Intermediate Underwater Composition

Composition rules for Underwater Photography
By Scott Gietler

The "Rules"

In the previous article, we outlined the most common underwater composition mistakes beginners make. Now, let's look at some underwater composition rules.




1) Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds says that if a photo is divided up into "thirds" by lines, the key elements of the composition should be placed near the intersection of the lines.


Using the rule of thirds helps give a photo a sense of balance. This rule is often broken, especially with extreme close up shots, but it is still useful for many compositions. If you are having trouble getting good compositions, use the rule of thirds to help your compositions achieve balance.


As your experience progresses, you will not need to think about “rules”, but use your own intuition for what makes a good design. Many excellent images do not follow the rule of thirds, so don’t be afraid to go against the rule.

rule of thirds composition

In this photo, the white lines divides the photo up into thirds. The rule of 3rds states that the key part of the main subject, in this case the eyes, should be places near one of the four intersections. This photo follows the rule perfectly. Photo by Mike Bartick.


2) Wide-Angle Composition Basics

  • Try for a strong foreground and a strong background

  • Shooting the foreground - get close, shoot up, light properly. Try to get within 2ft of the foreground subject. Use as wide a lens as possible.

  • Choosing the background - wait for a school of fish, have a diver swim by, or have a colorful reef, kelp forest, or wreck in the background.

This cabezon has the oil rigs silhouetted in the background.

See the section on close-focus wide angle for more details and examples.


3) Macro Composition

  • Shooting low, keep the subject in-focus subject, and have a colored, black, or camouflaged background. 

  • The foreground should be sharp

  • Having proper separation between the foreground and background, via depth of field or color, will make the difference between a good photo and an excellent photo. Having a black or blue background is an excellent way to isolate your subject.

  • Keep the shot as simple as possible, without distractions in the photo. A distracting background can ruin a macro image.

Phyllodesmium rudmani

This macro photo is simple, and is shot from down low, not from above. An out of focus background allows the viewer to concentrate on the subject, a Xenia soft coral mimic nudibranch, while still maintaining a sense that it lives on a reef, which is lost in the more artistic black background composition.


A straight-forward macro composition. Sharp, clear subject, colorful.


A "classic" macro shop. Colorful, sharp, in focus, eyes in focus, it's clear what the subject is, and it is almost filling the frame. Taken in Bali, Nikon 80, 105mm VR lens. F14, ISO 200, 1/160th


4) Supermacro Composition Underwater

There are 3 compositions for super macro shots that I'd like to highlight here:


#1 - Since the depth of field will be very small in a super macro shot, try to align the focal plane of your camera with the key areas of the subject. These could be the eyes, the eyes and the rhinophores, the eyes and the mouth, etc. Or it could be the entire side of the subject. 


I tried to shoot with this crab parallel to my focus plane, to get it all in focus. F13, 1/250th, ISO 200


#2 - Straight on facing the subject,  getting low

underwater photography composition

Flamboyant cuttlefish from Anilao, F11, 1/200th, ISO 400.  Here's a great article on "face-on" macro underwater composition.


#3 - Align the subject at an angle to the focal plane. The key part of the subject must be in focus. The rest will be thrown out of focus, resulting in a dramatic photo. Many attempts sometimes must be made to find one that results in a pleasing blurring of the out-of-focus area of the subject.


Tiny nudibranch, carefully composed. The front is in fous, and the rear slowly goes out of focus. Photo by Kevin Lee.


- Supermacro shots are sometimes centered and ignore the rule of 3rds. See what works best for your photograph.


5) Shoot in Portrait

You should shoot in portrait as much as you can. An ultra-light pivot tray can be used to keep strobes in the same position while you turn your body. Try to get both eyes visible in the photos and in focus. Magazine covers are always shot in portrait.


The walls of a reef are a great place to start taking portrait shots.


6) Use the Viewfinder to Compose

Look through your viewfinder and adjust your position to get the composition you want, pay attention to distractions on the edge of the viewfinder.


7) Examine Edges for Distractions

Recompose if necessary.


8) Cropping your Photo

Use as a tool, not as a crutch. Try to get it right "in camera".


9) Choose your Background Wisely

Reposition if needed. Use the right lens for the desired effect. A longer focal length will isolate the background; a shorter focal length will show more of the background. Read about the effect of lenses on composition Use depth of field selectively as necessary.


I passed over many gobies before finding one on a red sponge. Only one approach led to this composition, and I kept creeping forward while taking shots.


Next article: More underwater composition ideas


Further Reading

Intermediate Underwater Composition
Scott Gietler
Composition rules for Underwater Photography


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