Learning Underwater Photography

Underwater photography is the use of specialty camera equipment to shoot photos under anywhere from a few feet to a hundred or more feet underwater. Do not try underwater photography unless you own a digital camera that is specifically designed to shoot under water or a specialty underwater housing unit that protects the camera. The camera must be sealed to protect it from water, or it will be ruined.

Whitemouth Moral Eel, Andrew Dawson Wildlife Photography
Whitemouth Moral Eel, Andrew Dawson Wildlife Photography

Underwater housings are made for both point and shoot and digital SLR cameras. Underwater housings are made specifically for certain models of cameras. Not every model of digital camera has a corresponding underwater housing unit available.

Underwater imaging is considered an especially challenging area of photography, since it requires very specialized equipment and techniques to be successful. Despite these challenges, it offers the possibility of many exciting and rare photographic opportunities. Animals such as fish and marine mammals are the most common subjects, but photographers also pursue shipwrecks, submerged cave systems, underwater "landscapes", and portraits of fellow divers.


The primary obstacle faced by underwater photographers is the extreme loss of color and contrast when submerged to any significant depth. The longer wavelengths of sunlight (such as red or orange) are absorbed quickly by the surrounding water, so even to the naked eye everything appears blue-green in color. The loss of color not only increases vertically through the water column, but also horizontally, so subjects further away from the camera will also appear colorless and indistinct. This effect is true even in apparently clear water, such as that found around tropical coral reefs.

The column of water between photographer and subject degrades both the resolution of the image and the transmission of artificial light (necessary to restore color). Therefore, the most effective underwater photos are taken as close as possible to the subject, thereby creating the need for a variety of optical tools to capture subjects of various sizes within this narrow distance limitation.

There are two types of underwater cameras—amphibious and housed. Amphibious cameras may be used either underwater or topside, although some lenses are for underwater use only (known as water contact lenses). A housed camera is a conventional above-water camera that has been protected from the damaging effects of seawater by a waterproof enclosure. Amphibious cameras are protected by a series of O-rings, primarily located at the lens mount, film loading door, shutter release, and other places where controls are necessary. The O-rings make the system not only resistant to leaks but also impervious to dust or inclement weather when used out of the water.

Camera Equipment

Underwater photographers have several basic options for equipment:

A compact digital point and shoot camera, a Digital Camera Review by Gene Wright with full exposure controls, and an SLR (single lens reflex camera). Unlike earlier amphibious or waterproof camera such as the Nikonos, which is designed specifically for use underwater, these cameras now require a housing to keep them water proof. Nikon discontinued the Nikonos series in 2001 and it is a 35mm film system, so it is somewhat obsolete, but some photographers still choose this approach. Sea and Sea continues to manufacture an amphibious range finder camera that utilizes 35mm film, the Motor Marine III.

Housings are specific to the camera and are made of several things from inexpensive plastic to high-priced aluminum cases. Housings allow many options, since the user can choose a housing specific to their everyday "land" camera, as well as utilize any lens in their collection. In practice, underwater photographers generally use either wide-angle lenses or macro lenses, both of which allow close focus, thereby eliminating the need to have excessive water between the camera and subject. Digital media can hold many more shots than standard photographic film (which rarely holds more than 36 frames). This is one of the primary advantages of using a digital camera underwater, since it is impossible to change photographic film underwater. The instant feedback provides faster learning and improved creativity, which is why virtually all underwater photographers now use digital cameras.

Watertight housing Canon WP-DC600 for IXUS v2
All underwater housings are outfitted with controls knobs that access the camera inside, giving the photographer use of most of its normal functions. These housings may also have connectors to attach external flash units. Some basic housings allow the use of the flash on the camera, but the on-board flash may not be sufficiently powerful and are improperly placed for underwater applications. More advanced housings either redirect the on-board strobe to fire a slave strobe via a fiber optic cable, or physically prevent the use of the on-board strobe. Housings are made waterproof through a system of silicone o-rings at all the crucial joints.

There are optical issues with using cameras inside a watertight housing. Because of refraction, the image coming through the glass port will be distorted, in particular when using wide-angle lenses. The solution is to use a dome-shaped or fish-eye port, which corrects this distortion. Most manufacturers make these dome ports for their housings, often designing them to be used with specific lenses to maximize their effectiveness. The Nikonos series allowed the use of water contact optics: ie, lenses designed to be used while submerged, without the ability to focus correctly when used in air. There is also a problem with some digital cameras which do not have sufficiently wide lenses built into the camera. To solve this, there are housings made with supplementary optics in addition to the dome port, making the apparent angle of view wider. Some housings also allow for the use of wet-coupled lenses, which thread on to the exterior of the lens port and increase the field of view. These wet-coupled lenses may be added or removed underwater, allowing for both macro and wide angle photography on the same dive.

With macro lenses, the distortion caused by refraction is not an issue, so normally a simple flat glass port is used. In fact, refraction increases the magnification of a macro lens, so this is considered a benefit to the photographer, who may be trying to capture very small subjects.

Underwater Flash

Wide-angle image of French angelfish with proper balance between flash and sunlight
The use of a flash or strobe is often regarded as the most difficult aspect of underwater photography. Some common misconceptions exist about the proper use of flash underwater, especially as it relates to wide-angle photography. Generally, the flash should be used to supplement the overall exposure and restore lost color, not as the primary light source. In situations such as the interior of caves or shipwrecks, wide-angle images can be 100% strobe light, but such situations are fairly rare. Usually, the photographer tries to create an aesthetic balance between the available sunlight and the strobe. Deep, dark or low visibility environments can make this balance more difficult, but the concept remains the same. Many modern cameras have simplified this process through various automatic exposure modes and the use of through-the-lens (TTL) metering. The increasing use of digital cameras has reduced the learning curve of underwater flash significantly, since the user can instantly review photos and make adjustments.

Color is absorbed as it travels through water, so that the deeper you are, the less reds, oranges and yellow colors remain. The strobe replaces that color. It also helps to provide shadow and texture, and is a valuable tool for creativity.

An added complication is the phenomenon of backscatter, where the flash reflects off particles or plankton in the water. Even seemingly clear water contains enormous amounts of this particulate, even if it is not readily seen by the naked eye. The best technique for avoiding backscatter is positioning the strobe away from the axis of the camera lens. Ideally, this means the flash will not light up the water directly in front of the lens, but will still strike the subject. Various systems of jointed arms and attachments are used to make off-camera strobes easier to manipulate.

Macro image of a Whitemouth Moray Eel using 100% flash for the exposure
When using macro lenses, photographers are much more likely to use 100% strobe light for the exposure. The subject is normally very close to the lens, and the available sunlight is usually not sufficient.

There have been some attempts to avoid the use of flash entirely, but these have mostly failed. In shallow water, the use of custom white-balance provides excellent color without the use of strobe. In theory one could use color filters to overcome the blue-green shift, but this can be problematic. The amount of shift would vary with depth and turbidity, and there would still be a significant loss of contrast. Many digital cameras have settings that will provide color correction, but this can cause other problems. For example, an image shifted toward the "warm" part of the spectrum can create background water which appears gray, purple or pink, and looks very unnatural. There have been some successful experiments using filters combined with the RAW image format function on some high-end digital cameras, allowing much more detailed manipulation in the digital darkroom. This approach will probably always be restricted to shallow to moderate depths, where the loss of color is less extreme. In spite of that, it can be very effective for large subjects such as shipwrecks which could not be lit effectively with any strobe.

Natural light photography underwater can be beautiful when done properly with subjects such as upward silhouettes, light beams, and large subjects such as whales and dolphins.

Although digital cameras have revolutionized many aspects of underwater imaging, it is unlikely that flash will ever be eliminated completely. From an aesthetic standpoint, the flash often adds "pop" and helps to highlight the subject. Ultimately the loss of color and contrast is a pervasive optical problem that cannot always be adjusted in software such as

Split Images

Over/under image of a dock in Vermont farm pond
Another format considered part of underwater photography is the over/under or split image; it is a composition that includes roughly half above the surface and half underwater. The traditional technique was pioneered by the National Geographic photographer David Doubilet, who used it to capture scenes above and below the surface simultaneously. Split images are popular in recreational scuba magazines, often showing divers swimming beneath a boat, or shallow coral reefs with the shoreline seen in the background.

Over/under shots do present some technical challenges beyond the scope of most underwater camera systems. Normally a wide-angle lens is used, similar to the way they are used in everyday underwater photography. However, the exposure value in the "air" part of the image is often quite different from the one underwater. There is also the problem of refraction in the underwater segment, and how it affects the overall focus in relation to the air segment. There are specialized split filters designed to compensate for both of these problems, as well as techniques for creating even exposure across the entire image. Some photographers will also rely on extremely wide or fisheye lenses, which have enough depth of field to overcome any differences in focus.

Digital darkroom techniques can also be used to "splice" two images together, creating the appearance of an over/under shot.

See also

Popular Photo Accessories

Topics Index