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How to Capture Breath-Taking Underwater Photographs

February 23, 2017

We’re sure we’re not the only ones who have been admiring dreamy underwater photo shoots of late. From fine art inspired concepts to fashion advertisements – it seems as though many photographers are now turning to this medium to truly explore their creative side.

Today we’re going to give you a rundown on how to capture breath-taking underwater photos. With plenty of practice, experimentation, and by keeping these top tips in mind, you too can produce stunning underwater imagery that you’ll be admiring for years to come.

How to Capture Breath-Taking Underwater Photographs

The Proper Equipment

First thing is first; when it comes to underwater photography, you’ll want to make sure that you have the appropriate equipment that will allow you to capture clear images beneath the water’s surface – without damaging your gear.

Keep in mind that the average camera or camera lens isn’t waterproof and you’ll either have to invest in equipment that can be submerged in water, or you you’ll need to purchase underwater housing for your camera model. This underwater housing keeps your camera in a waterproof container of sorts to protect it. There are a wide range of housing options available, so be sure to do your research beforehand.

Know Your Depth

When it comes to underwater photography, it could mean anything from shooting about one meter under the water in a swimming pool, to diving down 40 meters into the depths of the ocean – it really depends on your skill level and the photo shoot you desire.

The depth that you will be shooting underwater also plays a huge role in the equipment you need to use, so it’s an important factor to consider.

The appearance of your photographs will also vary depending on the conditions you shoot in. For example, an underwater shoot in a swimming pool just one or two meters from the surface (or in other words, from natural light) will still have a beautiful, well-lit and highly saturated appearance, whereas having to dive deep below the ocean’s surface will require the use of forced flash to balance out the darker environment down there.

How to Capture Breath-Taking Underwater Photographs

Listen to the Professionals

Understandably, if you’re just beginning to experiment with underwater photography you won’t be aware of the vast array of tips and tricks that apply specifically to this medium. Therefore, it’s best to do your research and listen to the professionals – i.e. the photographers who have immense experience in capturing underwater scenes and do so for a living.

One such photographer is Scott Gietler, an underwater photographer and marine biologist who is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, as well as the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. He offers a very long list of underwater photography tips in his guide, however we’ve summarized some of the most important ones below to give you an introduction to this topic:

  • Water reduces color, contrast, and sharpness, so you’ll want to get quite close to your subject – within 12 inches if possible (keep in mind this is for deep water diving and photographing marine life, not human models).
  • It is preferable that you shoot in “forced flash mode” when shooting in darker and deeper underwater environments.
  • If choosing to shoot deep below the water’s surface, ensure that your diving skills are top-notch before incorporating a camera into your process.
  • If using housing for your camera, practice outside of the water with it first to make sure you know how to use it and the functions you’ll require when underneath the water.
  • To begin with, set your camera to the highest resolution, and the lowest ISO.
  • Use auto white-balance when using a flash/strobe, and custom white balance or underwater mode when not using a flash.
  • Learn how to use manual mode or aperture priority mode if available. This way you can control the balance between the natural light and the light from your flash.
  • If you are shooting with natural light, shoot in 20ft of water or less with the sun behind you.
  • Many underwater photographers like to increase the contrast of an image during the post-processing stage. Just keep in mind that overdoing this will make the image appear too unnatural!
  • Here’s another helpful tip from the pro underwater photographer: “If your underwater photos don’t look sharp, check to see which shutter speed was used, it should be 1/30th for still objects, 1/60th for slow moving objects, and 1/125th of faster for faster moving fish.”

How to Capture Breath-Taking Underwater Photographs

Gather Your Inspiration

Here comes the fun, pre-planning part of a photo shoot! In the lead-up to your shoot, it’s important to gather inspiration through other images, color palettes, quotes – whatever tickles your imagination.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to search for underwater related content on a platform such as Pinterest, which lets you save all of your inspirations to a ‘board’ to refer back to when planning and capturing your photo shoot.

You could also save your inspiration and arrange it in a collage format using a program such as PowerPoint before printing it out as a visual moodboard. Why not stick your inspiration to your wall, desk, or any other space that you can look at daily to get those creative juices flowing? This is how the best projects and ideas are often formed.

When gathering your inspiration for an underwater photo shoot, don’t forget to also think of things such as props, as well as clothing and accessory styles. Every little bit counts!

Photographers You’ll Want to Check Out

Speaking of inspiration, there are a few incredibly talented photographers that come to mind when thinking of breath-taking underwater photographs. To assist you with further inspiration for your own upcoming underwater photo shoot, we’ve listed some below:

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Jenna Martin

Jenna Martin is a fine art and underwater photographer based out of Billings in Montana. Her underwater photographs are widely celebrated, so much so that the talented photographer teaches workshops on the subject in exotic places such as Greece and Bali.

Chances are you will have already seen some of her gorgeous underwater photo shoots online (as many of them go viral), however here’s a little refresher in case you need one!

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Benjamin Von Wong

This incredible photographer has had his famous underwater shipwreck photo shoot featured on several impressive platforms online – in other words, it went viral pretty quickly!

As with all successful underwater photo shoots, Benjamin didn’t achieve this alone, as he had to work with a team of other professionals (such as underwater photographer and dive instructor Chris Simanjuntak, mermaid-esque models, location scouts, seven divers, and a fashion designer willing to part with expensive gowns).

Shot at a shipwreck site off the shores of Bali, this photo shoot will provide you with both an inspiring and intriguing story.

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Beth Mitchell

Beth Mitchell is an underwater fine art photographer hailing from Brisbane in Australia. With a whole range of awards and impressive features behind her, it comes as no surprise that her dreamy, fashion-inspired underwater images have taken the world by storm.

Her colorful and glittery images are sure to leave you feeling highly motivated to give underwater photographs a go!

Working with Models

It probably goes without saying, but working with models underwater is very different to working with models on land. There are a number of challenges involved as soon as one becomes submerged and your role as a photographer will be to deal with these in a professional and effective manner.

Underwater photographer Jenna Martin discusses these challenges in-depth in her insightful article, but in summary, it’s important to remain patient with your models, as well as to ensure that they have had plenty of practice before the shoot commences.

Jenna mentions that one of the most important things to do with a model is to let them experiment with letting the air out of their lungs and holding their breath in order to sink – after all, it won’t be much a photo shoot if your model is floating at the water’s surface (unless that’s the look you’re going for).

Once the model has mastered this technique, you’ll want to turn your attention to ensuring that she or he can hold a natural facial expression and pose underwater. The model’s first reaction may be to blow bubbles of air out, to scrunch up their nose, or even to squint, but teaching them to successfully relax underwater and to look serene will come with experience.

The professional photographer further explains:

Underwater modeling is incredibly difficult. They’re modeling in completely new conditions, with water going up their nose almost the entire time. They also can barely see the camera – it’s mostly a blurry black blob to them. Plus, since you can’t talk underwater, they don’t even know if what they’re doing is what you’re looking for.

How to Capture Breath-Taking Underwater Photographs

A Little Assistance Goes a Long Way

While it might be tempting to organize a photo shoot between just you and a model (especially if it’s more of a last-minute thing), it is recommended that you get some extra hands on board to prevent things from going awry.

If you’re using external sources of lighting or other equipment, for example, it’s much more efficient to have an assistant on land adjusting these, rather than requiring you to get out of the water every time.

Alternatively, you might find it helpful to have an assistant in the water with you at all times, particularly to adjust the model’s dress or assist with props, clothing, or accessories which may tangle and potentially become dangerous in an underwater setting.

The level of expertise of your assistance, along with the size of your team, will greatly depend upon the scale of your underwater photo shoot. For example, a shoot in a small backyard pool won’t require professional divers equipped with oxygen tanks, but one set 25 meters down into the ocean would.

Things to Remember on the Day

Other than the usual checklist of equipment and props, there are also some other things you should remember to bring in order to help your photo shoot run as smoothly as possible.

Ensure you pack a spare pair of clothing for obvious reasons (the drive home whilst soaked from head to toe might not be very fun), along with enough food and drinks to satisfy you and your team throughout the day.

A very important piece of advice from underwater photographer Jenna Martin is to bring plenty of bottles of fresh water, along with some plain food such as a box of crackers. This is because shooting underwater for long periods at a time will make you feel a little queasy, especially when it’s inevitable that water will go up your nose at some point! Jenna finds that both water and plain crackers helps to combat any nausea experienced.

Are you feeling inspired to shoot underwater? We hope that these helpful tips have taught you all you need to know to capture breath-taking underwater photographs!

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