Careful Composition in your Underwater Photos

Careful Composition in your Underwater Photos

A lesson on underwater composition


With a little bit of work, you can get good compositions in your underwater photography. Very good compositions, however, can be very difficult. 


No matter if you are using a compact camera or a dSLR, sometimes the slightest movement of the camera can throw off a composition. Such is the case for a composition like this 3-inch long Coralline Sculpin, taken at Santa Cruz island in the northern Channel Islands.

F8 and Be There

Famous Photography Phrase "F8 and be there"

History, explanation and common uses 


When I was driving Ridlon Kiphart to an LAUPS meeting, we were discussing underwater photography and I mentioned the phrase "F8 and be there". His eyes lit up and he mentioned how underwater photographer David Doubilet used to say that, and he attributed the phrase to David.


Great Underwater Photos Without a Strobe

Great Underwater Photos Without A Strobe

Getting the most out of your compact underwater camera

By Scott Gietler



Lately many people have been complaining about the underwater photos they are getting with their compact cameras, and that they are thinking of getting an external strobe. But if you aren't getting good photos without a strobe, buying one may not help your underwater photography. In this article I discuss how to get the most of your compact camera, and how to know when you are ready for a strobe.



If you are using a compact camera without an external strobe, you must focus on these two types of shots:


Part 1: Using the Internal Flash 

  • Your camera must be in "forced flash" mode, "macro mode" for close-ups
  • Get within 12 inches of the subject
  • Adjust your settings to block out ambient light. F8, 1/60th, ISO 100 will work in all but the sunniest of conditions. If you only have "auto" mode, see if your camera defaults to F2.8, 1/60th. If this is the case, you are in trouble because lots of ambient light is getting in your photo. So if you only have "auto" mode, for good photos you need to photograph at night, down deep, or in shadowed areas. Make sure your camera is using ISO 100 on these shots underwater.


underwater photography example

Fuji F11, F8, 1/60th, macro mode, Internal flash



digital underwater photography

Fuji F11, internal flash, F8, 1/60th, macro mode



Part 2: Taking underwater photos with natural light

  • You must be in shallow water, 30ft or less, preferable 20ft or less. Read about loss of color at depth.
  • The water should be clear and sunny, with the sun behind you, unless you are going for a silhouette.
  • Your camera should be taking photos at 1/60th of a second or faster. If not, you may see some blur in your photos.
  • You must use custom white balance. Most cameras support this function. Bring a white dive slate with you to white balance your camera.
  • Using a red filter can add even more colors to your photo (actually, it subtracts some wavelengths). Again, you need to use custom white balance and follow all the other rules mentioned.
  • These photos can usually benefit from a small contrast and color adjustment in Photoshop using the levels tool, but don't over-do it.

reef fish underwater, bali

Reef fish, Fuji F10, F3.6, 1/200th, ISO 200, Natural light, Custom white balance


schooling salema underwater

Schooling Salema, Natural light, Fuji F11, custom white balance


Understanding the two types of light in your photos

When using a flash or strobe, the light in your photos comes from two sources; the flash and the sun. The light from the sun is called ambient light, or natural light, and will be poor in color. Even when using a flash or strobe, if your camera settings are allowing too much ambient light, the color of your photo will be poor.


Why are my underwater photo colors poor?

Either you are using natural light and did not follow all the rules in Part 2, or you tried to use your internal flash but too much ambient light is in the photo. This can happen for two reasons:

  • The subject is more that 12 inches from the camera, so the internal flash suffers from light falloff.
  • Your settings are letting in too much ambient light. F2.8, 1/60th in shallow, clear water lets in too much ambient light. Unfortunately, exposure compensation on compact cameras usually only works with the flash off, not with the flash on - so on underwater cameras with no manual settings (i.e. - "auto" mode only), F2.8, 1/60th is all you are going to get - which is really not good!

underwater camera example photo

Underwater photo with some backscatter and poor color. The subject was too far for the internal flash to be effective, and the settings let in too much ambient light. Fuji F11, F2.8, 1/100th, ISO 800. 


Why is my photo blurry?

Two possible reasons:

  • It is out of focus, usually as the result of incorrectly being in or out of macro mode
  • Your shutter speed is too slow. Increasing the ISO can alleviate the problem. When zoomed all the way out, you'll need 1/30th at a minimum to photograph a still object, 1/60th for slowly moving fish, 1/125th for objects moving at a normal speed. Double these speeds if you zoom in. Of course, if an object is mainly lit by your flash/strobe, then the strobe is freezing motion and the shutter speed doesn't affect the results.

purple rhinopia underwater

Rhinopias in Lembeh, F8, 1/60th, Fuji F11 compact camera, internal flash


When am I ready to purchase an external strobe?

An external strobe is a great way to advance your underwater photography, I highly recommend them. But before purchasing one, you may want to wait until both of these are true:

  • You are able to get good close-up photos with the internal flash
  • Your camera supports aperture priority or manual mode, or you have some way to block out some ambient light with your settings. For example, my Fuji F11 and F30 default to F8 on macro mode, which helps a lot. Otherwise, a camera with only auto mode is very limited with a strobe. Think about getting a better point and shoot camera.


And any of these are true:

  • You want less backscatter in your photos.
  • You want to try more creative lighting than front-lighting
  • You are thinking of getting a wet-lens for wide-angle photography and need to light up a larger area
  • Your housing is partially blocking the internal flash


Further Reading 



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Diffraction tests with the Nikon 105mm

Diffraction tests with the Nikon 105mm lens


I had done some diffraction tests previously when I reviewed the Nikon 105mm VR lens, but I hadn't tested the diffraction at 1:1 magnification, and I often use this lens at 1:1 when doing underwater photography. There were a couple reasons why I thought the results might be different, so I sat down and did some tests. Here are the results:


Diving with a new lens

Underwater Photography - trying out a new lens and creative techniques


Diving on the dive boat Giant Stride out of Marina rey dey for 3 dives, I thought to myself, macro, super-macro or wide-angle? Those are usually my only three choices, but today I decided for something out of the ordinary - mid-range!


I brought out my $100 nikon 18-55mm lens, large dome port, +2 hoya diopter, and my zoom ring from my tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens. The zoom ring was a little large for the 18-55mm lens, but after putting a little velcro on the lens, the zoom ring fit fairly well.


You can read my Nikon 18-55mm lens review.


A mid-range zoom lens gave me the perfect chance to try out some more creative underwater photography techniques. I used a dSLR camera, but many of these techniques like panning and slow shutter speed can work with a compact camera also.


blacksmith fish, panning technique

Blacksmith fish in motion. F11, 1/5th shutter speed


Great Color in your Underwater Photos

Getting Great Color in your Underwater Photographs

Help elevate your underwater photography to the next level

By Scott Gietler



In this article I explore how to get the best possible colors in your underwater photos, whether shooting with or without a strobe.





janolus nudibranch, getting great colorsmantis shrimp, better colors underwater


Over-under and split-shot photography

Over-under and split-shot photography


I've tried some over-under shots occassionally, but two great underwater photographers, Michel Lonfat and Kelly Bracken, have really mastered the art. Together they share some of their best tips and photos with you. Regardless of your camera, choosing the right weather, time of day and location can help you get some fantastic over-under shots too! Please read on..



Photo by kelly bracken

Photo by Michel Lonfat


Read more here: Split-shot underwater photography


Shooting models in a pool

Cal Mero has written a great article on how to shoot models underwater in a swimming pool. He covers model selection, lighting, compositon, and many other helpful tips. His work is fantastic - check it out!



Read more here


Natural light compositions - near the surface

Compact and dSLR shooter's alike love to dive deep to capture photos. But next time you are in the water, swim to the surface. The surface of the water makes for some great photos.


Read the full article for many examples and techniques of shooting near the surface.



Read more of this article...


Fisheye Lens vs. Wide-Angle Lens


Fisheye Lenses vs. Wide-Angle Lens

By Scott Gietler














What is a fisheye lens?

A fisheye lens is a special type of ultra-wide angle lens. They are small, ultra-wide, and show a distorted, spherical view of the world, most evident in the curved, outer corners of the photo.


Fisheye lenses happen to work very well underwater for a couple different reasons:

  • They focus very closely
  • There are few straight lines underwater
  • Using a very wide lens allows to get very close to your subjects, giving your photograph more sharpness, and better colors when lit with a strobe.
  • Behind a dome port, fisheye lenses perform better optically than regular wide-angle lenses.


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