5 steps to successful underwater photography

In the previous post, I explained some of my secrets for creating beautiful underwater photos. I will continue with some common sense rules that many photographers ignore.

Blenny in the Gironde estuary, France.
Blenny in the Gironde estuary, France.

Go Closer, a Little Closer, Even Closer

I repeat that sentence endlessly to the people who come to my photo workshops. I got it from David Doubillet, a photographer for National Geographic. In underwater photography, the closer a photographer is to their subject, the better the picture will be. This is true both when taking a close-up picture and when using a mix of natural and artificial light to photograph a larger scene. This is why I always use lenses with a short focusing distance (from 6 to 16 inches).

Creating a Photograph Vs. Taking a Photo

Creating a good photograph involves far more than simply selecting the correct setting on the camera, pointing it at something, and taking a picture.

Today, cameras are very sophisticated. Just integrate them into an underwater housing, add a flash, and voila. You are all ready to do what I call “taking a photo with a camera”.

It's very easy to push the button on your camera, but that action does not create a photograph. It only makes a photo. A photograph is an act of creation. It is a way to show the underwater world to other people. It is a work of art.

Creating a photograph is a difficult process to describe. During trips and workshops, I spend several days explaining it. I will summarize the process I use in creating my photographs.

The process of creating an underwater photograph involves 5 steps:

  • The first step is to find a subject to photograph. The photographer has to put himself in place of the audience, and ask, "What do I want to show people? What message do I want to send them? If it's a photo of a scene, what atmosphere do I want it to have?”
  • The second step is to determine whether natural or artificial lighting will highlight the subject better.
  • The third step is to compose the available elements into a scene, and choose the background, the foreground, the negative space, and the background color.
  • The fourth step is to choose the frame to properly highlight the subject.
  • Finally, the fifth step is to choose the camera’s settings. All of them have to be exactly right.

Once you have gone through all 5 steps, then you are ready to trigger the camera. What I have just described is the basis of the creation process. Each step could include several pages of explanations, examples, and anecdotes. I have only included a summary here.

Most photographers make photos, but they are not able to create photographs in the artistic sense. When I meet them, I strive to give them the best and simplest possible explanations, so that after a few days they are able to have fun in the water, playing with the elements and using all the tools they have at their disposal. I have often seen photographers transcend their previous work after a week of traveling with me. Their perception of the underwater world is entirely different.

What Makes a Sharp Picture?

On a purely technical level, the most important criterion for a photo is that the subject should in focus and sharp. A lot of photographers just analyze their pictures on the screen at the back of the camera. However, that little screen does not tell you whether your picture is sharp. There are two ways to tell. The first is to use the zoom function on the camera. Zoom in as far as possible and look at the subject. The second is to analyze the photograph at 100% zoom on a computer. These are the only two ways to tell whether a picture is really sharp. In underwater photography I recommend using the camera zoom because it is often impossible to return to exactly to the same place during another dive. This again demonstrates the importance of knowing your equipment.

Using Editing Software for a WOW Effect

Today, using editing software to develop an underwater photograph is indispensable. If 5 underwater photographers with good skills are placed in front of the same scene, there is a good chance that they will produce extremely similar pictures.

The only way to bring a personal touch to your photographs and make sure that they reflect your vision is to use editing software. Alterations and corrections are often simple and easy to implement, but they make all the difference. This development is not meant to create something unreal. It simply ensures that the picture matches what you saw on the dive. Digital sensors often have a much more limited dynamic range than the human eye. The use of specific software can correct this defect with a few clicks. It is also possible to saturate the colors for a more natural effect, or enhance the details. Anything in the finished photo that does not look like it did when you were diving can be edited to reflect what is really there.

These are just a few ways to get the famous WOW effect. The list of possibilities is long. It would take too long to describe them in this blog post. In my workshops, I study simple and effective techniques for improving underwater photos. Every day, based on what I have studied, I explain tools that any photographer can use to assist his creativity and assert his vision.

Another Secret: Sharing Photographs With Others

The underwater photographer needs to know how to dive, master stabilization, understand his camera equipment, and know how to create a photograph. All of these things are essential. However, the real secret of progress and success is sharing your photos with other photographers.

An underwater photographer must be able to show his photos to other photographers. A good photographer is able to quickly select a few photos that exemplify his work, demonstrate his creative vision, and send the messages he intends.

A photographer has to spend a lot of time examining, analyzing, and searching for inspiration in the pictures that others have made. He must put aside pride and shame. He must be humble and say that he can always improve. It is especially important to know that a photographer cannot be judged on a single image. To really assess a photographer’s skill and understand his vision, you have to look at a set of 10 to 12 pictures.

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In one sense, we exist only through the eyes of others. They are the ones who can tell me what image we are projecting through my art. We always need their remarks, comments, and criticism. They make me grow, both as photographers and as people. We must be open to what others say.

Only by sharing them with others can I fulfill the purpose of my photographs. I say that even the most beautiful photograph in the world, if it remains in a drawer, will undoubtedly be the least known and the most misunderstood.

Underwater Photography: an Art, not a Pastime

Photography is not just the mechanical operation of pressing a trigger. All the photographers who think that continue to "take pictures". One day or another, they will get tired of all their pictures looking the same. They will leave their camera in the closet.

Underwater photography is an art, a way to show the underwater world to an audience. It shapes my philosophy of life. It allows me to show others the beauty of the seabed and the fragility of the marine world and get the message across that I must preserve it for my own safety. It is an art which requires humility. It forces me to challenge myself to go further in creating, and in sharing my pleasure and passion with others.

Today, for a few hundred euros or dollars, it is possible to buy high quality equipment, but the equipment does not make the photographer. The key is to know other photographers, share your work, and listen to their input. The equipment comes second.

My motto is “Dream, Discover, Explore." The underwater world seen through the lens of a camera is unimaginably beautiful. Do you want to try to see what it looks like?

Goby on a coral in Carribean sea off Bonaire.
Goby on a coral in Carribean sea off Bonaire.


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