Getting Great Color in Your Underwater Photographs

Help elevate your underwater photography to the next level
By Scott Gietler

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


janolus nudibranch, getting great colorsmantis shrimp, better colors underwater



Underwater photography with great colors


Most common mistakes people make

  • Using auto-flash instead of forced flash. Set your compact camera to forced flash, your internal flash goes off every time for added color.

  • Not getting close enough. Red color is quickly absorbed by water. If your photo subject is 3ft away, your strobe light is making a 6ft round-trip, the distance is more than enough to absorb a lot of the red color.

  • Shooting in auto mode or priority mode, instead of manual mode

  • Not using a strobe or internal flash. You can get decent color if you are very very shallow, but you really need a strobe or flash to get great colors underwater.


ornate ghose pipefish with good colorspanish shawl with nice colors



triggerfish with good color


Tips for getting great colors with a strobe or flash in your underwater photos

  • Don't shoot with your subject more than 1ft (.3 meters) away. For macro, try to be less that 6 inches away. This helps ensure that minimal reds and oranges are absorbed by the water.

  • Make sure your subject is not already brightly lit with natural light. If it is, your camera settings must block out that natural light with a small aperture or fast shutter speed. Otherwise, the natural light will have many colors absorbed from it.

  • This is related to the above item - use manual mode if possible. When shooting a shallow, sun-lit subject in clear, shooting at F8, 1/100th will let in too much ambient light. You'll need to shoot at a faster shutter speed so only your strobe is lighting the subject. Do a test - shoot with your hand covering the flash. If the photo is still exposed well, your settings are wrong.


  • Expose properly - many colors are easily blown out, especially reds. Slightly underexpose them.

  • Play with strobe position - front lighting will enhance color and saturation, but be sure to check your histograms with direct front lighting to watch out for blown out highlights.

  • Use the proper white balance setting when using a flash or strobe, auto or sunny is usually correct. Using cloudy will usually make the photos look too yellow or orangish.


Getting good color in wide-angle or CFWA shots

  • Shoot with the sun in front of you (sun behind the subject), so that the subject is dark and is mostly lit by your strobe. Use manual settings and underexpose the ambient light in the background.

  • Use a very wide angle lens, like a fisheye lens, to get within 1ft of the subject.


cuttlefish photo with great colors

My tokina fisheye lens let me get very close to the featherstars, allowing my strobes to give them a nice color. F13, 1/160th, ISO 200


How to get great colors using natural light

  • Use manual white balance every 5-10ft, or shoot in RAW and white balance in your raw editor

  • Shoot in calm, shallow, sunny water - preferable in less than 20ft / 6 meters.

  • Shoot with the sun behind you.

  • Use filters to block out some of the blue spectrum, like a magic filter.


shallow underwater photo, natural light, good color

This photo was taken with no filters, just natural light, in 10-15ft of water in Bunaken on a sunny day.



Further Reading


Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. Bluewater Photo, based in Culver City, CA is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious underwater camera stores, serving many thousands of customers each year, where nothing is more important than customer service. The Underwater Photography Guide is the world’s first website to feature free tutorials on underwater photography, and has become the most trafficked resource on underwater photography worldwide. Bluewater Travel is a full-service dive travel wholesaler sending groups and individuals on the world’s best dive vacations. 

Scott is also an avid diver, underwater photographer, and budding marine biologist, having created the online guide to the underwater flora and fauna of Southern California. He is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, has volunteered extensively at the Santa Monica aquarium, and is the creator of the Ocean Art underwater photo competition, one of the largest underwater international photo competitions ever held in terms of value of prizes. He lives in California with his wife, newborn girl and scuba-diving, photo taking 4 year old son.

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