Pelagic Fish Photography

Craig Dietrich
Tips to Capture Incredible Schooling Fish Photos


Pelagic Fish Photography

Tips to Capture Incredible Schooling Fish Photos

Text and Photos By Craig Dietrich


Pelagic Fish School Photography



What’s a pelagic school of fish? The term “pelagic” refers to fish that live neither close to the bottom (called “demersal” fish), nor close to the surface, nor on a reef. They are the fish that we see at open water dive sites subject to currents and chance encounters with large marine life.

We are all familiar with and in awe of the sheer vastness of the oceans. Approximately 98% of the world’s total water volume is below 330 feet (100 meters) - a vast expanse that makes up the largest aquatic habitat on earth. The open ocean is a home to pelagic fish that comprise approximately 11% of all known fish species.

The range of pelagic fish is almost (but not quite) as vast as the oceans.  Pelagics range from small coastal forage fish such as sardines and herring to larger fish like swordfish and tuna, along with apex predators like oceanic sharks. Regardless of size, they are generally agile swimmers and have streamlined bodies. Many pelagics that live above 660 feet (approx. 200 meters and referred to as epipelagic), have a silvery appearance that almost gives the fish a transparent quality that helps in their survival. Pelagics are always on the move, constantly swimming and following food or water temperatures.

So how do we find these oceanic wanderers and bring some amazing images of them back to land?


Pelagic Fish School Photography

This school of Bigeye Trevallies show off the silvery countershade many pelagics have. A sunburst and diagonal lines add energy to the image.


Photo Gear

A wide-angle setup is the way to go for pelagic fish schools. When shooting a DSLR with a crop sensor, my go-to lens is the Tokina 10-17.  I almost always have the lens set at 10mm to get the 180 degrees of coverage that setting offers, and I’ve had great results. When using a DSLR full frame camera, there are a few different options. The lens I recommend is the Sigma 15mm, which can be used with Canon or Nikon bodies and has received applause from users and reviewers alike, many who believe it’s a better lens than those made by than their Canon or Nikon counterparts due to it’s ability to focus closer. With any other type of system, the widest lens/dome combo or wet lens available for the system is recommended. Read more on the best wide-angle lenses.

Now that we have the right gear, let’s move on to settings. Shutter speed controls the darkness/lightness of the background of the image, so it can have a huge effect on the final product. The shutter speed you choose may vary depending on whether your pelagic subject is moving (i.e. fast school of fish) or more still (i.e. school of jacks).  For slow-moving or still pelagic fish, a slow shutter speed (1/125 on a DSLR) is favored. This allows more natural light into the camera, which shows the pelagic’s true environment instead of just a dark background. When shooting a fast-moving subject, I’m more likely to shoot closer to 1/200 (or 1/250 depending on strobe sync speed) to let in less background light and give a more dramatic effect to the image.

Another important setting to consider when shooting pelagics is the F-stop (aka aperture). As the F-stop increases, the light coming through the lens decreases.  Whenever conditions allow, I like to use the sun as a backlight when shooting pelagics.  This means that I need to stop down to F16 or above, receiving added depth of field as a bonus. If shooting away from the sun, I use a smaller aperture in the F8-F13 range. I always recommend two strobes (a single strobe isn’t powerful enough to cover the area when shooting wide angle). Two strobes take care of filling in the foreground, while natural light to illuminates the background.


Pelagic Fish School Photography

Pelagic schools of fish often swim in tower-like formations, making great vertical images.


Shooting Tips


Know Your Camera Gear

Learn what your particular system can do, and more importantly, what it can’t do.  Practice the controls on the housing so much there will never be a question whether you are pressing the right button or turning the wrong dial. Think of your camera as another piece of dive equipment - learn it and treat it with the same respect.


Ease Your Way In

When you see the school of pelagic fish, don’t race to get to them. If that’s the approach taken, chances are by the time you reach them...well, you won’t reach them because they will be gone. Breathe and gather your thoughts. You may be in awe of the beauty and graceful movement of the school, but think. See the shot in your mind. A slow, easy approach will make a better image...because the subject will actually be in the image.


Use the Manual Settings Instead of the TTL Settings

When shooting wide, it’s not wise to depend on TTL settings to make your images great, as TTL is not as reliable as for macro with more static subjects. I always recommend shooting with manual settings.


The Most Important Tip:  Take Chances!

I’ve met so many people who are intent on “just getting a shot”. I tell my students to use their imagination, to try different settings and really think outside of their comfort zone.  Photography is an art. A little experimentation with angles, with different settings or composition is a good thing!  When you can let go of the pressure of “just getting a shot”, you may end up getting THE shot.


Pelagic Fish School Photography

A school of trevallies swims together in the open ocean off the Socorro Islands.



Want to dive in Socorro with huge schools of pelagic fish, mantas, whales and more?  

Check out UWPG's Socorro underwater photography workshop in March 2015.



About the Author

Craig Dietrich is a former Naval and family/children’s photographer.  An avid scuba diver, his two loves of diving and photography came together and now Craig is based out of Pompano Beach, Florida.  View more of Craig’s work at


Further Reading


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!



A Photographer's Guide to Muck Diving

Mike Bartick
The Essentials of Muck Dive Photography


A Photographer's Guide to Muck Diving

The Essentials of Muck Dive Photography

Text and Photos By Mike Bartick




The scuba industry has coined the phrase “Muck Diving” to describe a style of diving or a location. Most of these muck dive sites/locations share many of the same characteristics worldwide and should be approached differently than their reef or open water counterparts.

Muck sites are often delicate estuary-type habitats that support very small creatures that settle as post-developed larvae to spend their entire lives on the open sand flats. With very little in the way of protection, these highly adapted critters find quick shelters under the sand or in rubbish, discarded household goods, in algae or any other protective objects. Shooting images of these critters will pose many challenges to new and experienced photographers alike.


Jawfish egg detail.


Exceptional images are created by the photographer as a result of his or her skills, regardless of whether the camera is a compact, Micro 4/3 or DSLR. It is entirely up to the photographer to create a compelling image. Like golf, shooting images underwater is all in the approach, and the end result depends heavily on how the setup is performed.

Talking about shooting is the easy part - the reality is that everything underwater is moving and oftentimes doesn’t want to cooperate. Sometimes the creatures aren’t in the right position or the action is happening to fast to capture. For this I always encourage a large helping of patience and observation. Watching the behavior will give you better insight on how to capture that special image and how to anticipate capturing it.

Below are my 5 tips on preparation for muck diving and 5 tips on photo design and composition.


Imperial shrimp and prey.




  • Minimize shooting variables before you get wet. Preset your ISO. I shoot at the lowest ISO setting possible for better noise control. Set your shutter speed and strobe setting in anticipation of your subject before jumping in. Streamline your dive kit and think simple. The last thing you want is to be distracted by your camera and kick up silt on the muck bottom.
  • Familiarize yourself with the mechanics of your camera and its functions. I prefer to use the spot focus indicator in the viewfinder to create better compositions.
  • Concentrate on your technique underwater. How you approach your subject, holding your camera, composing images and even strobe angle should all be considered technique.
  • Select the right lens for the subjects you anticipate finding on muck dives. Palm-sized critters and larger are best shot with a 60mm lens. Subjects smaller than palm-size require a 100/105mm lens.


In addition, getting to know the basic anatomy of your subject is a reliable way to nailing your shots. Examples include knowing where the eyes are located on a tiger shrimp, how a boxer crab really behaves and preparing ideas for photographing a hairy frogfish. Learning these traits is best performed before the trip so that you have ample time to prepare.   


Hairy shrimp.


Photo Design and Composition


  • Filling the frame with your subject is essential for true 1:1 macro or greater. Get close to your subject and minimize the water between the lens port and the subject. Look for natural flow. Pay attention to the direction your subject is facing and how it is positioned. Creating a natural flow within the frame increases the WOW factor, elevating an ID book image to a real photo.
  • The rule of thirds is the most basic but reliable composition method for all art and photography. Visual balance is achieved by anchoring your subject to the intersecting lines of a Tic-Tac-Toe grid, which happens to be about 1/3 of the way into the frame. Grid overlays in your Lightroom settings are available and will help you understand this process a bit more, teaching you how to apply it when shooting the image. See more on this in the guide to underwater compositions.
  • Be patient. Try to capture the essence of the action by being patient. When your critter is first approached it will be in fear of being eaten (by you), so stay calm and allow it to get used to your presence. Once it becomes more comfortable and goes back to natural behaviors is the time to try to capture a photo. A subtle movement or a Frogfish’s profound yawn can make your image special and stand out from the rest.
  • Contrast. Always consider the entire frame, because sometimes what isn’t in the image is as important as what is. Negative space adds natural contrast. Shallow f-stops will bokeh the reef or whip coral in the background.
  • Break out. Try something new on each trip. Try shooting super macro, using a snoot or a new lens. Take the time to Break Out from your old habits and do something new and daring, like using manual power on your strobes - go crazy!


Pink sided flasher wrasse.


Lenses for Muck Diving


Muck diving is all about macro images, which need to be shot with dedicated macro lenses. Prime lenses are the best choice because they yield sharper images with better contrast.

For Canon and Nikon users, the 60mm, 100mm or 105mm will be the natural lenses to select. Yes there are other choices, but I will refrain from expanding. So what’s the difference? Each of these lenses has the exact same reproduction ratio maximum of 1:1, but operates at a different focal length.


60mm Macro Lens

A 60mm lens is versatile - great for night diving and low light situations and as well as close, tight macro. They are often regarded as a workhorse lens for basic, effective macro photography.

  • Operate with a very short working distance; lens to subject is only a few inches.
  • Great Bokeh, sharpness and versatility.
  • Target selection: Subjects palm-sized and larger.
  • Teleconverters: An inexpensive way to increase magnification. Note that using a TC will increase your working distance slightly.
  • Diopters: Not recommended but can be used in a pinch


Bobtail squid shot with 60mm macro lens.


100mm (Canon) or 105mm (Nikkor) Macro Lenses

These are more specialized lenses best suited to animal behavior, fish photography and super macro (with diopters).

  • Narrowed angle of view and more magnification makes it easier to fill the frame.
  • Exceptional Bokeh, sharpness and contrast.
  • Target selection: Palm-sized to fingernail-sized critters.
  • Teleconverters: Great for shooting fish with eggs and increasing magnification at a slightly greater working distance.
  • Diopters: Highly recommended. SubSee, Nauticam, Inon, Saga and Bluewater all make these wet lens attachments. They all work with a variety of results depending on camera gear.
  • Diopters decrease the working distance and dramatically increase your reproduction ration. Target selection is reserved for the very small as the DOF is extremely narrow and can limit the users’ compositions to head-on or profile images.


Brooding cardinalfish shot with 100mm macro lens.


When preparing for your next muck dive, whether a dedicated trip or single dive site, be sure to do your homework and be prepared - you never know when that once in a lifetime opportunity will arise. Being ready for that moment will make all the difference.

Now get out there and have a muck diving adventure!


Dwarf goby.



Join Mike on a muck diving & photo adventure in world-famous Lembeh Strait.
June 3-14, 2014 at Kasawari.

Kasawari Lembeh Workshop



About the Author

Mike BartikMike Bartick is an avid and experienced scuba diver and Marine Wildlife Photographer. He has an insatiable love for nudibranchs, frogfish and other underwater critters, and is the official critter expert for the Underwater Photography Guide. Mike is also one of the UWPG trip leaders. See more of his work at



Further Reading


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!



Shooting with a Single Strobe

Brent Durand
Tips for Strobe Positioning, Power Settings & General Shooting


Shooting with a Single Strobe

Tips for Strobe Positioning, Power Settings and General Shooting

Text and Photos By Brent Durand




Strobes are a light in the darkness for underwater photography – literally. We learn in open water scuba classes about light falloff (starting with red) as we descend in the water column. We also know that the water itself gets darker as we descend, especially when visibility is less than 30ft (10m), when clouds block the sun or (obviously) at night. Using a strobe will bring not only light, but also vivid color and contrast back into the scene.

There are a number of strobes and strobe manufacturers on the market, each with different pros and cons. The vast majority will attach to camera housings via fiber optic cables or sync cords. Both of these connections serve to relay the flash signal (via light or electric signal) that tells the strobe to fire.

Most new underwater photographers start with a single strobe. Shooting with a single strobe means less weight and bulk on the camera rig, less task loading during the dive and a much better opportunity to learn how to use a strobe before handling two of them.


Single Strobe Positioning

Before positioning a strobe, the diver must decide how he or she would like to compose the photo. This includes any background and mid-ground elements, direction of the ambient (sun) light, secondary subjects or simply eye contact with a macro subject. Once this has been determined, the diver should adjust camera settings and only then move in for the shot. Below are a few strobe positions and photos showing the effects of light and shadow.


Overhead light

Placing a single strobe above and in the direction of the subject is a great option for macro photography as well as shooting large fish or mammals. It's essential to aim the strobe so that the corner of the beam touches the scene in order to reduce backscatter. This will also help prevent the photographer from placing the strobe right in front of the subject, and create shadows similar to those we see outside in the sun – a very natural look.


Single strobe placed above and to the left of the housing.


Side Lighting

Placing a single strobe to the side of a subject creates an artistic lighting effect, resulting in a well lit and a shadowy side of the subject. These photos are edgy and can be used really nicely in portraits.


Single strobe placed to the side of the subject to create an edgy feel with harsh shadows.


Spotlight Effect

A single strobe can be positioned to bring color back into an interesting subject in a wide-angle scene. The position of the subject within the composition will determine where to place the strobe to create the best angle of light.


Single strobe used to highlight a yellow tube sponge under a sunball and boat.


TTL or Manual ?

Many underwater housing and strobe combinations allow photographers to use their strobe in manual or TTL (automatic) mode. Most experienced underwater photographers shooting two strobes gravitate to manual settings as they know what strobe power they want to use with varying subjects, shooting conditions and stops of light added/lost when changing camera settings.

Those who don’t have this experience will opt for using their strobes in TTL mode. Sealife, Ikelite, Sea & Sea and other manufacturers allow use of TTL, where the camera sends out a very small pre-flash to meter light in the scene before triggering the full flash at appropriate power.

Shooting a strobe in TTL is very reliable for macro photography, where focusing distance and light do not change much. It is also reliable in close-focus wide-angle photography for the same reasons. TTL's weakness is with fast moving subjects that move towards or away from the camera. Playful sea lions and fast schools of fish are perfect examples.

So should you shoot in TTL? Certainly. These days it’s easy to switch between TTL and manual strobe settings, so try both, experiment, and find a shooting style that works for you.

Single strobe used to illuminate the reef in this close-focus wide-angle composition.




Shooting with a single strobe will bring a world of color into the photos of those not currently using a strobe, as well as some very artistic lighting for even the most experienced underwater photographers. Positioning and using the strobe is very easy and the results are incredible. Happy shooting!


Interested in a strobe?  Call the team at Bluewater Photo to learn about the perfect strobe for you.



About the Author

Brent Durand is an avid California beach diver, photographer and writer dedicated to capturing unique underwater, ocean lifestyle and adventure images. Brent is editor of the Underwater Photography Guide. Make sure to follow UWPG on Facebook for updates on everything underwater-photography.



Further Reading


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!



Shooting Underwater Panoramas

Rico Besserdich
Advanced Technique: Capture Wide Underwater Vistas


Shooting Underwater Panoramas

Advanced Technique: Capture Wide Underwater Vistas

Text and Photos By Rico Besserdich




Panoramas are used very frequently in landscape and architectural photography, showing scenes that no lens in the world could capture with one single image - at least not with proper quality.

Photographic panoramas consist of a series of several photos shot in the same place, at the same time, and from the same shooting position. During post processing, the images of the series are stitched together using imaging software like Adobe Photoshop, Panorama Studio PRO or Panorama Maker.

Panoramas are a nice option for portraying underwater scenes in a really wide format, helping us to express what we've seen with our eyes during a dive through a single image.

Note: Panorama photography is complex and requires special equipment, often including tripods and nodal point adapters. These precise techniques can be applied underwater, but to keep things simple and to open this interesting style to all underwater shooters, I would like to introduce my “free-style” technique that works without any special equipment.


Fiddle Garden, Sharm El Sheikh/Red Sea. Canon 40D, Tokina 10-17mm, f/7.1, 1/100s, ISO 100.


What We Need


  • A camera, preferably equipped with a wide lens. Side note: the old-school of land-based panorama photography recommends using a 50mm prime lens as wide-angle lenses present perspective problems (i.e. stretching or warping near the edges) that are not always appreciated. But as a first step into underwater panorama photography, let's keep the optical issues aside and use the gear we have on the table. I've worked with the Sigma 10-20mm and with the Tokina 10-17mm and found them both to be suitable for u/w panoramas (although I prefer non-fisheye wide-angle lenses).
  • A nice wide subject/scene to shoot (wrecks, underwater landscapes, etc.)
  • Good underwater visibility. At least 15 meters (45ft) but 20 or more is better.
  • Excellent diving and buoyancy skills. Half of this technique depends on your diving skills.
  • Image editing software that is able to stitch images together, such as Photoshop or specialized tools like Auto Stitch, Autopano Pro or PanoramaPlus X4.


Dunraven Wreck, Red Sea. Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17mm, f/9, 1/125, ISO 400.


The Technique


1.  First, find yourself a nice subject/scene. Underwater landscapes, reefs, and wrecks have great panorama potential. Staying relatively shallow and working with ambient light brings the most pleasing and natural results.

2.  If possible, switch to manual focus. If this option does not exist, set the autofocus to center spot only. Back-button focus is another option to lock focus manually.

3.  Adjust your camera settings by measuring the scene/object you plan to shoot. Set your shutter, aperture, and ISO. Take a few test-shots across the entire scene, monitoring to the histogram in your camera's LCD display. Choose the best settings to create even exposure across the scene.

4.  Now stabilize your own position. Check your buoyancy, as it is important that you maintain the exact same position throughout the series of shots. Imagine a monopod. You are this monopod now. Get in an upright position (like standing in the water) and look through your camera's viewfinder.

5.  Stay in position; without changing depth, turn a bit to the left by pivoting as if your body is a monopod on a vertical axis. A very slight kick with your right fin should do the trick.

6.  With your eye through the viewfinder, frame the elements of your composition and take the first shot.

7.  While keeping your eye in the viewfinder, turn a bit to the right and frame the next image of the scene. Try to keep the overlap between single images to around 30%. In other words, the right border of image number 1 should not be the left border of image number 2 – each should overlap a bit. This is important for image stitching later.

8.  Take your second shot. Remember; stay in position. You are ‘standing’ in the water and you turn only around your own vertical axis. There is no swimming to the right or to the left, and definitely no change of depth. As mentioned before, half of this technique is a diving skill.

9.  Turn once more to the right and shoot the third photo of the scene. You could proceed with image 4, 5 and 6 of the panorama, however a 3-image composition is best while learning the technique.


Dakota airplane wreck, Bodrum/Turkey. Canon 40D, Sigma 10-20mm, f/10 , 1/6s, ISO 250.


Later, when reviewing the photos and selecting those to stitch together into a panorama, you might get slightly confused as to which image belongs to the panorama series and which one doesn’t. Here’s an easy way to remember: Shoot your own hand before and after each series. The pictures ‘between the hands’ belong to the panorama. Believe me - it helps!


Some Quick Tips:

  • Manual white balance saves you time when editing.
  • Once all settings are made, try to shoot the single images of your panorama series quickly. The longer you wait between the single shots, the higher the risk that your depth and shooting position will change, ruining the panorama.
  • Keeping a few meters distance from your scene lowers the risk of irreparable image distortions known as "parallax errors".
  • Never change camera settings in between images of a single panorama - all images need to be made using the same settings.


Close to shore, Bodrum/Turkey. Canon 40D, Sigma 10-20mm, f/8, 1/80s, ISO 125. 


Post Processing & Stitching


I rely on Photoshop’s PhotoMerge tool during post processing, starting by opening all images of the panorama in Adobe Camera Raw.

At this point you will want to adjust the white balance (if you used auto WB while shooting) and possibly make other adjustments including curves, contrast and color. Using the lens correction profiles of ACR comes in handy too. Be sure to apply any changes to one image to ALL images of the series by choosing “select all” -> “synchronize” in ACR. The panorama will look unbalanced if 3 images of 1 panorama have 3 different white balance corrections. Avoid any cropping at this stage as this comes in the final step.

Next, open the images in Photoshop and select "File" -> "Automate" -> "PhotoMerge". Tell PhotoMerge to add the opened files. There are a couple of options to select or deselect. I usually leave all of those at the default settings.

With a final OK, Photoshop will begin to merge your images into 1 panorama. This could take a little while so grab a coffee while you wait.

If all goes well, Photoshop presents you a single stitched image. The image might look a bit weird with uneven corners, so you will need to use the crop tool to create a clean rectangle crop. Once happy with your crop, merge the layers into one and perform any final image adjustments. Voila, your first underwater panorama shot. Congratulations!



Photoshop occasionally fails with the merging job, giving you an error message stating, "impossible to merge selected files".

Reason no 1:  You've moved around too much while shooting the series.

Reason no 2:  You've modified one of the RAW images in ACR but forgot to synchronize those alterations with the other images of the series/panorama.

Reason no 3:  Insufficient overlapping of images while shooting the series.


Ras Bareika, Red Sea. Canon 7D, Sigma 10-20mm, f/8, 1/80s, ISO 200. 


Photoshop’s panorama tool makes merging images very simple, however it’s still not perfect. A failure rate of 30% is quite normal due to the photographer’s “mistakes” while using the free-style panorama technique, so it’s always best to shoot each panorama series a couple of times. But after a little practice you will be able to shoot u/w images of a "different vision"!



About the Author

Rico Besserdich is a professional underwater photographer, artist & journalist based in Izmir/Turkey. He has been involved in photography since 1978 and became specialised in underwater photography in 2001.

He has written more than 100 photography-related articles that are published in various magazines all around the world, translated into 9 different languages. Beside his activities as photography contest judge, writer, photographer and lecturer, he is the photography editor of the Australian magazine 72&rising and the Artistic Underwater Photography workshop leader at the Saar College of Fine Arts (HBK Saar), Germany.



Further Reading


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!



Tips for Dive Model Photography

Christina & Eusebio Saenz de Santamaria
Photographing an Underwater Dive Model Made Easy


Tips for Dive Model Photography

Photographing an Underwater Dive Model Made Easy

Text and Photos By Christina & Eusebio Saenz de Santamaria




There is an old saying that goes “never work with animals or children due to their unpredictable nature”, but I guess the actor W.C. Fields, who coined this phrase, never tried his hand at dive model photography! The underwater realm is a far cry from the dry safety of a movie set, however the mercurial mixture of water, wildlife and breath-holding models presents a very different and sometimes equally challenging equation to work with. We have devised the following tips from years of experience freediving and shooting that we hope will help underwater photographers and models alike.


Model Aptitude

The model is just as important as the photographer since you will be working together as a team; both must have an aptitude for the job at task. It is essential to work with a model who is comfortable underwater and who can hold their breath with composure and bodily awareness. Freedivers or competitive swimmers make great oceanic subjects. Bear in mind that pool photography is vastly different to shooting with models in the ocean where there are different variables to contend with, including waves, currents, water temperatures and marine life. This is particularly pertinent when working with models together with creatures like sharks or marine mammals. Both model and photographer not only need to be comfortable in the water, but also have thorough knowledge of the animal and their behavior in order to achieve optimal photo results and in some circumstances, safety! Freediving with the large Caribbean reef sharks of Roatan, Honduras was a perfect example where both photographer and model needed knowledge, awareness and confidence to dive and shoot in quite exhilarating conditions.




Creative Concepts

Pre-planning and discussing a creative vision or concept for a photographic shoot with your model is essential in order to ensure that you are working in artistic unison. It is important to remember that seeing a human underwater with no breathing apparatus is a very curious sight for viewers since we have placed our model in a sublime submerged realm. Underwater, humans are dream-like and ethereal, so play with ideas that convey these emotions and sensations within the underwater landscape you are shooting. The most significant photo-shoot that comes to mind is our exploration of the Cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. These sunken pits in the jungle have deep mythic connections to the ancient Mayan civilization and with pristine waters, jagged limestone walls and piercing cathedral light we were able to create some striking, other-worldly images.





Be Spontaneous and Flexible

Pre-plan, however also be spontaneous and prepare for the unexpected. Creative concepts are essential, but don’t be restricted by them and always be ready to go with the flow of the ocean and all of her surprises. Unexpected angles of light, shadow, currents, water visibility and particularly marine life will mean that you need to be flexible and creative on the spot, both as a photographer and a model. Although it is advisable to choose a dive location that you have knowledge of beforehand, the ocean is it’s own beast and will throw many different variables at you - both the good and the bad. There have been circumstances where we have decided to call it a day when the conditions simply weren’t working in our favor and thus save our energies for the coming days, so take note to factor additional days into your shooting schedule. For the most part, the ocean has surprised us with the fantastic and fun, particularly when working with marine life. Freediving with the wild spinner dolphins of Hawaii was the perfect example of both model and photographer working together and improvising as the dolphins would play, twirl, twist and follow us as they wished.





Freediving versus Scuba Diving

As an underwater photographer, you need to ask yourself what is the best way to capture your image, on scuba or on breath-hold? While some photographers might not be strong freedivers, shallow water shooting may not require demanding breath-hold capabilities and may be more beneficial for the circumstances. As a freediving photographer there are many advantages, including being able to rise to the surface and discuss how the shoot is developing, what changes you want to make with your model or new spontaneous ideas that come to mind. Freediving also enables the photographer to move around freely and shoot from the surface to the depths all in one dive and thus capture different angles with ease. Marine life is more curious of people underwater without the noise and bubbles of scuba and so you are more likely to get closer shots. That said, you do need to be a reasonably strong freediver to be able to hold your breath, carry the equipment, frame your subject and stay safe. The first priority of freediving is safety, so this is only an option for photographers who have the required knowledge and experience.

Of course scuba diving is the most conventional option as a photographer, and it is very advantageous to stay underwater for an extended length of time. Scuba diving is also the best option for those who are not experienced with freediving. Before an underwater shoot on scuba, be sure to prepare clear communication hand signals with your model so that you can ‘talk’ underwater and adapt your shoot as the dive progresses.




Mermen and Mermaids

Women have conventionally been the subjects of underwater model photo shoots, probably because water possesses fluid feminine characteristics or because the myth of the mermaid lives on. Men, however, make great underwater models as well. When working with either, consider which angles, poses and compositions work best for females and for males and how this will contrast or compliment the underwater landscape, light and shadow. Women naturally appear more graceful and gentle underwater, which can easily be emphasized by the model and her body positions, whereas men need to consider angles and attitudes that convey masculinity and strength.
















On a final note, communication is key throughout all the pre-planning, shooting and even post-editing in order to achieve the best results for both model and photographer. You need to work together as a team, and in one way the photographer and model are very much like the director and actor on a movie set, except with the exciting and wildly unpredictable ocean as your stage.


About the Author

‘One ocean One breath’ is a creative collaboration between professional freedivers, husband and wife duo, Eusebio and Christina Saenz de Santamaria. Eusebio from Spain is the co-founder of ‘Apnea Total’, one of the world’s largest freediving education systems, and is one of the few men to have surpassed 100 metres (328 feet) in depth in the self-powered disciplines of freediving. Christina, originally from Australia, holds the record as the deepest Australian female freediver in history with dives to 82 metres (270 feet) in depth, and ranked in the top 5 deepest women in the world.

When not teaching or training on their island home of Koh Tao in Thailand, they are exploring the world’s ocean on one breath with camera in hand, learning and discovering more about their passions for freediving, underwater photography and filming.

For more information, please visit their websites:



Further Reading


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!



5 Reasons to go Mirrorless

Matt Krumins
Is a Mirrorless Camera Right for You?


5 Reasons to go Mirrorless

Is a Mirrorless Camera Right for You?

Text and Photos By Matt Krumins




As an underwater mirrorless shooter and u/w photography instructor I am frequently quizzed about why I shoot micro-four-thirds and not dSLR. Compact camera shooters often ask for advice on whether they should take the next step into the interchangeable lens systems.

The truth is that in my experience (from point-and-shoot to full frame dSLRs) the current generation mirrorless systems has struck the perfect balance between high-end image quality and physical practicality. Even in my commercial photography, our business is transitioning from our full frame kit to the more affordable and far more flexible Olympus OMD EM-1 mirrorless camera. Time and time again I have left gear at home because it was too cumbersome to lug around. They say, “the best camera is the one you always take with you”, but what if it could actually deliver top image quality as well? Cue the mirrorless cameras, where convenience meets quality.




1. Bigger Doesnt Always Mean Better

Saving your back and your excess luggage bill

With divers carrying around tens of kilos/pounds of dive equipment, the weight and size benefits of mirrorless camera systems has already swayed many photographic pros and enthusiasts.

Think back to the first television in your household. Do you ever yearn for ‘the good old days’ of the tube TV? Or, like me, do you kick back in front of your flat screen and admire how amazing the HD picture quality is and how convenient it is that this technology can sit so elegantly, mounted flush against your wall? This is exactly how I see the digital camera space. While no one is questioning the capability of dSLRs, they are still modeled around a bulky mechanical mirror system that was patented in 1861 (slightly older than the modern typewriter, patented in 1867). But like the flat screen TV, the mirrorless systems have replaced archaic components with miniaturized digital technology to achieve a smaller yet equally capable camera.

My entire Olympus OMD EM-5 rig, including camera, lenses (for both underwater and land), strobes, housing, glass dome port, tray & arms, all fits in my hand luggage when traveling…. just.




2. Bang For Your Buck

A bigger oven does not a good chef make

I recently read a story where somebody was hosting dinner and was complimenting an attending photographer on his images by saying something along the lines of, “I love your photographs; you must have a big professional camera,” to which he responded, “why thank you. And this is an amazing dinner; you must have an amazingly large oven.” When all is said and done, your photographs are the product of your hard work and your gear is simply a set of tools to help you best achieve it. Your images should be what make you a good photographer, not your ability to remortgage your house to afford a camera rig.

With imaging technology advancing so quickly, we are seeing that the gap between image quality on even the top dSLR and mirrorless systems reduced to the perception of ‘pixel-peepers’ and lab tests. The reality is that in your everyday shooting, pixel by pixel examination is irrelevant. A jaw-dropping photograph is art not science.

To that end, lets debunk the most common misconceptions about mirrorless image quality. This is based on my firsthand experience:


Rumor:  The noise levels on mirrorless cameras can’t stand up to high-end dSLRs.

Fact:  This is the most common criticism when comparing systems, but the reality is that the noise differences are only obvious in very extreme circumstances at rarely used high ISO ranges.


Rumor:  The high-end mirrorless cameras are only 16MP.

Fact:  While true, this is actually more than enough pixels for even large prints (look at the $6500 flagship 16MP Nikon D4S).


Rumor:  Lens sharpness on mirrorless systems can’t compete and the lenses aren't fast enough for the low depth of field I need.

Fact:  This comment predates the latest generation of fast primes and super-pro constant aperture lenses available. We’ve included some images in the article as rock-solid evidence.


Finally, it is important to note that these general comparisons are against the high end dSLRs on the market. The latest high-end mirrorless systems are capable of blitzing the low-mid end dSLR models.

To put this into context as divers, it is important to understand that while we shoot in extreme conditions physically, we generally bring light with us (strobes or otherwise), meaning that the high ISO advantage of top-end dSLRs is actually irrelevant to most of our shooting (90% of my own work is shot below ISO400). Over the past two years, my Olympus mirrorless prints have never been questioned when it comes to image quality, even when printed in large formats.




3. Keeping it Simple

Built-in tools to get results

When I go diving I am in my own tranquil bubble of heaven; my cares and concerns in the terrestrial world melt away and for that hour of scuba-silence my life feels complete. I am completely enthralled in viewing the underwater world with an artistic eye and capturing the things that I see as simply and as creatively as possible. This is where mirrorless cameras really shine.

Having an electronic viewfinder (EVF) and Live View LCD screen means mirrorless shooters can take advantage of a lag-free ‘live view’ experience traditionally found on point-and-shoot cameras. I change a setting and my live preview is immediately updated. This takes some of the guesswork out of your shooting and eliminates much of the trial and error associated with light metering with an optical viewfinder. This leaves you free to focus handy focusing tools like focus peaking and spot magnification, giving underwater shooters precise focus control in macro situations. It is also worth noting that being a completely digital experience, you are also able to switch these features on and off if you prefer the more traditional approaches.

When you look at a stunning image, do you scrutinize over how the photographer calculated the camera settings or simply admire the creative result? Personally, if I can capture an image with half the effort I am one happy person.




4. Everybodys Doing It

A fully supported camera system

Unfortunately for those seeking fame as a mirrorless pioneer, you are too late. These days almost every manufacturer is producing underwater housings, ports and accessories for the mirrorless systems and there is overwhelming evidence that these systems are not only here to stay, but the future. Any accessory you can get for your dSLR, you can almost certainly get for your mirrorless at a fraction of the cost.

In addition to underwater accessories, it is also worth noting that many mirrorless systems have access to a full range of lenses suited to underwater shooting. The micro-four-thirds system, used by Olympus and Panasonic, has over 45 lenses currently available as well as an extensive range of lens adaptors for ‘Franken-camera’ enthusiasts.




5. Upgrading Without Fear

Making the move from Compact to Mirrorless

The mirrorless systems are welcome news for compact shooters who traditionally would have been looking at dSLRs when upgrading. Being able to retain many of the same compact-camera image control characteristics (such as live view mentioned above) means that rather than re-learning how to shoot using an optical viewfinder, you are able to apply your current knowledge and style to your new mirrorless while taking advantage of the dSLR functionality.

In the past, there have been many reasons not to upgrade from a compact camera, but in 2014 the mirrorless system breaks down many of these barriers, offering low cost, feature-rich alternatives that are less intimidating and easier to learn.

A larger sensor, fit for dedicated lenses (rather than the wet-lens adaptors of compact cameras), as well as professional-grade accessories are just a few of the key advantages you can expect to enjoy when upgrading. But perhaps most attractive to compact shooters will be the lack of shutter-lag and lightning quick focusing speeds. In fact, the Olympus OMD EM-1 mirrorless camera has an incredibly fast autofocus that rivals high-end dSLR cameras. This bump in speed can be the difference between capturing your subject and missing it by the blink of an eye.





Mirrorless cameras are a relatively new player in the history-rich photographic game and are a format that should be recognized and applauded for breaking tradition. The top mirrorless brands have ensured a fully supported system that offers a progression of models catering to everyone from amateurs to pro shooters. In the underwater environment, mirrorless systems allow newer users to devote more attention to achieving creative results and allow pros to travel with a larger arsenal of lenses, ports and accessories without breaking the scales at airline check-in. These systems are also breaking down the cost barrier for talented compact shooters wanting to upgrade to a more capable system, and can be seen as a catalyst for enthusiasts and pros to jump ship form their traditional cameras and embrace the future of imaging. 


Mirrorless camera guide


You can find out some of the best mirrorless options for underwater photography by visiting the Bluewater Photo guide to the best mirrorless cameras, published by our sister site which is also run by Scott Gietler.


About the Author

Matt Krumins is the owner and operator of Deeper Than Diving UW Photography and ambassador to the Olympus underwater housing range. His experience in UW photography is concentrated around the Asia Pacific region and it has led him to launch his own unique, fun and contemporary brand of UW photography courses based in Australia. To follow his photography and course information jump onto and be sure to check out  


Further Reading



Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!



Tips for Artistic Macro Shooting

Rico Besserdich
Thinking Outside the Box to Capture Stunning Macro Detail


Tips for Artistic Macro Shooting

Thinking Outside the Box to Capture Stunning Macro Detail

Text and Photos By Rico Besserdich




Macro is arguably the most popular underwater photography category, attracting divers in all corners of the globe.

Classic underwater macro photography has its own styles, techniques and objectives. We have all seen the great images produced with these techniques, but sometimes the images start to look very similar to each other, especially after the 100th pygmy seahorse or frogfish photo. This is when the desire to shoot different macro images begins to grow in u/w shooters’ hearts.

Abstract macro images keep things fresh for me, and in this article I introduce a few tips for artistic macro shooting. These aren’t meant to replace the classic macro techniques, but simply to serve as a little inspiration :-)



I use a CANON 7D in an Easydive LEO II Pro housing, 2 Sea&Sea YS110alpha strobes. My lens of choice for macro is the CANON EF-S 60mm Macro. On rare occasions I use a SubSea +10 wet diopter attached to my housing's macro port, but in most cases I am more than happy with just the 60mm lens. All my camera and strobe settings are manual.

Any underwater camera system capable of shooting macro can be used for artistic macro shooting. The photographer’s creativity is always more important than the specific gear.


Canon 7D, 60mm macro lens. 2 x Sea&Sea YS-110alpha strobes. F/8, 1/125s, ISO 200.


Tip 1:  Abstract

"Like abstract art, abstract photography concentrates on shape, form, color, pattern and texture. The viewer is often unable to see the whole object. The focus is often only a small part of it. Viewers of an abstract shot may only know the essence of the abstraction or understand it by what is implied. Normally the object or image will not be a literal view of the subject. The subject tends to come second to seeing…" - Damon Guy


Shooting abstract compositions can be a very powerful tool for underwater macro shooting. The idea is to capture specific details on a subject to create an open-ended "message" that can be interpreted by the imagination of the beholder, instead of fish IDs or bland shots of marine life documentary value.

Look for patterns, textures and color variations, as well as curves, shapes and geometry. Almost every common macro subject has abstract potential and we just need to recognize it and then capture that idea with the camera.

Shooting Tip:  Any aperture/shutter combination works here as long as it provides a properly exposed photo. Proper macro / super macro strobe positioning is crucial since we are shooting very small detail.


Canon 40D, 60mm macro lens, Ikelite DS125 strobe. F/11, 1/80, ISO 200.


Canon 7D, 60mm macro lens. Easydive "revolution" video light. F/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 250.


Tip 2:  Bokeh

Using bokeh (shallow depth of field) plays a very important role in artistic macro shooting. A common practice in macro photography is to strive for maximum depth of field by using very small apertures, but for artistic shots we often do the exact opposite, using the blurriness as a creative tool. This technique can be used to keep the main subject well isolated from the background, which this comes in handy when the background is distracting (rocks, coral or other disturbing structures right behind the subject). It’s important to have a calm hand, since achieving sharp focus on an exact point of the subject can be difficult.

Shooting Tip:  When working on Bokeh shots I often set my camera to f/2.8 or f/3.5 – basically a wide-open aperture. The shutter speed is then set to 1/250s (max. strobe synchronization speed of my camera) and my strobes are usually set to minimum power output.


Canon 7D, 60mm macro lens. 2 Sea&Sea YS110alpha strobes. F/3.5, 1/160s, ISO 200.


Canon 40D, 60mm macro lens. 1 Ikelite DS125 strobe. F/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 200.


Tip 3:  High-Key

In simple terms, the high-key lightning technique intentionally overexposes key elements of the composition, most often the image's background. We see this technique used frequently with models in a studio, but not often in underwater macro photography. Ideally, the overexposed background will be a clean white color.

The easiest way to shoot high-key is to find a subject that already has a bright background, such as sand or bright-colored rocks. For me, sand always works best. An important step if shooting strobes on TTL (or still images with a video light) is to set the light measurement of the camera to spot metering, which measures the exposure of the main subject in the dead center of the frame and not the sand around it. This way the camera will expose for the darker subject, leaving the light background overexposed. Voila...a white background!

For high-key shots, my strobe is generally mounted on 40cm strobe-arms on top of the housing, pointing straight down towards the subject. The idea behind is to have the sandy ground reflect the strobe light. Sometimes I use a second strobe that comes from the left and works as a fill light (very useful when it comes to dark nudis).


Canon 7D, 60mm macro lens, 2x Sea&Sea YS110alpha strobe. F/3.5, 1/250, ISO 100.


Canon 40D, 60mm macro lens with +10 diopter. 1 Sea&Sea YS110alpha strobe. F/4, 1/250, ISO 100.



Do you always shoot macro with maximum depth of field? If so, try the opposite! Black backgrounds? Try the opposite! Documentation / Fish ID style photos? Try the opposite!

Artistic and abstract u/w photography is a fun way to add variety to your portfolio and can be used with very common subjects to help make your images stand out from the masses. Experimentation and creativity are key, so give it a try on your next dive!


Canon 40D, 60mm macro lens with +10 diopter. 2 x Sea&Sea YS110alpha strobe. F/4, 1/180, ISO 100.


About the Author

Rico Besserdich is a professional underwater photographer, artist & journalist based in Izmir/Turkey. He has been involved in photography since 1978 and became specialized in underwater photography in 2001.

He has written more than 100 photography-related articles that are published in various magazines all around the world, translated into 9 different languages. Beside his activities as photography contest judge, writer, photographer and lecturer, he is the photography editor of the Australian magazine "72&rising" and the "artistic underwater photography" workshop leader at the Saar Academy of Fine Arts (HBK Saar), Germany. View Rico's website at or follow him at


Further Reading


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!



Top 5 Shooting Tips for Underwater Snoots

Matt Krumins
Creating Artistic Photos with Narrow Beams of Light


Top 5 Shooting Tips for Underwater Snoots

Creating Artistic Photos with Narrow Beams of Light

Text and Photos By Matt Krumins




Unlike some of my warm water counterparts, my diving patch is located in Victoria, Australia. It rarely cracks 20 degrees Celsius, 20m visibility is astonishing and the vast majority of our ocean floor is a messy and complicated mix of weeds, sponges, broken shell and sand. Luckily, this visually puzzling bottom composition camouflages a treasure trove of macro life that surrounds our piers, and it can all be found in just a few meters of water.

The challenge faced by underwater photographers is this: how do you photograph such a small critter amongst its camouflaged home without all of your images becoming bland scientific identification shots? How do you take a photograph with an artistic spin that is more suited to an art gallery than a textbook?

When you consider that photography is simply the art of creatively capturing light, it makes sense that as an underwater photographer you should have the ability to actually control your light beyond the standard intensity dial. With the exception of some strobes such as the ‘zoomable’ Olympus UFL-2, you are usually limited to a 100-degree light output flooding your entire scene; weeds, critter and all.



The Snoot in Underwater Photography

For those who don’t know, a snoot is a device that affixes to the end of your strobe and narrows the 100-degree beam down to a fine point or ‘spotlight’. Some strobes do this via a series of plastic tubes representing a kind of funnel, but quite new to the market is the RetraUWT LSD (Light Shaping Device). This device allows different aperture discs to be used, projecting a variety of light patterns in a number of shapes. The beauty of this is that you have more control than ever, it’s quick to change apertures, it’s custom built for your strobe’s model and (importantly) it’s neutrally buoyant.



The concept of the snoot is easy enough to understand, so straight out of the box I had some high expectations on what I was going to achieve on my first dive; but as per usual with new toys, there was a whole new learning curve. So after a number of practice dives and snoot-shooting dives, I want to share with you my top 5 tips to help you skip the hardships and get straight to the results.


1. The Right Snoot with the Right Strobe

This tip is short and sweet. When you are trying to aim your snoot at your subject, the only thing that can accurately show you where it is pointing is the strobe’s focus/modeling light (which is also being focused down through the snoot). I have seen people try to line it up visually without a focus light guiding them, and I have seen every one of them leave the water cursing their gear. Keep in mind that focus lights can become extremely dull due to light loss within the snoot itself if the light and snoot aperture do not line up. Strobes with a focus light in the center work best, however there are snoots designed for off-center lights as well. It is always best to check compatibility with your supplier.



2. The Right Conditions

As you’re aware, dive conditions like visibility don’t generally affect macro photography. The same goes for macro snoot photography, however there are some condition considerations when taking the snoot down. First, you need to accept that with snoot photography you are generally photographing very small critters with a very small beam of light, which means that you are going to want to choose dive conditions with very little surge, helping you to stay steady without destroying a dive site.

The other less obvious consideration is to choose days where the lighting conditions are a little darker; overcast days, early morning, late afternoon or (ideally) taking your snoot out on night dives. The reason for this is that your camera settings are likely limited to a max shutter speed of 1/250th, which in bright sunlight means you will need to stop your aperture down to extreme levels in order to darken out your surroundings (f/16-22). This can cause a loss of sharpness and also limits your ability to maintain shallow depth of field. Having naturally dark or dim conditions makes it easy to achieve black backgrounds as well as helping to see the focus light beam when aiming your snoot (believe me, there is nothing more frustrating than trying to see your focus light with a snoot when the sun is beaming above you).



3. Snoot Placement

When you see most snoot shots, they are taken with the snoot placed directly above the critter. This is usually done with a series of arms, clamps and a few minutes of set-up to align the snoot’s ‘spotlight’ to the center of your frame. My issue with this is that for every different subject you want to photograph, you will find yourself loosening clamps, moving your snoot, and realigning the ‘spotlight’ only to realized that your critter has moved along to a more interesting and daring photographer. Experience has taught me that it is actually much simpler to live on the edge and hand-hold the snoot in your left hand, freeing up your right hand to operate the shutter release. After all, your arm is far quicker and more flexible than a ball and clamp system.

The other advantage of hand-holding your snoot is that you are not limited in your lighting creativity. Spot lighting subjects is one creative approach, but how about playing with selective lighting with different snoot angles? You will be surprised at how many photographic opportunities this will open up if it is quick and easy to reposition your light. Take my nudibranch rhinophore shot (below) as an example! The only thing you need to ensure is that you are using the optimal working distance for the snoot. This is the distance from your snoot to the point of the subject where the beam of light is in focus. If it is too close or far away it becomes a soft beam with little definition. You can find the working distance for your snoot by looking at the snooted light beam from your focus light and moving the strobe in and out from your subject.



4. Controlling Strobe Power

Once you have maxed our your shutter speed and stopped your aperture down to create black backgrounds, you will find that most prosumer strobes will need to be cranked to high power to illuminate your subject. However if your strobe is too bright when being focused down to a precise dot of light, you tend to get light spill onto the surrounding areas, leaving you with beautifully spot-lit subjects but no defined spotlight. Finding the balance between the power required to light your subject subtly and not blowing out the exposure can be a bit tricky, but practice makes perfect. The important thing to remember is that from an eco-diving point of view, you are best starting dimmer and working your way up to the perfect balance. Your strobes are very powerful and many critters are very sensitive to light; fried fish are not my cup-of-tea. Once you have your level set you will only make minor adjustments throughout the dive.



5. Processing the Blacks

All RAW files require some form of post production, especially snoot images. Light spill from strobes, slightly off-center subjects and imperfectly shaped ‘spotlights’ are just a few of the common problems faced when snoot-shooting. Using tools in Adobe Lightroom such as the crop tool and the Radial Filter allow you to clean up any of these slight imperfections and really make your subjects ‘pop’. The other particularly helpful tool is your ‘Blacks Slider,’ which allows you to crush the blacks in your image. When editing, be sure to monitor your histogram and sample your subject surroundings to make sure that the blacks are in fact pure black.

Ultimately, practice makes perfect when using a snoot and like everything in life, some things will work for some and not for others. To me, the most important thing is to never limit your creativity and always dare to try something different.




About the Author

Matt Krumins is the owner and operator of Deeper Than Diving UW Photography and ambassador to the Olympus underwater housing range. His experience in UW photography is concentrated around the Asia Pacific region and it has led him to launch his own unique, fun and contemporary brand of UW photography courses based in Australia. To follow his photography and course information jump onto and be sure to check out  


Further Reading


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!



Shooting Fast Action Underwater

Todd Winner
Tips for Capturing the Moment of Peak Action

Shooting Fast Action Underwater

Tips for Capturing the Moment of Peak Action

Text and Photos By Todd Winner




There's nothing quite like capturing the moment of peak action when shooting a fast subject. Whether it's a sea lion or billfish swimming by at breakneck speed or a small jawfish poking its head out of the hole, timing is everything.

This is one of those areas where a camera/lens with fast autofocusing will excel. High-end DSLRs will perform the best, although compact and mirrorless cameras should not be overlooked, especially in situations with lots of light. Regardless of camera, every underwater photographer will find a benefit in using the tips below to come away with the perfect shot.


Lower Strobe Power

Most strobes take at least two seconds to recycle after a full dump, so by setting your strobes to a lower power setting you will be able to shoot a lot faster. If you're not getting enough strobe light with the lower settings, go ahead and increase your ISO.

If you're shooting TTL with an internal pop-up flash you will have to wait for the internal strobe to recycle. This will take longer if the camera is telling the flash to fire close to full power. If this is the case and you find that you're spending too much time waiting for the internal flash to recycle, you can shoot your strobes on manual power and set your internal flash to the lowest power setting (reducing recycle time). Other alternatives are to switch to electronic sync cords or a fiber-optic trigger, depending on your camera, housing and strobes.


Mantis Shrimp cleaning out its burrow. Catalina Island, California.
Canon EOS 5D Mark lll, 100mm, 1/160, f/8.0, iso 100, 2 Ikelite DS160


Use Continuous Shutter Mode

Setting your camera to take multiple images as you hold the shutter release down can give you a slight advantage when shooting fast action. As long as your strobes are set to a lower power they should be able to keep up with a few shots before needing to fully recycle. Many cameras have both a high and low setting for continuous shutter. I find the low setting to be fast enough for most underwater shooting scenarios.

Another advantage is that most strobes tend to still fire after the first couple shots, but at a lower output. This results in some bracketed strobe exposures, which might save an image that might have been blown out by your default power setting (i.e. if a subject passes by closer than expected).


Shark Handler putting a blue shark into tonic immobility. California
Canon EOS 5D Mark lll, 16-35 @16mm, 1/250, f/10, iso 640, 2 Ikelite DS160



Fast Memory Cards with Large Capacity

If you have any worry about filling up your memory card then you definitely need one with a larger capacity. The exact size will ultimately depend on your camera and shooting style. I typically use 32G cards with my Canon 5D Mark III. When you first take an image the file is stored in the camera’s buffer, and by using memory cards with a fast read and write speed the camera can clear the buffer faster so that you can continue to shoot. If you use a card with a slower read speed, then the camera’s buffer may fill while writing the data to the memory card. Fast write speeds will also make downloading images onto your computer much faster. Learn more about choosing a memory card for underwater photography.


Market Squid mating. Redondo Beach, California.
Canon EOS 5D Mark lll, 8-15 @16mm, 1/100, f/13, iso 320, 2 Ikelite DS160



Multiple Autofocus Points

When you're shooting larger subjects like sea lions or dolphins in clear water, try using multiple autofocus points. It's not as precise as using a small focus point but it can be much faster for the camera to lock focus, especially as subjects move around and enter/leave the frame. I recommend using the largest autofocus selection that will get the job done.

For macro, I prefer to use a single focus point most of the time since depth of field is oftentimes more critical than for wide-angle.


Blue Spot Jawfish feeding. Sea of Cortez, Mexico.
Canon EOS 5D Mark lll, 100mm, 1/200, f/11, iso 160, 2 Ikelite DS160


Focus and Recompose

When you are using a single or small cluster of autofocus points, the quickest way to capture a shot is to focus on the point you’d like and then recompose before pushing the shutter. This can be done with the help of either focus lock or back button focus. You could use the half-press focus method, but you will need to refocus between every shot, which is not ideal for capturing fast action and behavior. Regardless, both of these techniques will enable you to capture more “keepers” than trying to manually move the focus point in the viewfinder.


Pikeblenny fight. Sea of Cortez, Mexico.
Canon EOS 5D Mark lll, 100mm, 1/200, f/11, iso 100, 2 Ikelite DS160


Octopus fight. Redondo Beach, California.
Canon EOS 5D Mark lll, 16-35 @35mm, 1/50, f/13, iso 320, 2 Ikelite DS160



About the Author

Todd Winner is a professional underwater photographer and cinematographer, PADI scuba instructor and owner of Winner Productions, a boutique post production facility catering to Hollywood's most elite cinematographers. Since taking up underwater photography in 1990, Todd Winner has won over 60 international underwater photo competitions. His images have been published in numerous magazines and online publications. His work has been featured in commercial advertising, museums and private galleries.  To see more of Todd's work or join him on an underwater workshop, please visit


Further Reading


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!



Shallow Depth of Field Underwater

Victor Tang
Settings, Shooting Tips, Composition, Focusing & More


Shallow Depth of Field Underwater

Settings, Shooting Tips, Compositions, Focusing & More

Text and Photos By Victor Tang




Most new underwater photographers learn quickly that capturing sharp images of subjects is essential. When I first started shooting, internet research led me to realize that one of the best ways to ensure sharp photos is to have as much depth of field (the extent of the photo that is in focus) as possible, which led me to use an aperture of F8 on my Canon G12 almost all the time when shooting macro. F8, along with a fast shutter speed of 1/250s, became my default setting as I happily shot away with my Canon G12. That magic setting was bumped up to F22 after upgrading to a DSLR with larger image sensor.

It was not long before I started to be transfixed by photos where only select areas of the macro subject was in sharp focus, drawing the viewer to appreciate that part of the marine creature and presenting it in a new light. I had already been experimenting with these focal points and soon realized that the technique I was applying was a shallow depth of field (DOF). I now use the technique frequently to add some fresh dimension to my dive trip portfolios.


Peacock Mantis Shrimp. Nikon 105VR, Kenko 1.4x Teleconverter, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s. ISO100, F8, 1/250s. 



Preparing To Shoot Shallow DOF

Taking photos with a shallow DOF is essentially normal macro photography but with a few changes. Below are some tips to help make the learning curve less challenging:


  • POWER DOWN YOUR STROBES!!! This point can not be emphasized enough. Creating a shallow DOF requires aperture settings that are much wider than standard macro photography, and that means more light will reach the image sensor. Using the strobe power settings from an F22 shot will guarantee a grossly overexposed image when shooting at much shallower depths of field (a result of the wider aperture). Start off with the strobe power settings between the minimum and one to two steps stronger until you can anticipate the power needed.
  • It is very hard to get a black background. Shooting at wide apertures means that more ambient light will be present in the shot, especially in DSLR systems where there is a limit to the shutter speed when using flash (remember, shutter speed controls ambient light). More often than not, the area behind the subject will be visible.
  • Try to compose the image with as much depth as possible. In other words, “Fish ID” side profile compositions may not work because the bulk of the subject will likely be in the same plane of focus, resulting in minimal depth. Head-on facial portraits work the best since most of the subject's body will be behind the thin plane of focus, ensuring that it creates depth and forms a blurred background (bokeh).
  • Move the camera’s focus points around the frame. Shooting with shallow depths of field allows very little leeway in placement of the focal point in order to have the correct area in focus, whereas deeper DOFs allow much more leeway in placing the focal point before the critical area becomes noticeably out of focus.

Keep these things in mind when working with shallow depth of field on your next macro dive!


Squat Shrimp. Nikon 105VR, Kenko 1.4x teleconverter, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s. ISO100, F6.3, 1/250s. 


Ribbon Eel. Nikon 105VR, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s. ISO100, F5.6, 1/250s. 


Lovely Headshield Slug. Nikon 105VR, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s. ISO200, F6.3, 1/320s. 



5 Common Subjects for Shallow DOF

Capturing interesting photos of subjects with a shallow DOF get easier with practice. Here are some subjects that can easily be found on many reefs, allowing underwater photographers to track their progress and improvement:


1)  Corals and Sedentary Worms

The single greatest advantage of shooting these stalwarts of the reef with a shallow DOF is that they tend to stick around for the whole dive (and then some). This allows the photographer to get a feel of how different aperture settings will affect the results of the shot without fear of the worms or corals scooting away like marine creatures tend to do.

A good learning exercise is to start off with the widest aperture and progressively take shots with smaller and smaller apertures to better appreciate how different settings will affect the image. This is also a good opportunity to play around with strobe settings to get a feel of how much flash power is needed to attain optimum exposure at each setting. One might think this a waste of a dive, but this understanding of aperture can go a long way to reducing the time needed to get that perfect shot with more skittish subjects.


Mushroom Leather Coral. Nikon 105VR, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s. ISO100, F4.2, 1/250s. 


Feather Duster Worm. Nikon 105VR, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s. ISO200, F6.3, 1/320s. 



2)  Lizardfish

As ambush predators, they rely on the art of inactivity to feed themselves and are some of the best candidates for shooting shallow DOF. The lizardfish’s flat and sharply tapered anatomy has eyes perched at the top of the body, and more often than not there is nothing directly behind the eyes, making it easier to create depth.

Lizardfishes, however, are slightly more skittish than other ambush predators. As a result, they have to be approached slowly and with care. They tend to be pretty sizable, so it's easy to use a longer focal length lens like a 105mm to fill the frame and still be far enough away not to scare them off.


Lizardfish. Nikon 105VR, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s. ISO200, F8, 1/320s. 



3)  Yellow Tail Blenny

This particular species, commonly found in little nooks and crannies in the reef, is by far the least camera shy of the Blennies. It may scurry back down its little refuge if approached too aggressively, but more often than not they come back out to stare right at the lens port as if hypnotized by their own reflection. I have seen lens ports come very close to the Yellow Tail Blenny without them flinching, so shorter focal length lenses like a 60mm can be deployed quite easily.

One potential downside is that the holes they reside in tend to be “flat” in nature, which may lead to a distracting background. This is where the Blenny’s friendliness can come in handy. If you find the Yellow Tail Blenny to close to the entrance of its hole, retreat a little, stay still and soon it may extend itself out of the hole and towards you! One can then move slowly closer to frame the Blenny and blur the background more. The transparent rims of its eyes form an integral part of the image, thus for best results try to focus on the rims and not the round black pupil.


Yellow-tail Blenny. Nikon 105VR, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s. ISO200, F9 and 1/320s. 



4)  Hermit Crabs

Hermit Crabs lend themselves very nicely to shallow DOF photography because of the uniqueness of their eyes. They stick out far from the body, helping the photographer immensely to find the distance to blur the background. There is just one pretty dampening downside: the eyes of the hermit crab are tiny and they move around a lot!

An effective method for shooting shallow DOF with a hermit crab is to first watch the crab and compose your background. Think of where the eyes should be in the image and slowly observe the crab's eye movements to determine where they usually stop. Next, place the focus point at that spot, making adjustments to framing as necessary. Then it’s just a matter of patience and seizing the chance to take the shot when everything is lined up. This may take some time to achieve and a bit of luck is needed, but well worth the effort. Hermit crabs' mainly sedentary nature means a 60mm lens may suffice, although a longer focal length could be just the thing to accord them enough personal space to really come out of their shells.


Dark Knee Hermit Crab. Tamron 60mm, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s. ISO200, F5.6, 1/320s. 



5)  Banded Coral Shrimp

These essential cleaner shrimps, mainly found in crevices on the reef or beneath human rubbish like tires, serve up something interesting and versatile for shallow DOF photography. Banded Coral Shrimp eyes are situated more or less in the center of the creature lengthwise. This means that we can create depth, not just in the background with the shrimp’s body, but also have a strong foreground with its claws out in front.  

Banded Coral Shrimps do pose some challenges for underwater macro photography. They tend to prefer the comforts of their crevices when not out cleaning, and when they do come onto the reef they tend to move all over the place, forcing the photographer to react quickly. Trying to get their tiny eyes in focus was just not hard enough! This is definitely a job for a 100mm macro lens, as the shrimps’ long antennae can sense you at a distance and send them into flight mode.


Banded Coral Shrimp. Nikon 105VR, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s. ISO100, F5, 1/250s. 



An Essential Skill In The Toolbox

The underwater world is full of the weird and wonderful, with marine life displaying an array of abilities and adaptations that simply boggle the mind. Using a shallow depth of field to isolate and feature these facets of the deep is undoubtedly one of the most effective methods an underwater photographer can use to showcase their beauty to the masses. There are other options in macro photography, but mastery of this technique will open up new perspectives and opportunities, and it has always been but a command dial away.



About the Author

Victor Tang is the founder of Wodepigu Water Pixel, an adventure dive company and photography consultancy with a nose for off the beaten track dive destinations.  When not stranded on shore with other pursuits as a musician and TV producer, Victor is on the prowl around Southeast Asia searching for new pristine waters to explore. His sister will always tease him for taking an oath never to take a camera underwater again after his first try in Malapascua, but lately he carries a camera anywhere he goes.


Further Reading


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


Syndicate content