Underwater Photography: 12 Mistakes to Avoid

Is underwater photography something you want to become good at? Do you think you’ve got what it takes? We’ll have you know that underwater photography is not a simple walk in the park (or in this case, the sea). Snapping photos under the sea is sometimes very different than basic photography. That’s because there’s a whole new world down there, a mysterious labyrinth of corals, rocks, and wildlife, where the laws of optics get severely distorted.

Don’t worry though! You may know that Elena Kalis, Eric Engbretson, and Howard Schatz are famous photographers. Even they didn’t know anything about the subject at first. So if you want to make a career out of it and start publishing your snapshots in famous magazines, you’d better learn some quick tips and tricks.

The beautiful marine wildlife is waiting for you, all you have to do is press a button. Here’s a guide of 12 mistakes to avoid:

1. Relaxation Is on Holiday

National Geographic has a great selection of animal photography. Let’s say you’re underwater and you see one of your favorite fishes lost in a dance with other sea creatures. It’s easy to get frantic while looking for your camera in a wild rush. You’ll not only get overly agitated and snap a blurry photo, you’ll also more than likely scare the fish away.

Other than patience, underwater photography requires calm, and a long period of training. Tell yourself that everything will be alright, then reach for your camera. Nothing, not even a wave can stop you now.

2. Blurred Subjects Everywhere

The Professional Association of Diving Instructors, PADI in short, have many tips for novice photographers. The oceans and seas Mother Nature blessed us with are rich in all kinds of fish species. Be they colorful, or monochrome, fast swimmers, or slow lurkers, you need to be prepared to press the camera button at any time to capture them.

Here is some advice from PADI: the best thing to do is pick a strobe and stick with it. Check and see if its shutter speed is good enough to freeze a subject that swims like a race car. That usually means higher than 1/70th of a second.

3. You Snap Pics Horizontally

Raise your hands if you don’t understand people who film vertically with their iPhone. When you’re underwater, though, no one will judge you for that since fish aren’t really virtual underwater photography connoisseurs. Snapping pics with the landscape setting on is a no-no, especially for reef scenes.

On the other hand, photos taken with the portrait option don’t include important background details. Once you know this, you’ll have no problem participating in a photography competition.

4. You’re Too Far Away from a Subject

This is one of the most common mistakes if you don’t know how to find the best distance to not to scare wildlife away. That also happens when you want to take professional pics of your beautiful dogs diving underwater with your GoPro gear.

The best advice you’ll hear: “Get close, then get closer”. There’s a good reason for that: the amount of water shooting through is minimal. Approach your subjects from a small distance. Things such as contrast, saturation, and color will improve.

underwater photography fish

5. Irregular Lighting

Wide-angle images tend to be badly lit when shooting underwater. We recommend turning off the strobe, then exposing the scene with ambient light. This settles the blues. When you’re done, add the device’s strobe light back in.

There are many internship programs available for those wishing to learn more about lighting and how it can greatly improve the quality of a setting and the resulting photography.

6. Not Enough Patience

Calm isn’t the only quality an underwater photographer should have. Patience is key if you want to show your friends amazing images of the Coral Reef. It’s always a good idea to take your time when photographing your surroundings. Don’t just focus, press the shutter button, and be done with it. Such a happy snappy attitude will make you miss out on some amazing results.

Use all those 16GB in your camera. You will probably end up with something so good, NYC art galleries will be begging to organize an exhibition for your creations.

7. Loss of Color

What looks vibrant above water doesn’t anymore when you’re under the sea. Images turn blue and red is invisible. Water acts like a filter upon colors, absorbing and distorting most warm shades, and giving them a bluish hue.

If you’re too far away from the subject, you’ll get the same result. Getting up-close-and-personal and strobing the lights are the perfect and simple ways to solve the problem. A fisheye lens or a good filter offer some other quick fixes.

8. No Sharpness

Just like regular photography, underwater images need focus. When your subject isn’t sharp, the picture will look bad. If you want to photograph a fish, find its eyes and focus on them. Regular training done at a workshop or dedicated photography course can work wonders.

After you complete one of them, look for diving lessons and for jobs to practice what you’ve learned. Martin Edge shares helpful tips and tricks if you go to his online channel. He discusses macro photography, filters, and everything else in-between.

9. Too Much Editing

As we all know, beginner photographers love over-editing their images. This isn’t the way to make sure your photos are flawless. Martin Edge suggests that what you need to do is think of editing as a tool. When you want to increase exposure in post-processing, use manual exposure underwater.

underwater photography editing

10. Don’t Look Down

When immersed in the art of underwater photography, it’s best if you don’t try to shoot from an overhead perspective. The lighting will distort your image and the photo will be out of focus. Instead of picturing things from above, try and take your photo from another viewpoint: from the side or from down below.

11. Too Much Backscatter

When strobes aren’t placed correctly, backscatter appears. Move them further out and make sure they’re behind the lens. If visibility is low, use ambient light by slowing the shutter and opening the aperture.

12. Too Much Clutter

Admiring semi-nude models at fashion underwater shoots in Hawaii or Australia is fine. Looking at a busy reef in photos, on the other hand, is tiresome. Concentrate on the details of your subject, even if it’s just your pet dog swimming in a pool. You can also try your hand at maternity photography where the model is the baby girl or boy.

underwater photography fashion

Shooting photos of brides and grooms during a wedding session are perfect opportunities to propose an underwater shoot! It doesn’t matter if you take 200 photos and all are bland. Post-processing will bring these photos to life. There are a couple of blogs you can take inspiration from. Several books have also been written on the subject. Another tip for you: surf the Internet for schools that offer underwater photography classes.

If you want to make a splash with your underwater photography skills, these are the things to avoid. You don’t really need professional equipment or special techniques as long as you listen to these small tips. A DSLR, digital cameras, or iPhones with waterproof cases work just as well. Simply follow the list of the most common mistakes for underwater photography included in this tutorial and you’ll be fine.

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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