he rented a Nikonos underwater camera and went into the water with fins, snorkel and a life jacket—and the magic happened. "I'm snapping away at fish, a barracuda—I even see a turtle go by," John says. "I was amazed and fascinated. But when I came out of the water, I felt like a jerk in that life jacket, so I decided to do something about it."

And so he learned to swim, learned to dive and learned to shoot underwater. Search out his website and you'll see examples of his underwater images. The point of the story is obvious: you can do it, too.

But you have to keep in mind what's most important about underwater photography, and that's safety. Both John Conn and David Doubilet will tell you that when you go into the water your first goal is to come out; photography, exploration, adventure, the pure joy of the experience—all are second to safety. "You're in an environment that demands caution," David says. "You have to be situationally aware."

Underwater photography? Sure, you've thought about it...who hasn't? A whole new world to capture; fascinating creatures in exotic locations; adventures in paradise. Okay, we're getting carried away, but the attractions are obvious and the potential for incredible images is practically unlimited.

Gear Choices

Digital photography brought incredible changes to underwater photography. You're no longer limited to 36 images before coming up for a change of film; you no longer have to bring multiple cameras in underwater housings to delay that change. "Today I can go with a 16-gig card and get up to 500 shots, depending on the file size," David says. He shoots with D2X, D3 and D3s cameras in Seacam housings that provide control of the functions and settings of the cameras. A number of housings allow the use of zoom lenses. "You can focus and zoom with fingertip control," David says, "and switch from manual to autofocus." While the housings he uses are off-the-shelf rather than custom-made, specific housings are designed for specific cameras. "If you buy a housing for, say, a D700, it will not work with a D300, and while I can get a D3 and a D3X into the same housing, a D3s won't fit." (There are some companies—Ikelite is one—that offer varieties of "universal" housings.)

Next to housings, flash is a key element in underwater photography. You'll have enough light in the backyard pool and to about three feet in the clear, sunlit waters of the Bahamas, but light is lost rather quickly as you dive—and along with it, color; you start losing red at about three feet and below that everything but blue goes very quickly.

Which means that for serious underwater photography, strobes are essential. David prefers Sea and Sea YS-250s—"very good rheostat control so you can dial them down for low light output; they have diffusers, stunning recycle time, and very good battery life."

The strobes are generally mounted on articulated-arms that clamp onto the underwater housings; David uses Ultralite arms.    

Next to consider: lenses. "In the underwater world, the wide-angle is the basic lens," David says. In the really wide category he likes the AF DX Fisheye-NIKKOR 10.5mm f/2.8G ED and the AF Fisheye-NIKKOR 16mm f/2.8D. "For seascapes, the fisheye lens is best—you want to see as wide as possible to shoot sharks, fellow divers, even shipwrecks." His basic zoom is the AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED, and he also has an AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR, an AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED and an AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED. For close-ups he'll go with either an AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED or an AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED.

Tips and Tricks

"Wide-angles are preferred over telephotos because water is a thick medium," David says, "and if you try to look through a lot of water you'll get a picture that's lacking in contrast, color and depth because you're shooting through four or five feet of water. If you shoot with a wide-angle lens within a couple of feet of the surface you'll get the dappled light coming from the surface, and you'll also get color. I tend to use the telephotos to shoot extremely small creatures that I can't get near, or when I need working space between the creature and the front of the housing."

Using a zoom lens helps you make the most of your time underwater. "Your subjects are constantly moving and changing, and you're moving as well," David says. "It's a bad pun, but underwater photography is terribly fluid, and it's important that you have all these focal lengths available to keep up with changing positions."

Small creatures are favorite subjects for David, and they are plentiful in the underwater world. "About 75 percent of things in the sea that you're going to want to photograph are the size of your hand or smaller," he says, and when it comes to those subjects his lenses of choice are the aforementioned 60mm and 105mm Micro NIKKORS.

Along with lens choice, a key to close-ups is controlling the color of the background. Ideally you'd like light-colored subjects against dark backgrounds and vice versa, but since you can't position your subjects—you can only hope to find them in the right settings or wait for them to get there—shutter speed will often be the crucial factor. Simply, fast shutter speeds mean less light and thus a darker background; slower shutter speeds mean the opposite. With your flash output fixed, the shutter speed can make the background go from black- to dark-blue to light-blue water.    

The f/stop will play a part, too. As a general rule, the smaller the aperture, the better. "You want to focus for the creature's eyes, or the space between the eyes," David says. "The eye in any macro image must be sharp or otherwise the image is unsuccessful."

His final suggestion for close-ups: as often as you can, shoot at eye level to your subject so you'll put the viewers of your pictures eye to eye with what you saw.

Exposure settings for underwater photography differ from the settings you'd choose for land-based images. "A light meter measures or reads light falling on your subject, but underwater that light has to come back to the camera through water, which drops the exposure, even if it's only a couple of feet from camera to subject. You can shoot in manual mode to compensate for that, and you can bracket your shots, too."    

Another great advantage digital has given the underwater shooter is the instantly-visible result. "I can see the image on the camera in the housing," David says, "and I can quickly check the histogram, so I know what I’m getting and what adjustments I might need to make."

Split Field Images

A technique David uses from time to time [in the above photos] is the split field image, in which you see above and below the water line. "There are no shortcuts to this technique," he says. "You need to use a D-SLR and a super wide-angle or fisheye lens and a sophisticated housing that has a dome, not a flat port. Underwater images are magnified by 25 percent, and the dome will correct for that."

The technique requires a small f/stop—"f/16 or smaller," David says—for great depth of field, plus a lens capable of close-focus; "you always focus on the subject below the water line."

You also have to balance the light. "I look for a light bottom—white sand is best—or a light underwater subject. I'll put the strobes down below and light the bottom and then expose for the top. If you shoot at, say, ISO 400, you'll have plenty of exposure for the top, and the strobes will take care of the bottom. Of course, you need subjects that suit the technique."

And with all of David's experience, it's a technique that's always a bit of trial and error. "You shoot a lot, you get a little," he says.

Tweaking Images in Post Production

David suggests that most if not all underwater images will need post production attention. "Generally with an underwater photo you'll end up with an unsaturated image that needs to be worked on. Every digital shot that I use has been worked on in post. The biggest fight in an underwater image is the fight for contrast and saturation; even when you're lighting things up with strobe, the photo will lack saturation and contrast, and you have to restore those in post production."

David also suggests that the best way to learn to shoot underwater images is to start by setting your camera to shoot black-and-white. "Color won't be an issue, and you'll be able to shoot at decent depths to perfect what you're doing and learn how light works in the sea."

Best places to start? "The tropics are good," David says. "There's clear water everywhere." The best bet for beginners is to take a diving course, learn in swimming pools and then head for a resort in the Caribbean. Photographing while snorkeling is always a good way to begin. "Snorkeling pictures are like family snapshots," David says. "I'd suggest Sting Ray City in the Cayman Islands. It's a great opportunity—there's shallow water and white sand that gives you brilliant colors; go wide-angle on the zoom.

"When you get serious about it, you have to put on air tanks and SCUBA gear. Check with diving organizations or start with a local dive shop, if your location has one. You need to build up experience and education."

Underwater photography isn't photography made easy. It takes dedication and effort, but the results are amazing...and so is the world you'll explore.

If you've read this far, you've taken the first steps.

Underwater Photography Tips

  • Safety should be your #1 concern. Don’t swim, snorkel or SCUBA dive beyond your abilities.

  • Wide-angle is the way to go. Water is a thick medium to shoot through. If you’re shooting through a lot of water—using a telephoto lens—you’ll lose contrast and color. By using a wide-angle lens, near the surface, you’ll have more colorful photographs.

  • Digital photography gives you the ability to check your exposure on the camera’s LCD which is useful because exposures will differ underwater than they do on land. If your camera has an exposure bracketing feature, you may want to enable it so you don’t have to worry about changing exposures while shooting.

  • When taking underwater photographs with the Nikon COOLPIX AW100, use the Underwater Scene Mode which will boost the contrast and color saturation while deactivating the flash. You don’t want to use flash on-camera underwater because it will light up the miniscule floating particles in the water that are between your camera’s lens and your subject. This is called Backscatter. If you’re shooting with a DSLR inside an underwater housing then you can use underwater strobes which are placed on arms that are off to the side of the camera, so you only illuminate your subject, not the Backscatter.

  • Because photographing underwater means you will often lose contrast and/or color, you will likely be boosting the contrast and/or color saturation in post-production on the computer.

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