Wide-Angle Underwater Photography
A comprehensive guide to shooting wide-angle
By Todd Winner & Scott Gietler
I spoke with Todd Winner at length on the phone regarding his approach to shooting wide angle underwater photography, including camera settings, photo tips, etc. Todd shot film for 14 years, before switching to digital in 2004. The following are excerpts from his interview on wide-angle underwater photography technique.
Here are some excerpts from our discussion, rewrote in my own words:
About Todd’s Underwater Equipment
I use a Nikon D2X in a Nexus underwater housing, a 7-inch acrylic dome port with the 12-24mm and 10.5mm & a 4-inch glass dome port with the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens, and 2 Ikelite SS200 strobes, usually with diffusers. The small dome port lets me get really close up to subjects the way I like. For wide angle I use a 6" and a 9" arm on each side.
I shoot manual exposure underwater. Aperture, shutter speed, and strobe power are all set manually. I usually shoot at base ISO, ISO 100 on my camera. To determine the shutter speed, I meter off the blue water. I use spot metering or center-weighted metering. I point the camera towards a bright blue, not right at the sun, but near the sun, about 30 to 40 degrees from the center, and adjust the shutter speed until the exposure meter is centered.
My aperture is usually between F5.6 and F11, sometimes as high as F22 if I’m shooting right into the sun.
Now that my shutter speed and aperture is set, I only have to worry about strobe power. My strobe power changes all the time – sometimes ¼ power, ½ power, sometimes full power. I usually know what power to set the strobe on based on the subject distance and my F-stop.
The #1 mistake people make is not shooting close enough. I usually shoot from 6 inches away to 3ft away, quite often at a six inch distance.
Lighting and Strobes
I shoot a ton of verticals. When I shoot vertically, one strobe is above the camera, one is to the side – but I move my strobes around a lot. If the water is clear, I’ll point the strobes right at the subject. If the vis is not great, I point them straight out or slightly outwards, and pull them in a little bit.
If I am shooting horizontal, I typically have my strobes out to the sides.
When you are shooting a fisheye at 10mm, you really have to pay attention to the corners, and watch out for flair from your strobes. When using my Tokina 10-17mm, it's much easer to control the backscatter at the 17mm range, so that’s a good option when you have lots of particulates in the water.
The rule of thirds is important, I try to pay attention to this rule, and put the key area of my subject at one of the intersecting points. You should make sure your horizon is straight, keep your angles straight, and avoid sloping sands. For example, in "Stingray City", I know the sand is flat, but some people shoot it at awkward angles. I also like having diagonal and "S" lines in my photos if possible.
A strong shot has a lit foreground subject, and a strong silhouette in the background, like the oil rigs structure or a wreck or boat. If I see something cool like a large wreck that I can use as a silhouetted background, I’ll look for something to put in the foreground.
I also like using the sun in my photos. Having a big reef in the background sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. If it’s just a big black blob it won’t look good.
If I see a good foreground subject, sometimes I’ll wait until something interesting swims by I can use as a good background.
Improving your Underwater Photography
There's many ways to improve your underwater photography. If I’m in a rut, I’ll just shoot ambient light for a while. For someone trying to get better at wide-angle photography, this is what I recommend.
First, start off just shooting blue water. Understand how to meter the water, understand what gives you the blue color that you prefer.
Second, shoot the water with the sun in the photo. Find out what settings give you the results you like.
Third, shoot only silhouettes. You should have the blue color you like, and be comfortable getting nice dark silhouettes.
Fourth, practice shooting foreground subjects; learn how to light them properly. Don’t worry about the background.
Last, combine steps 3 and 4, shoot foregrounds with a silhouette in the background. It should all come together.
- Todd's Tutorial on Ambient Light Underwater Photography
- Utilizing Instant Recall Modes on your dSLR
- St. Lawrence River Wrecks
About future upgrades
I might upgrade to the D700X, if it ever comes out. I'd like a camera with more dynamic range than what I'm using now.
Some Photos from Todd
Underwater settings used in the above photographs:
- Wreck: F3.5, 1/60th, ISO 400, 10mm
- Squid: F11, 1/160th, ISO 200, 10.5mm fisheye
- Bird: F5, 1/60th, ISO 100, 17mm
- Light beams: F6.3, 1/8th, ISO 800, 10mm
- Lionfish: F7.1, 1/50th, ISO 100, 13mm
To learn more about wide-angle photography
Read about close-focus wide-angle underwater photography
- Read more about Settings for wide-angle underwater photography
- Read more about Good blue color in underwater wide-angle shots
- The underwater lighting chapter covers strobe position, types of lighting, color temps, hotspots, and getting good blues.
- Wide-angle photography in giant kelp forests
- How to shoot over-under shots
- Taking wide-angle photos using the Canon G12 compact camera.
Free wide-angle underwater photography online tutorials
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!