Under-water photography

September 14 , 2009 by: Haje Jan Kamps Uncategorized

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If you thought photography out in the open air was tricky, you’ve got a surprise coming – Underwater photography represents one of the most challenging and specialized segments in the photography world. It’s fun, it’s creative, and it surrounds you with water, which only has one purpose: To ruin your expensive pride-and-joy photography equipment!

Two thirds of the world is covered by water, and while much of it is quite boring and un-photogenic, there are still vast opportunities to capture what is happening beneath the surface. There is a combination of equipment and tecnique required to make this type of photography work for you, include choosing the right camera, making sure it stays safe from water, and finding some way of lighting it all.

Picking a camera

Vivitar underwater cameraWhen searching for cameras, knowing your budget and the types of photos you want to take will go a long way in determining the right option for you.

Photo, right: Vivitar underwater camera by Anetz on Flickr. This photo also shows the ‘sports finder’, which is much more useful than a viewfinder once you’re underwater

Your options will change depending on whether you want this to be a vacation hobby or you want to become a gadget-tastic underwater photographer with all the bells, whistles, and a bathysphere with an espresso machine in the corner. Don’t get me wrong, underwater photography can become very expensive, very quickly so it is imperative that you identify what your goal is.

NikonosImage, left: Underwater Nikon Nikonos-V with 35/2.5 by Mikesub on Flickr

If you just want to dip your toe in, you could actually use a cheap, single-use disposable underwater camera… It won’t give you the greatest quality images but it gives you some photos to show friends, family, and Flickr-admirers back home.

In selecting the right camera there are a billion options to choose from. More or less. Probably less. Both digital and film cameras can each perform well underwater however the major disadvantage for film cameras is that you can only shoot one roll of film at a time. Having to swim back up to change the roll of film is infuriating, to say the least, so stick with the megapixels for photography zen.

Naked Lady
Naked Lady by Arno Gourdol on Flickr

If you are a beginner than a point and shoot may be a good place to start. Try to get a cameras with a nicely sized LCD screen which will simplify your picture taking experience – don’t plan to be able to look through your viewfinder much, because between your diving equipment and your (hopefully) water-proof enclosure, it’s not going to be much use. Whatever you decide make sure the camera matches what you are trying to accomplish.

Also, be aware that some cameras marketed as ‘water proof’ may work when they are wet but they may not be designed to withstand the high water pressure in underwater photography – as with most things, you generally get what you pay for, so a £99 waterproof digital camera probably isn’t. Water-proof, that is.

Keeping it dry

Miss Underwater
Miss Underwater by Kal.LKL on Flickr

To prepare your camera for underwater use you will need housing. Housing provides a waterproof encasement for your camera to dwell in making it able to function underwater. As there are a variety of cameras you will find a wide load of different housing options available ranging in price from $100 for one to cover your pocket-sized compact jobbie, to going in to the thousands of dollars for more professional units.

Many of today’s cameras come with manufacturer-designed housing units, however they may not be as reliable as speciality third party options. Make sure the housing you decide to use will support the water pressure at the depths you want to take your pictures.

When considering housing you should consider the controls on your camera. Some housing will limit access to (some of) the controls on your camera, so look for models that will support all of the functions you want to use on your camera when taking your pictures.

Lights, camera…

UnderwaterOne of the biggest challenges in underwater photography is lighting. As a beginner venturing into this new world you may want to start taking pictures using just the built in flash on your camera.

Photo, right: Underwater by Sagicel, on Flickr

Once you become comfortable taking pictures underwater then it is highly recommended that you purchase an external strobe light. Strobes give you more control over the way you bring light to the subject you are shooting.

With the improved light you can highlight various qualities and details that you want to bring out of your subject. You also can angle light toward or away from the subject. By angling away you can help keep backscatter, which are reflected particles in the water, from cluttering your shot.

Dive right in

Underwater in the Pool
Underwater in the Pool by Brian Marshall on Flickr

As you can see the options are great when it comes to underwater photography from cameras, housing and lighting, not to mention other accessories we didn’t even mention. Walking into this blindly can be an expensive proposition so start slowly and build your way up but most importantly know what you want to accomplish. Since it is both a scuba diving and photography activity rolled into one, make sure you include the time and cost of scuba diving lessons into your learning curve and your budget.

Some scuba schools also hold photography classes for beginners and might rent / loan you some equipment to get started, so that’s worth a look before you splash the kids’ college fund on something you might not enjoy as much as you thought!

Lastly, have fun and enjoy the underwater world waiting for you.


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© Kamps Consulting Ltd. This article is licenced for use on Pixiq only. Please do not reproduce wholly or in part without a license. More info.

About Haje Jan

This post was written by Haje Jan Kamps, who has written 565 articles for Photocritic

Haje has written half a dozen books about photography. He spends most of his time running Triggertrap, a company that creates creative tools for triggering your camera.

His most recent books are:

1 Comments

  • So I’m not clear- what cameras are you suggesting are good for being waterproof underwater?

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