Underwater Composition for Beginners

Common mistakes
By Scott Gietler

The beginner photographer is probably just trying to take nice photos of fish, divers, sea slugs, and reefs. Your initial goal should just be getting comfortable taking attractive, colorful shots.

If you haven't read the underwater beginner's guide yet, I would check it out. If focal length, zoom, prime, macro, and telephoto are confusing words, please read the lens basics chapter first.

It's probably easiest to discuss what people do wrong when they first start taking photographs underwater, and how to correct them.

Here's a list of common mistakes beginners make in underwater compositon.


1) Not getting close enough

           This is probably the biggest mistake beginner photographers make underwater. If you are taking a photo of something small, try to be only a few inches away. If it is something larger, try to get within a couple of feet. Make sure you are using your camera flash to add color to the photo.  If you want to take a photo of something further away, you probably want to do it as an ambient light shot (without a flash).


2) Shooting down instead of shooting up

            The majority of people start off underwater swimming over subjects and taking photos from above the subject. It takes practice getting below a subject and shooting up. Getting close to a subject and shooting at an upward angle can produce very dramatic shots.

This nudibranch is shot from above. The nudibranch photo below, under #5, is shot from getting down low, and is much more interesting.


 This trumpetfish is clearly shot from below, very nicely done. Photo by Diana Vicei.


It's not always easy to shoot "up" on fish swimming by, but the results are worth it if you can. This sheephead fish was above me, I was shooting up at an angle at the edge of a sloping reef.


This is not ideal - a shot from above. You want to be low and shoot at least at eye level, if possible.


This is an exception to the shooting down rule. Goby at catalina. F8, 1/250th, ISO 200, D300 + 60mm +1.4x tele. Compositions where the subject forms an interesting curve, pattern or color combination can be shot from directly above. In this case, the slight curve of the goby and the red on red makes the shot work.


3) Not giving fish space

Fish in a photo should not have their face near the edge of the photo. People often say they should be given "room to swim".


In this photo there needs to be more room to the right of the fish.


Again, this fish is pretty but it needs more room on the right.


 In this photo the fish has some room to the right of it, which makes a better composition. I used a dSLR with a macro lens and a large aperture, which blurred the background. If you are using a compact camera getting the blurred background will be more difficult, but you can still get a nice photo.


4) Amputations, fish butts, etc.

Some things just don't look pleasing in photos, like when part of a fish or diver is "amputated", or cut off by the edge of a photo. Another shot you want to avoid is a fish butt, which is getting a photo of a fish when it is swimming away from you. Take the time to get better compositions so you can avoid showing these photos. Try to take time to get a photo of a fish facing you.


Note that sometimes it is ok to have some of the subject not in the photo, but that is usually true of closeups or fill-the-frame shots. If you can't get the entire fish in the frame, get a closeup, head-on shot, or artistic shot. Or some other really good composition that makes up for the missing parts.


It would have been nice to get the entire tail of this fish in the photo.


This fish is very hard to photograph. Most photos showcase the "fish butt", like this one.


Here we have done a little better. No fish butt, and it even has "room to swim" in the frame.


This photo is technically good, well exposed, but the composition could be better. The shot is slightly from above, instead of eye-level, the fish has no room on the left, and part of the fish is amputated.


5) Not getting the eyes/ rhinophores of a subject in focus

Notice how the rhinophores are in sharp focus. The rhinophores are the two ridged "antennaes" at the top of the sea slug. (Beginner photographers stop reading here, advanced shooters read on). Having both rhinophores parallel to the image plane makes this task easier. My dSLR also allowed me to move my single focus point right on the rhinophore, assuring a sharp focus. Having multiple focus points to choose from is a big advantage in getting the composition you want. Shot at F18. If I had another chance, I'd shoot at F13 to try to get the background blurred a little more, but then I risk having the front tip of the animal out of focus.


I made sure I moved my focus points over the rhinophores to get them in focus. Shot at F18 for good depth of field. Janolus nudibranch at Catalina Island. D300 + 60mm + 1.4x tele.


pipefish at catalina island

Pipefish at Catalina island, USA. Like I said, "Get the eyes in focus". F14, 1/200th, ISO 320. D300, 105mm lens


6) Centering the subject in all of your shots, also called "bull's eyeing" the subject

Sometimes centering can be ok, especially in very close up shots, but try composing some of your shots off-center and see how you like the composition.


Besides looking better if the shot was taken closer, this fish would have looked better if it was off-center. fuji F10, 1/100th, F8


7) Not cropping to create a better composition.

  • Experienced photographers often crop their photos to the best composition possible. (They also often get it right in camera). It’s best to get it right in the camera, but don’t be afraid to crop, within reason. Cropping does reduce your maximum print size.



8)  Not thinking about the background.

You should be asking yourself - what is behind my subject? What kind of background would look best? Is the background distracting, do I want the background blurred out?


How to make a background less distracting:

  • Get lower to shoot up more

  • Rotate around the subject to shoot at a different angle

  • Zoom in or use a longer lens, which will isolate the subject more

  • If you are using a dSRL, use a larger aperture (smaller f-stop number) to blur the background


This kelpfish is pretty, but the background is quite distracting. If you are using a dSLR, a smaller aperture could have helped blur the background more. In the 2nd photo, I waited until the pipefish floated in front of the crinoid for a nice background.


Bonus Tip

9) Not having a prominent subject


This is especially common in a wide-angle underwater photo. There is no prominent subject.

underwater photography composition

Here's a photo I took a couple years ago. Perfectly nice wide-angle shot, but no strong foreground subject.

underwater composition beginner mistakes

This photo from the oil rigs is not bad, but it is not outstanding. It lacks a strong foreground subject. Don't feel bad for taking shots like this, I do it all the time, but try to think about finding a strong foreground subject the next time you take underwater photos.

underwater photo composition example

Ok, here's an example of a wide-angle photo with a distinct foreground subject. A gloveless diver (Keri Wilk) in the background helps to complete the photo. California Oil Rigs, F13, 1/320th, ISO 250, Tokina 10-17mm @16mm



Further Reading

Underwater Composition for Beginners
Scott Gietler
Common mistakes


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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