Underwater photography

About underwater photography

In order to achieve good results in undersea photography, a prior knowledge of photography is necessary. Exposition, shutter speed, field depth, lenses, flashes, temperature range, sensitivity, focus, are but a few of the terms used. After learning the basics, the specific nature of underwater photography is a skill that needs to be honed. 

Underwater photography is a combination of photography and hunting, so that it is good to have some knowledge of undersea animal and plant species, their character traits and behaviour patterns. A good eye for capturing a particular image is also valuable.

The nature of white light is that we see the visible spectrum from infrared, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet to ultraviolet. Primary colours are: red, yellow and blue, whereas all the others are a mixture. As water is denser than air, and due to the refraction and reflection of light through the mask and in water, the object to be photographed seems to be closer and 30 % larger. Visibility in the Adriatic is up to 60 m. Additional glare from the surface significantly decreases visibility at depths (at 100 m visibility is 1%!). Light also depends on the time of day (strongest when the sun’s rays fall vertically at noon). Colours are also lost at greater depths; first red at 3-5 m, followed by orange, yellow and green. Beyond 30 m only blue casts and objects are dark grey or dark green in turbid waters, due to substrates or blooming algae.

Cameras and housing

The advancement of filming techniques with classical cameras and the increasingly popular use of digital photography has also become widespread in underwater photography. Add a housing case and you are ready to take pictures. More complex SLR (reflex) cameras provide a higher quality shot but are more demanding and costly in view of housing cases and flashes. TTL exposure modes with flashes are a good option. Almost all cameras have adjustable lenses, exposition modes and flashes. Photographers adjust exposition mode and lenses, depending on their own individual inclinations and style. The advantage of digital photography is that mistakes can be corrected later.

Lighting: reflectors and flashes

In order to make up for the loss of natural light and colour at depths, flashes and/or reflectors may be used. Perhaps the greatest challenge in underwater photography is achieving a balanced lighting system. Due to turbidity in even the cleanest of seas, when filming with flashes, the photographer needs to ensure that they are well-positioned. If the ray of light produced by the flash picks up backscatter, it will produce a “grainy” effect on the photograph, which can be avoided if flashes are well-positioned. However, since most “ordinary” digital cameras have an in-built flash, this should be turned off when taking macro shots. With macrophotography, where the range between the subject and camera is small, flashes are a welcome addition. Professional cameras have special “hands” that adjust flash distance and angle. Juggling between natural and artificial light is unavoidable, except at night. If natural lightis stronger than artificial light at a depth of 30 m, colour reproduction will seem unnatural. A properly illuminated object should look natural and be full of colour, and if the background is dark blue of greenish, then the photography will be successful. If you dive in pairs, your partner can help provide additional light from a diving lamp with a temperature spectre of 5500 K (Day light).

Photography techniques

Composition – a good composition includes appropriate choice of subject, composition of subject matter, focus, colour scheme, depiction of subject matter, background, light, contrast, all of which needs to be aesthetically balanced. The first thing that needs to be defined is subject matter and focus. Photography techniques are easy to pick up, but choice of subject and quick positioning take time and practice, and are often an indication of whether or not a photographer has an inherent talent for photography.


Macrophotography is the best introduction to underwater photography. Experience and patience produce good shots of animals, especially when taking shots of details (eyes, mouth, fins, portraits of smaller fish, shrimp, etc.). As water is denser than air, zooms cannot be used, so the subject in macrophotography needs to be photographed close up, at a distance less than 10 cm, in order to get a good shot.

Wide-angle photography

Wide-angle photography may seem the easiest option in underwater photography, but experience and perseverance are needed for these shots to be successful due to decreased light entering at varying angles, which may affect the overall quality of the shot. The advantage of wide-angle shots is that the subject may be photographed close up (underwater reefs and crags, wrecks, archaeological sites, divers, etc.), preventing backscatter. The closer we get to the subject, the sharper the shot and colours should be.

Underwater photography at night

Artificial lighting is compulsory for underwater photography at night. Torches and flashlights with a variety of light sources are most frequently used in underwater lighting and research: halogens, HID and, more recently, LED lights. Flashes lend better quality lighting and resolution. Macrophotography, more often than not, is the option preferred by photographers at night, especially as colours are more natural and focus is stronger, since only the subject within a narrow field is illuminated. Subjects visible within this field of light can be photographed – coral, small crabs, shrimps, wrasse, sleepy dentex, moray eels, congers, and other creatures that can usually only be seen and photographed at night.


A good prior knowledge of and experience in underwater photography is definitely a prerequisite to good underwater videography. The techniques are the same as for underwater photography, except that dexterity and skill are needed to catch a subject in motion. Camera, housing and lights (reflectors) are an essential part of videography equipment. The greatest problem is achieving camera stability, a mistake of which most beginners are not aware, but which can be corrected. The joke among videographers is – if you don’t get a headache “running around” trying to catch what’s being filmed within the first 5 minutes, then you’re doing it right! A good way to start is to position yourself (by holding onto a rock, dropping down to the bottom) for a still-shot as unnecessary movement is thereby avoided, and then pan to other images.

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