While planing for a recent trip to the Maldives, I knew I needed to brush up on my underwater photography knowledge. Trying to capture images underwater presents a whole new set of challenges. While underwater you have to deal with low-light and refraction, changing camera settings… oh and BREATHING. I certainly still have much to learn about underwater photography, but in my research and experience I’ve come up with 5 tips for anyone interested in taking images in the deep blue.
1. Get Scuba Certified.
A couple of months before my trip I contacted a local dive shop and got registered for their open water diver certification course. The course I joined happened to be an accelerated course and I was able to complete certification in two weeks. The classes and pool training were excellent and really helped increase my confidence while scuba diving and snorkeling. During certification you will learn how to properly maintain and assemble scuba equipment, procedures for emergencies, and snorkeling techniques. The course cost $300 but was well worth it to become more comfortable underwater. Working with a camera and trying to get a shot is difficult enough underwater, you don’t want to be struggling with your scuba or snorkeling gear at the same time.
2. Start With a Point and Shoot
I made the mistake of thinking that I needed to have my favorite camera, the 5D Mark III underwater. I rented the Aqua Tech Sport Housing from Borrow Lenses and tested it out during a family pool outing. The underwater housing works, but it’s not without some major annoyances.
- The rubber gasket that seals the enclosure can easily pop out and if it’s not placed exactly right it will leak. While testing the enclosure I dipped the camera in the water and pulled it out only to realize in horror that water had seeped inside. I quickly opened it up and luckily no damage was done.
- You have to rent or buy (at additional cost) a lens port that specific to the size of lens you want to use. The lens port has a knob that is supposed to let you manually change the zoom or focus, but I could never get it work very well.
- It’s heavy! The enclosure adds quite a bit of bulk and weight to an already large camera. This is not too big of a deal while underwater as the camera actually floats, but it’s still cumbersome and hard to manage.
- You have some ability to control some of the camera settings with knobs and levers but not enough. You can’t adjust shutter speed while the camera is in the enclosure! I suppose the reasoning is that it’s easier to have the camera on auto mode in this situation.
I ended up renting the Aquatech housing again to take to the Maldives and it got the job done, but in retrospect it just wasn’t worth the hassle and potential risk to my expensive DSLR. Housings like this definitely have a place, but for my needs it was just too difficult to use.
On my next underwater photography adventure I will definitely consider using a waterproof point and shoot instead. In my research the Panasonic Lumix TS5 stands out as one of the best options currently available. It’s affordable, ($289) takes HD video and 16.1 MP stills, rugged, and waterproof up to 43 feet. After I try this camera I will update this post with my thoughts.
On dry land I feel like I’m a pretty competent photographer. I can look at a scene that I want to photograph and adjust camera settings to get the exposure I want without even thinking about it. I found that as soon as I took my camera underwater, I was Camera Stupid all over again! My first shots didn’t turn out at all. It wasn’t until my 3rd dive that I even had any usable images. The reason I’m able to take great shots so quickly on dry land is because I’ve done it again and again until it has become second nature. The same is true for underwater photography. You have to practice and experiment enough underwater until you start to get it right. This is difficult because most dives are less than 45 min and unless you have your own scuba equipment and a dive buddy, each probably costs money.
If you are planing to take underwater photos in a dive destination, I highly recommend getting some mileage and practice with the camera you are going to use months beforehand. Take it to the pool and practice. Do as many open water dives as you can and practice.
The dive shop where I got my certification also offers an underwater photography course that I plan on taking. I’m sure a course like this would greatly help and give you even more time with your camera underwater.
4. Dive with an Experienced Guide
The Four Seasons resort where I was staying has it’s own dive shop with world class dive instructors. My dive leader accompanied me on the dives and was incredibly knowledgeable about the part of the ocean reef we were exploring as well as the various ocean life in that area. She pointed out fish, eels, and even sharks that I would have never seen myself as an unexperienced diver in unfamiliar waters.
5. Schedule Your Dive for High Noon
This is a little bit counterintuitive. Photographers know that the best time of day to capture the best light outdoors is usually that “Golden Hour” around sunrise or sunset. I scheduled a morning dive in the Maldives thinking it would provide some nice light. I was wrong. At 30 feet below the surface it was almost too dark to take pictures. Increasing ISO or shutter speed was impossible as it would require interrupting the dive and returning to the surface. I made the most of it and still ended up with some shots, but next time I will schedule a dive for high noon when the sun will penetrate the water to a greater depth.