For many, part of the experience of diving is capturing images of some of the incredible marine life and vistas we see while exploring the underwater world. Getting pictures that capture these moments however can prove to be difficult and quickly lead to frustration. To help we’ve pulled together a list of ten tips that start to give you the framework for success.
#1 Buoyancy Control
The first and most important tip to getting great shots is to get your buoyancy under control. With proper buoyancy you’ll be able to slowly approach your subject without excessive movement helping to avoid spooking them off. Another way good buoyancy will help is moving into tighter spaces without damaging marine life or impacting visibility. With proper buoyancy control you can move in slowly and using the volume of air in your lungs allow yourself to descend or ascend as needed to get in final position and to back out. Finally proper buoyancy control can help ensure your shots are in focus as remaining stationary will help eliminate changes in the distance between you and your subject during the shot.
#2 Know your tools
Learn where all of your camera controls are on land outside of the housing before you take it on a dive. As with every piece of equipment you carry into the water cameras add an additional level of task loading to the dive. The better your understanding of where the controls are on your camera the easier it will be to use the system underwater. Remember you have enough to keep track of managing critical aspects of the dive such as depth, time and gas supply, regular adjustments to settings like aperture, shutter speed and ISO should be second nature to help ensure you get your shot.
#3 Make a target list
Most dive destinations are known for a particular type of diving. By that I mean they’re known for large animal encounters, micro life, or particular species that are found in that area. Take the time to research the destination your going to in order to understand what type of life you’re likely to encounter. This will help you ensure you bring the right gear with you on the trip and into the water. As always be sure to make sure your list matches up with the region you’re diving as well or your diving ability.
#4 Make sure all your gear works before your leave
I can’t stress this one enough! Ensure you double check ALL of your gear far enough in advance that you can get repairs made prior to a trip. Given all of the different types and configurations of photo gear out there don’t count on everything being stocked in the store. We can get you anything you need but make sure you’re able to order it a few weeks in advance to avoid shipping issues.
#5 Talk to the locals
When you arrive and get settled in, take your target list down to the docks and to talk to your dive guides. Taking time at the beginning of the trip will allow you find out if the subjects you’re interested in have been seen and where as well insuring the dive guides know what it is you want to see. As in most cases they work largely based on tips they’ll do their best to ensure they choose sites that are going to maximize your chances. They may also provide you with some ideas for other interesting and unique subjects you might have not thought about before coming.
#6 Slow down
For many the feeling that we need to swim down the reef to see critters blinds us to the life around us. The slower you move across the reef the more life you’re going to see. The animal life that lives on the reef is involved in a constant circle of life with predators throughout the food chain. Only the animals at the top of the food chain will be moving around without fear of becoming dinner themselves. As the majority of the life on the reef isn’t at the top of the chain they rely on camouflage and stealth to survive. Move slowly staying close to the reef taking time to look into the cracks and crevasses for life that will use the natural structure of the reef for protection. Also look for shapes that don’t seem quite right and take a closer look when something doesn’t look right. Once you learn how to spot your first scorpion fish it will blow your mind how many you’ll start to see. They were always around you just didn’t realize the type of area they hide in and/or how to spot their shape.
#7 Night dives are different so be ready
To understand how photography on a night dive is different, we need to understand how cameras perform a very important task; focusing. The primary thing the camera searches for while attempting to auto focus are differences in contrast. On a night dive it’s critical that your subject be illuminated so that the cameras focusing system is able to see it as it contrasts against the dark water. Without this your cameras focus will “hunt” back and forth searching for the right level of detail in the image. Choosing a wide angle modeling light that can be mounted to the strobe arms or housing is the perfect choice.
If possible try to select a light that allows you to set variable intensities in terms of light output. This will allow you to dim the light helping to avoid scaring off subjects that seek to avoid a lot of light. Another option offered by some vendors such as Light and Motion are lights that contain both white and red LEDs. Red light is invisible to the marine life so you can hunt and focus without scaring away the more timid creatures. Try to select a mounting system that allows you to control where the light is aimed. This will give you more freedom to ensure the light is on the subject regardless of how near or far they are from the camera. Finally backscatter is much more of a problem at night because of the contrast (dark water/light particals). Turn your strobe(s) out away from the subject with just the outside of the light hitting the subject it will lessen the problem.
#8 Turn on the lights
One of the biggest criticisms I hear from people about their pictures is about how cyan everything looks. To understand this we need to step back to our open water book and review how colors are lost as they pass through water. Specifically we lose reds in the first 15 feet, then orange, yellow, green, blue and finally indigo at 150’+. This color loss can only be corrected by using a source to add additional light at the time the image is captured through the use of a strobe (flash). Many cameras have onboard strobes that can be used but often they’re very limited. Often the part of the housing the surrounds the lens will act as a shade preventing light from getting to the corner of the housing opposite the strobe. A better choice is to add an external strobe unit on a flexible arm system. This will give you more power over the camera’s onboard strobe and allow you to position the light to work around obstacles while avoiding aiming the strobes along the same path as the lens.
#9 Get closer
Even in the clear waters of the Caribbean there is a lot of particulate floating around in the water that causes two problems for us as divers, a loss of sharpness and backscatter. While your camera may not focus on this floating debris it will at some level see it. This can cause a general loss in sharpness taking an image from great to average quickly. This is unfortunately also not a condition that can be corrected in post processing. Backscatter is caused when light sent out from your strobe bounces back directly into the camera lens causing bright white spots. While these can in many cases be corrected by post processing its better to of course avoid it. To resolve both of these issues it’s imperative that you get as close as possible to your subject. By decreasing the distance you decrease the amount of particulate thus decreasing the amount of backscatter and loss of sharpness. Another reason to get close takes us back to tip #8. Even the largest strobe units are capable of throwing light through 6 to 8 feet of water before color begins to fade. You should strive to be within 6 feet of your subject if possible to help insure the best results.
#10 Focus on the eyes
When taking pictures of anything that can look back at you always choose the eyes as your focus point as it’s the first feature viewers are drawn to. Many cameras will allow you to control what point(s) in the viewfinder your camera will use to focus. If your camera allows it, I recommend you lock the focusing system to use a single point in the center of the viewfinder as your focus point. This will allow you to quickly lock that point onto the subject’s eye, focus and frame the shot.