Knowing How to Manage Light is the Secret of Successful Underwater Photos

Since 2002, when digital cameras became widely available, a camera has become an essential accessory for most recreational divers. It is almost part of their diving equipment. As professional underwater photographers, I have decided to share a few secrets and tips for taking beautiful underwater photos.

A goby on a hard coral colony in the Red Sea, Egypt.
A goby on a hard coral colony in the Red Sea, Egypt.

The Basics: Diving Techniques

Knowing the essentials of safe diving is not enough for successful underwater photography. When an underwater photographer needs to make fine adjustments to his buoyancy, he should not have to rely on his buoyancy compensator. He should have mastered the ballast lung technique, which allows for very fine adjustments.

Mastering buoyancy techniques helps a photographer avoid damaging the seabed and disturbing the animals he is trying to photograph. When using artificial light, the photographer will only be a few inches away from his subject, and the last thing he wants to do is crash into it or frighten it away.

A perfect mastery of buoyancy also enables a photographer to take very sharp pictures. Motion, even if it is only shaking hands or a mistimed breath, often causes blurry photos.

On an ideal diving trip, the first two dives should be in less than 50 feet of water. At that depth, there is more time to readjust the settings and learn good breathing habits.


Know Your Equipment

In order to take good underwater photos, a photographer should know the basic functions of his camera by heart. Even 60 feet underwater, his ability to make judgements and decisions will be altered. No one is quite as alert underwater as they would be on land. Whatever adjustments he needs to make to the camera should be instinctive, whether it is setting the speed, aperture, or sensitivity. He should be able to make any adjustment to the camera without having to look at the buttons or the menu.

For example, when photographing a fish, a photographer must be able to react immediately or the fish will be gone before the picture is taken. I often recommend that beginning photographers take a few hundred pictures on land before they try going underwater. Knowledge of every single function on the camera, of course, is not essential, but knowing all the basics is very useful.


The Great Secret: Lighting

The key to creating a beautiful photograph is mastery of light, whether natural or artificial.

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Natural light is used to photograph large animals, such as dolphins or whales. As they are often relatively far away from the lens, a flash is useless because the light does not reach the subjects. Large animals often swim close enough to the surface for natural light to be used. Natural light is also used in caves where there are skylights, such as the caves in the Red Sea or the Cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Underwater strobes are the best form of artificial lighting, since they give the best rendering of the subjects. Artificial light can freeze the movement of highly mobile fish and show the natural colors of the seabed. For artificial light to be effective, a photographer needs to be very close to his subject. The closer he is to his subject, the more light from the strobe will actually reach the subject.

Whether natural or artificial, light must be used correctly. If a photographer does not understand how to use light, he will never be able to take beautiful underwater photographs. Mastery of light is an essential skill, even though it is not easy to learn.

Most underwater strobes use TTL, which means that the camera body controls the speed of the strobe. However, TTL takes some of the control over the light away from the photographer. It can keep a good shot from being really beautiful. When the camera is the one in control, the result is not a great creative work.

Mastering natural light is a challenge because underwater photographers have to know how to use the sun and how to adapt the camera’s settings to make the best use of the light. It is also essential to wait until the subject is in exactly the right place. This is the only way to create pictures that look “modeled”. The same thing has to be done for pictures which use a mixture of natural and artificial light. Learning these techniques requires time and practice. Once a photographer has mastered light, he often does not recognize his own photos.

A jellyfish in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Monaco.
A jellyfish in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Monaco.

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