Shooting Fast Action Underwater

Tips for Capturing the Moment of Peak Action
By Todd Winner

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


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