10 Essential Ambient Light U/W Photo Tips

Scott Gietler
Ten shooting techniques you need to know in shallow water or when shooting without strobes


10 Essential Ambient Light Underwater Photo Tips

Ten Shooting Techniques you Need to Know When Shooting Without Strobes

Text and Photos By Scott Gietler




Shooting underwater photos with ambient light is a great way to add variety to your portfolio, whether it's sharks, split-shots (aka over-unders) or silhouettes. I recently spent some time shooting ambient light in Kona, Hawaii and Fakarava, French Polynesia and put together some essential tips to get incredible shots next time you're in the water without strobes.


The Essential Tips:


1 - Get a Big Dome for over/unders

It is much easier to compose and shoot split-shots with a larger dome port. Remember to shoot over/under shots on sunny days. Shoot at a small F-stop. Read more over-under split shot tips.

Photo from Fakarava, French Polynesia, with 8-inch dome port, Tokina 10-17mm lens



2 - Test your Exposures

Make sure to use exposure compensation to nail the exposure just right without over or under exposing. Take some test shots before the money shot appears in front of you.

Oceanic whitetip shark from Kona, Hawaii with Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens.



3 - Shoot with the Sun Behind You

The sun will light up the scene if the sun is behind you, eliminating dark shadows and bringing more color into the scene.



4 - Use Lightroom to Add Color and Contrast

Also be sure to check out my article 'Lightroom for the Rest of Us'. In this example, the color temp was warmed up, the contrast, clarity and vibrance increased and the blacks adjusted.








5 - Shoot with the Sun in Front of You for rays

When the sun is in front of you and directly overhead (mid-day), you can capture incredible sun-rays.



6 - Try Black and White Conversions

Many ambient light photos look great in black and white, so try converting your shots to see how they look. These Pilot whales from Kona, Hawaii looks great in black & white.









7 - Shooting Directly Up for Silhouettes

Make sure your subject is underexposed to avoid "light leakage" (silvertip siulhouette)

Silvertip shark from Fakarava, French Polynesia



8 - Get Close to your Subject

Getting close will bring out the best possible color in your photos. Notice how the corals in the background are blue, even though they are at the same depth as the corals in the foreground.


9 - Shoot a Reef that is Equidistant to the Camera

For great colors throughout the photo, shoot a reef that is equidistant to the camera. This is the best way to avoid the color from being absorbed by the water as distance increases.

Coral reef at Kirby's, Anilao, Philippines



10 - Shoot at or Near the Surface

This provides the best light and color since there is less water it must penetrate.




About the Author

Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel and the Underwater Photography Guide. He enjoys helping others learn underwater photography online, in the store and during international photo trips he attends with customers.


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!



3 Quick Tips for Dive Buddy Photos

Brent Durand
Diver in Scene Photo Essay written on Location in Tulamben, Bali


3 Quick Tips for Dive Buddy Photos

Diver in Scene Photo Essay written on Location in Tulamben, Bali

Text and Photos By Brent Durand


Diver in Scene



As underwater photographers we like nothing more than sharing photos of what we’ve seen underwater. But at some point, our audience will stifle a yawn on during fish portrait #26. So how do we keep it interesting?

Answer:  Show them photos of you and your dive buddy in action! 


Dive Buddy Photo Tips

1) Try close-focus-wide-angle

Find an interesting foreground element that has negative space behind it. The key to a successful CFWA shot is depth. Not only does your dive buddy keep an eye on you underwater, but they are a mobile “depth-creation tool.” Make sure they’re ok being a dive model (prior to the dive), and then use them to fill in that negative space of you CFWA composition. Remember that you’ll need to return the favor if you’re both photographers.


Diver in Scene


2) Look at the camera or don’t look at the camera.

If you’re shooting close-focus wide-angle, then your buddy should be looking towards the foreground subject. But if you’re shooting your dive buddy in open water, ask them to look directly into the camera, since eye contact helps create a more intimate portrait.


Diver in Scene


3) Be prepared before working with your buddy.

Be sure to set up your shot before you ask you buddy to model. This way you can focus on working with them instead of the composition and lighting.


Diver in Scene


I’ve been using these tips with Quinn here in Bali, Indonesia during the 1st leg of our Best of Southeast Asia tour – visiting 14 dive resorts over 8-weeks. Follow our blog for photo essays, travel tips, insider resort reports and our video series (giving you an inside look at each dive resort). Visit the Best of Southeast Asia website.


Diver in Scene


About the Author

Best of Southeast Asia

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. Brent will be leading an epic 14-resort Best of SouthEast Asia tour with daily photo and video updates from Aug 16th - Oct 16th 2014.


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!



Beginner's Guide to GoPro for Underwater Video

Brent Durand
Settings, Filters, Lights, Shooting Tips, Editing & more


Beginner's Guide to GoPro for Underwater Video

Settings, Filters, Lights, Shooting Tips, Editing & More

 By Brent Durand


GoPro Hero 3+ Underwater Video Tips



GoPro video cameras have become incredibly popular with divers over the last couple years, set up in a variety of ways to capture fleeting moments underwater. Pole cams, selfie poles, housing mounts, handles, trigger grips, dome ports, tray/arm setups, mask mounts, spear gun mounts and all sorts of other accessories are allowing divers to capture their underwater visions and share them online.

Let’s take a look at the basic functions of the GoPro Hero cameras and how to capture beautiful underwater video. 

Note:  Revised for GoPro HERO4 with firmware updates, but applies to all but the earliest GoPro models.


How do I Start Shooting Underwater Video?

You can shoot video with your GoPro almost right out of the box. Once you win the battle through the theft-resistant packaging, the first step is to charge the battery. This is done by inserting the battery into the camera and then connecting the camera to a USB plug via the supplied cable. You can also buy a GoPro dual battery charger.

The camera is fully charged once the red charging light goes off. Insert the camera into the housing while paying special attention not to have any hair, lint, dust, sand or other debris on the housing’s white O-ring on the back cover, or the notch it fits into on the housing. The housing will flood and drown the camera if this seal is dirty!

Turn the camera on by holding the front button for a second and begin recording video by pushing the top button. Stop recording with the same button. Small red LED lights will flash on front and back of the housing while actively recording. Note that the Hero 3 will turn on after depressing the button for two seconds but that you need to release the button on the Hero 3+ after two seconds for it to turn on. The HERO4 takes a second but turns on with a 1 second push.

The GoPro HERO4 Silver edition features a LCD screen on back, while the HERO4 Black does not. Why splurge for the Black edition? Because it features fast frame rates used for smoother slow motion video.

While there is no screen on the Hero 3+, the camera shoots with a very wide perspective and you’ll capture your subject as long as the camera is pointed accurately. Alternatively, you could purchase the GoPro LCD Touch Bacpac. The Bacpac will let you see what you're filming, however it will drain the battery quickly.


What Video Resolution do I use?

The GoPro Hero 3+ default is set to 1080p SuperView 30fps. If this is your first time shooting video, know that this is great HD resolution / frame rate and you’re good to go. More advanced users will experiment with the video settings, perhaps choosing 60fps or even faster frame rates in order to slow these down in post processing for smooth slow motion scenes. Advanced users will also experiment with higher resolutions, which allows you to zoom/crop your footage.

If you have the HERO4, be sure to check out our GoPro HERO4 Review and Settings.

One thing to keep in mind is that the higher resolution and framerate, the more demands you will be placing on your computer for editing. Make sure not to record 4k video for your entire trip only to learn that your laptop doesn’t have the processing power to work with the footage!


GoPro Studio for Underwater Video

Tutorial:  Editing underwater video with GoPro Studio 2.0.


When do I use a Red or Magenta Filter?

Filters are used in underwater video to bring red light back into the picture, providing more color and contrast for the scene. Red filters bring the red color back into blue water while magenta filters are for green water.

To learn the specifics of using filters on the GoPro HERO4, Hero 3+ and Hero 3, check out:

Guide to GoPro Underwater Filters

Video:  When to Use GoPro Filters Underwater


When do I use a Video Light and how do I Attach it?

A video light(s) is also used to bring color and contrast into underwater scenes. These lights, some of which are very powerful, can only reach a few feet, so they’re best used with a prominent subject close to the camera (a reef, school of fish, shark, coral, etc.).

To mount video lights, GoPro shooters must first purchase a tray and handles for their housing. The lights will attach to the ends of these handles either directly or with arm extensions and clamps.

Learn more about lights for underwater video.

View more GoPro Underwater Mounts.


How do I Create a Time-lapse for my Dive Video?

I frequently hear folks asking how to make a time-lapse video in their GoPro. While this software update is probably not very far off, it’s just not possible today. Time-lapse video must be created during post processing.

The most popular way to do this is by recording a series of images with the interval timer (in the HERO4 it's the 3rd mode with a picture of a camera and clock, while in the Hero 3+ it's the 4th mode. Your GoPro HERO4 has several different interval settings accessed via the settings menu, and each will be useful for different time-lapses depending on the intensity of the action. For example, using a .5s interval for a packing timelapse but a 5 or 10s interval for a sunset with moving clouds.

During post processing you can import this series of photos in order to turn it into a video. GoPro’s Studio software makes it as easy as possible.


Quick Shooting Tips

1)   If you’re not using a tray and handles, make sure your knuckle isn’t visible in the image! Yes, I know this from personal experience.

2)   We all love macro, however your GoPro HERO4 and Hero 3+ (and other models) will only deliver a sharp image if 12 inches or further from the subject. To get closer, check out the PolarPro Macro & Red Switchblade Filter.

3)   Try to hold the camera as steady as possible. Sharp movement, shaking and vibration in your video will make even hearty sailors seasick. Make sure to be slow and smooth when panning the camera.


What’s Next?

All photographers and videographers develop their own personal styles over time. These will lead divers to some of the best underwater photo destinations while also requiring different accessories. Bluewater Photo has listed some of these GoPro underwater video accessories to help you take it to the next level.


Most of all, stay aware while diving and have fun!



Swimming with Blue Sharks & Mako Sharks by Scott Gietler. Filmed with GoPro Hero 3+


Manatees at Crystal River by Brent Durand. Filmed with GoPro Hero 3


Underwater Videos with the GoPro HERO4 Silver

Anilao, Philippines


La Paz, Mexico



GoPro Camera Reviews


GoPro Tutorials




About the Author


Brent Durand is a weekend wanderer, story teller and image maker from California. Brent is editor of UWPG. Follow UWPG on Facebook for daily photos, tips & everything underwater photography. Follow Brent on Instagram, Twitter and his Adventure Blog through www.brentdimagery.com.


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 to Capture Amazing Freshwater Images

Eiko Jones
Expand Your Portfolio with these Tips for Shooting in Rivers, Lakes & Streams


Tips to Capture Amazing Freshwater Images

Expand Your Portfolio with these Tips for Shooting in Rivers, Lakes & Streams

Text and Photos By Eiko Jones


Coho Salmon smolts with reflections of sedge in the estuary of the Campbell River.


Finding hidden gems in freshwater locations can be easier than you would think. Fresh water diving is considered by many to be less exciting and glamorous than ocean diving. Nevertheless, there are some amazing experiences to be had and a great many beautiful photo opportunities waiting for you in your local stream, lake or even swamp. You just have to be willing to try new places and literally go with the flow. Floating down a river is an experience akin to flying.

Here are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind when considering grabbing your camera and heading into a fresh water environment.


Safety First

If you are going into a river or even a small stream, be very aware of the incredible force of moving water. Even knee-deep water that appears to be moving slowly makes it difficult to maintain your position once submerged. Because of this, you must be prepared to go with the flow instead of fighting to stay put. Before any shoot, an initial recon of the stream is essential so that you are aware of obstructions and other hazards.

Trying to keep hold of a big camera system in moving water is very taxing, so be prepared for a work out. It’s a good idea to adjust camera settings before you start moving so that you can shoot as you drift, since you might not have time to do this when a photo opportunity presents itself. The rewards are worth the effort though.


Pink salmon otherwise known as a Humpy heading upstream in the Quinsam River.


Coho salmon male showing off spawning colours in the Quinsam River.



Even in flowing water there is a lot of accumulated detritus

In swamps and lakes this can be a difficult thing for photographers to manage. The slightest hand movement can send a cloud of fine silt up and destroy the shot you were just about to take. Use proper buoyancy and move forward very slowly so you don’t have to make rapid movements to stop. Even in water 2-4 feet deep I often use Scuba gear so I can be down on the bottom and avoid duck diving down to compose shots.


Tadpoles streaming through submerged logs at the margin of a lake.


Sunlight streaming through the trees highlights the lilies in this shallow pond.


Plan for abundant ambient light

Because a lot of fresh water diving is in shallow water, there is usually an abundant amount of light. Use this to your advantage by looking for dramatic scenes that highlight the sun streaming into the water. The use of high shutter speeds and small apertures in brightly lit water means you will have to crank up your strobes to near max power if you want to light up the underneath of lily pads and such. Or switch off the strobes and capture the subtleties of the sunlight filtering down through the vegetation or into the depths.


Lilies highlighted by sun and strobe lit for detail.


Canyon depths lit by sunlight streaming through the surface.


A shallow river is a great place to work on split-shots

By lying on your stomach and resting your elbows on the bottom, you can concentrate on getting that perfect split-spot. A large glass dome is preferable as it is more durable in the rough and tumble environment and also makes for a finer transition between sky and water. Lighting the underwater half is also easier in a shallow, brightly lit river. Lastly, by lying in one spot and setting up a nice composition, you just have to wait for the fish to swim close by the dome instead of swimming around trying to chase the fish.


Chum Salmon pair hanging out in the spawning beds of a small shallow stream.


Pink Salmon split shot. Taken while over a million fish were migrating up the Quinsam River in 2013.


Freshwater bodies vary more from season to season than the ocean

So consider returning to that magical spot you found one summer in the middle of winter or in the spring when all the new growth is emerging. Sometimes the change is so great it feels like diving in a new location. Fish like salmon and trout also are in the river system in their various forms throughout the year.


Yellow water lily emerging from the muddy bottom of a shallow pond that completely clogs up after spring.


Coho Salmon smolts that spend their first year in the river system before heading out to sea to grow and mature.


One response I receive a lot when people view my images from the local watershed is amazement at what lies beneath the surface of some benign-looking waterways. The appreciation for the entire ecosystem you get from spending time in freshwater is immense, and if you can bring a little bit of this to others through beautiful images then that is worth the effort. 


About the Author

While growing up in New Zealand, Eiko Jones acquired his first SLR camera at the age of fourteen. He quickly discovered his passion for capturing images of in their natural habitat. Whether exploring the ocean or alternate bodies of water, such as marshes and rivers, Eiko has developed a dramatic style in which he celebrates the corners of our world that are seldom seen. www.eikojonesphotography.com


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!



Take Your Photography to the Next Level

Brent Durand
3 Essential Camera Settings for Shooting Underwater


Take Your Photography to the Next Level

3 Essential Camera Settings for Shooting Underwater

Text and Photos By Brent Durand




Underwater photography is an activity where the learning never stops. It’s a daunting task to begin understanding camera and shooting basics, and those that stick with it will learn to apply the skills needed to capture underwater photos. But what’s next on the learning curve once you reach this first plateau? How do we progress from taking snapshots to creating images that convey our feelings when viewing a reefscape, depicting subtle marine life behavior or creating abstract art?

Different photographers will have different interests, leading them to focus on any number of specialties in u/w photography. Regardless of where these specialties take you, all will require a more advanced understanding of your camera and how use of specific features can help capture the perfect shot. Below are three of those advanced setting tips.


Shoot in Manual Mode

Precise creative control is achieved by limiting variables. We eliminate these variables by manually controlling our exposure, depth of field and other settings. This is done by setting the camera's shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Once you start shooting in manual it will become second nature.

That said, there are two notable exceptions. The first is using auto white balance. DSLR, Mirrorless and many new compact cameras have very good auto white balance capabilities when using strobes. Some subjects will throw it off, but if you’re shooting in RAW you will be able to compensate with small adjustments during post processing. The second exception to the manual rule is using TTL strobe exposure. Your camera settings will determine the ambient light entering the camera and the depth of field – you always want full control here. By using TTL with your strobes, you’re letting the camera choose strobe power and exposure of the scene (macro) or exposure of the primary subject/foreground (wide-angle). TTL is very good these days and getting more accurate, especially for shooting macro.


Precise control of camera settings creates a sense of momvent in this juvenile sweetlips.


A manatee looks beyond my dome port in ambient light.


Use Your Histogram

How do you know if you’re capturing a proper exposure? It’s dark underwater and the camera’s LCD screen can be deceptive, making images appear brighter than they actually are. A great example is when your mobile phone screen dims in low light. You can see it well in the dark but if you took it into regular/bright light the screen would be too dark to see.

The true measure of brightness is indicated in the histogram, which is easily accessed by pushing the Info button when reviewing images. If the curve of the histogram stacks against the right side, your photo is overexposed. If the curve stacks against the left side, your photo is underexposed. An ideal exposure lies in between these white and black points.

The more you use the histogram the more you'll be able to recognize contrast and dynamic range in a scene. Advanced shooters take these factors into consideration before firing a single shot, and there's no better way to begin "seeing" these qualities than learning from the histrogram as you shoot and edit images.


Black water contrasts white sea pen polyps as a porcelain crab looks out into the water column.


A sea lion pup eager to continue playing inside a cavern at Los Islotes.


Select your Autofocus Point

Most advanced compacts and all mirrorless and DSLR cameras will let you select between autofocus points. Every photographer has images that are well composed and exposed but simply lack focus on the important part of the scene: eyes, rhinophores, foreground subject, etc.

Your camera often can’t recognize these important focal points (whether shooting photo or video) when using the general autofocus zones, so you need to tell it where to focus using two steps. First, select a single autofocus point or a tight group of points. Second, move that focus point to the important part of the frame. This will guarantee sharp focus on the important part of the scene whether shooting 1 or 10 images of the subject, and is often easier than the “focus and recompose” method using AF-Lock.


A connection with this network pipefish is established through a combination of sharp focus on the eyes and shallow depth of field.


Scorpionfish portrait.



An intimate knowledge of your camera and the best underwater photography settings is essential for capturing great images. By utilizing the three settings above you’ll by ready to take your photography to the next level. All that's left is to practice, practice, practice.



About the Author

Brent Durand is a weekend wanderer, story teller and image maker from California. Brent is editor of UWPG. Follow UWPG on Facebook for daily photos, tips & everything underwater photography. Follow Brent on Instagram, Twitter and his Adventure Blog through www.brentdimagery.com.



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!



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 www.dietrichunderwater.com.


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 www.saltwaterphoto.com.



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.  www.maviphoto.com




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!


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