Top 5 Tips for New Underwater Photographers / by Michael Zeigler

Buoyancy control will not only help you protect the marine environment and conserve your breathing supply, it will also help you become a better underwater photographer.

We’ve all done it. We get home after a long trip abroad or after a few dives on a local dive boat, we upload our photos, and… *dang it.* “Had I only been closer and spent more time with that *insert awesome subject*, that shot would have been perfect!” Underwater photography is a journey, and every dive provides a chance for us to learn from our mistakes. In this blog I will share my top five tips for those of you new to underwater photography (which can also serve as a friendly reminder to those of you who are veteran shooters).

First and foremost, buoyancy control is a cornerstone to better image making (and being a better model for your fellow underwater photographers).

It is my personal opinion that before taking a camera beneath the waves, you should have the attributes of a good diver: great buoyancy control, navigation skills, pre-dive planning, and the other aspects you’ve learned throughout your scuba training. I cannot emphasize this enough, as the impact of poor buoyancy control and lack of spatial awareness can wreak havoc on the very fragile environment in which we spend so much time and money to visit and photograph. Ideally, diving will become second nature so that you can focus on making images.

Getting close allowed me to get adequate strobe light on this massive coral structure in the Solomon Islands. My buoyancy control allowed me to hover over a vast field of mature staghorn coral while being just inches from this gorgeous structure. Nikon D810, Sigma 15mm fisheye lens, dual Ikelite DS160 strobes. 1/20, ƒ/13, ISO 1000.

#1: Get Close

I would have to say that by far the #1 mistake made by new underwater photographers (and seasoned photographers for that matter) is not getting close enough. You’ve heard it before. Get close, then get closer. There are several good reasons for this. I can’t think of any at the moment, so you’ll just have to trust me.

All kidding aside, getting close to your subjects minimizes the amount of water you’re shooting through, and therefore improves the color, saturation, and contrast of your photos. And since you’re closer to your subjects, the quality of your strobe light improves.

Bluebanded gobies are common along the shores of Southern California. They are quite skittish, but they do tend to frequently return to the same spot. Knowing this, I looked for a resting goby with an interesting background (this one is a crowned urchin). I dialed-in my settings, exposure, and focus … and waited. Nikon D810, Nikon 105mm macro lens, dual Ikelite DS160 strobes. 1/200, ƒ/11, ISO 64.

#2: Have Patience

It’s so easy to see a great subject, focus, fire, and move on. This is often referred to as the “happy snappy” approach. The next time you see a subject with great potential (e.g. sitting proudly on the reef, great negative space, cool behavior, etc.), I would encourage you to take a deep breath, take note of your air supply and remaining bottom time, and take some time shooting the subject.

The place where you first see your subject may not be the best place from which to make the best photograph. “Work” your subject. When you think you have “the shot,” take one more. There’s a reason you have a large memory card in your camera.

Try This: I like to think of my precious time underwater as my “studio time.” So the next time you come across a potential subject, take note of your remaining bottom time, relax, and settle in for the shot. Allowing yourself peace of mind that you know exactly how much time you have will help you relax and focus on making an impactful image.

A female sheephead in the towering kelp forest off the coast of Santa Barbara Island, California. Shooting up allows me to show the viewer the vastness of this amazing dive site. A tool that really helps me shoot up is my Nauticam 45º viewfinder. The angle makes it easier to keep my head at a comfortable angle while shooting toward the surface. Nikon D850, Nauticam housing, Sigma 15mm fisheye lens, Nauticam 140mm mini dome, dual Ikelite DS160 strobes. 1/40, ƒ/14, ISO 500.

#3: Shoot Up

There are few things that separate a decent underwater photo from a great underwater photo more than by shooting up. Getting down at eye level (or lower) with a subject allows the viewer to get a much better sense of connection with the subject or scene. It also, amongst other things, helps you separate the subject from some of the distracting background environment.

Not every subject or scene (read: most) will allow you to get down and shoot up. Be mindful of your surrounding environment when considering to engage a subject. When you find a promising subject or scene that is impeded by the surrounding reef, it’s often best to move on and search for a subject better suited for shooting up.

Try This: Seek out reef heads surrounded by *unoccupied* sand, which will allow you search for subjects higher on the reef, while being able to get down low on the sand and shoot up.

Purple hydrocoral at Farnsworth Bank, Catalina Island, California. No lighting trickery or fancy snoot gadgets here … just good, old-fashioned strobe positioning. Nikon D810, Nauticam housing, Sigma 15mm fisheye lens, Nauticam 140mm mini dome, dual Ikelite DS160 strobes. 1/125, ƒ/16, ISO 400.

#4: Move Thy Strobes

It’s way too easy to set your strobe(s) to one position at the beginning of the dive and leave them there for the entire dive. Most if not all arm systems have adjustable segments that allow for easy movement of the strobes. There’s a good reason for the flexibility! Take advantage of that technology (and the hard-earned money you spent on all those arms and clamps) as each subject you encounter will likely benefit from different lighting than the previous subject. Try not only different strobe positions but different strobe powers. However, that’s another topic for another day.

The image of the purple hydrocoral (above) is what I would consider to be a straight-forward composition. The only difference is the placement of my strobes. I employed a technique often referred to as inward lighting. Basically, the strobes are on either side of the housing (in this case at 12 and 6, as if on a clock), and pointed straight back at my head. The resulting “edge lighting” highlights just the subject and its texture. It’s important to note that with this particular technique that you choose a subject that will benefit from this type of lighting (i.e. a subject that “stands proud” from the reef and is separated from the background).

The point is, consider each new composition as just that. It’s new. It’s different from the subject and scene you just finished photographing. Give this new subject the respect it deserves by carefully considering what lighting would best highlight its unique character.

Not all subjects deserve a horizontal composition. As a matter of fact, nearly 60% of all the images I have made underwater are vertical/portrait. This Spanish shawl nudibranch (Flabellinopsis iodinea) filled the frame nicely when I simply changed the orientation of my camera. Nikon D810, Nikon 105mm macro lens, dual Ikelite DS160 strobes. 1/200, ƒ/14, ISO 250.

#5: Shoot Vertically

Just like keeping your strobes in the same position for every image, it’s easy to just shoot horizontal photos all day. Ask yourself this question when you’re approaching a potential subject: which camera orientation (horizontal or vertical) would best portray this subject/scene? Besides, if you have aspirations to get one of your photos on the cover of a magazine, they’re mostly vertical shots!

Parting Thought

As I gained experience and started employing the tips outlined above, I started to notice an improvement in my images. However, the biggest change occurred after I shifted my mindset - from a scuba diver that photographs to a photographer that scuba dives.

Try that mindset next time you head out beneath the waves and see how your approach changes to what you are trying to create. Have fun!

For more information on the gear used for my diving and these images, check out my post on gear.