A beginner’s guide to underwater photography

A beginner’s guide to underwater photography

First published:
August 19, 2022
February 14, 2024

Humpback whale by Joaquin Fregoni

Learn how to take your camera underwater for stunning photos with these 10 top tips

Underwater photography is a wonderful pursuit, but also perhaps one of the most challenging places to take your camera. Aside from the practicalities of taking photos underwater, there’s the lack of light, the colour shifts and the difficulties of focusing. But master a few basics and you can create stunning images of the underwater world…

Can I use my iPhone?

Many phones - including the latest iPhones and Samsung devices - have an ‘ingress protection’ (IP) rating of 67 or above. This means in theory they can be submerged down to a maximum of 1 metre for up to 30 minutes, although no phone manufacturer would suggest doing this. While the water-resistancy may be helpful if you drop your phone in the sink, it’s not really meant for a snorkelling trip.

You might be able to get away with using a phone in a swimming pool for a few moments, but there’s a danger that water will damage the power socket, so it’s not worth the risk when you can buy a waterproof phone bag for a few pounds. Of course, you could also get a dedicated underwater camera. A good option for go-anywhere photos and video is a GoPro Hero 10 or an Olympus Tough TG-6.

Businessman talking on phone underwater. Photo by conceptual images - f/5 | ISO 100 | 1/320s
Tip: If you really want to use your phone to take underwater photos, experiment with an old phone. Touch screens can be unresponsive so set it up to snap photos with the volume button instead.

Use your own camera

If you want to use your current camera for underwater photography then you have a couple of options. Dedicated underwater housings are available for many popular models of DSLR or mirrorless bodies from specialist brands like Ikelite. These offer buttons for every control on the camera. But they’re expensive - at time of writing the Ikelite Canon R5 housing costs £1695.

If you’re just getting started with underwater photography then a far less expensive choice is an underwater soft bag. Two popular brands are Ewa-Marine and Dicapac. Soft housings let you control the camera through the soft, clear fabric, and the lens sits in a clear cylindrical opening. They’re a bit fiddly to use, but much easier on the wallet.

If you’re using a soft housing like the Ewa-marine here. Then set your camera up for back-button focusing so that auto-focus is triggered with a rear button by your thumb, as this is much easier than half-pressing the shutter button.

Mask rather than goggles

It goes without saying that safety should be the first priority underwater, so only shoot where you’re completely comfortable. Proper eyewear can help. A snorkelling mask is a better choice than goggles, as the water can shoot up your nose when wriggling into different shooting positions underwater.

A snorkel and mask is ideal for getting started with underwater photography. Photo by Page two travel - f/2.8 | ISO 100 | 1/2900s

Set before you get wet

It can be tricky to fiddle with camera settings underwater, so in general it’s best to use a set-and-forget mode. A good stock setting for underwater photos is Manual exposure mode, aperture f/4 (or a similar wide setting) shutter speed 1/200 sec and ISO Auto. This way the shutter speed will stay relatively fast, the wide aperture will allow for murky light and the ISO will adapt to the conditions.

A camera with good low light performance gives you a big advantage. Shoot in raw, as this gives you far greater colour information to work with, which is very handy when correcting colours and white balance later.

Hunting Blue Runner in bait ball. Photo by Yvonne Kühnast
Tip: With fast-moving fish you will need to use a faster shutter speed of 1/500 sec or more to freeze the action.

Watch the fall-off

Good quality of light will elevate your underwater photos to the next level. Keep in mind that the daylight coming from above falls off rapidly, so it helps if your subject is angled towards the surface. Colours will also change. Those colours with longer wavelengths - red, orange, yellow - are first to be filtered out by the water, leaving the cooler blue colours. At 5 metres, almost all red light is lost. So if you want to capture bright vibrant colours, you need to add in light of your own.

Swimthrough Saint. Photo by Mark Tilley - f/9 | ISO  800 | 1/400s
Tip: Daylight falls off rapidly underwater so it helps if your subject’s face is angled upwards towards the light, like this freediver (above) looking up at his bubble ring.

Mind the bounce

If you’re in a swimming pool then the sunlight will bounce off the floor and walls, which often results in even lighting for underwater portraits. By contrast, in the deep sea the light can be very dim as it has nothing to bounce off.

Be aware that light takes on the colour of surfaces it bounces off, so the bounce from a blue swimming pool floor may be quite cool in colour, whereas if it’s bouncing off yellow sands it’ll be much warmer. As such, one of the easiest places to shoot underwater photos is a clear, shallow sea over golden sands with bright sunlight streaming in. Caribbean anyone?

Underwater background with sandy sea bottom. Photo by Valentin Valkov - f/3.2 | ISO 100 | 1/1250s
Tip: Shallow, calm seas with sand below make for ideal conditions for bold underwater photos.

Bring your own lights

An underwater flash or a strong LED light can help to lift your subject so that they stand out from murky surroundings. If shooting sealife, the flash will allow you to record vibrant colours, especially reds and yellows that will have become muted in the underwater light. Flash photography is also ideal for underwater portraits, as it lets you pick out the subject and freeze the action with a fast shutter speed.

A dedicated underwater light is the best option (Lume Cubes work well), but in a pinch you could also try putting a regular speedlight in a waterproof bag (make sure it’s completely waterproof as water and flashes don’t mix!). On-camera light isn’t ideal as frontal light will reflect off all the bubbles and particles in the water. Side-on light is better, so it’s best to get the flash or LED off-camera to one side.

An endemic nautilus in Palau with the sun beams coming from behind. Photo by Polar bear - f/16 | ISO 100 | 1/250
Tip: Red colours are filtered out at depth, so if you want to capture red-coloured sealife you need to illuminate the subject with artificial lighting.

Correct colours

Your underwater images will likely need some colour correction afterwards to correct the blue cast. In Lightroom or Camera Raw, grab the White Balance tool and click on a point in the image that should be neutral. Then fine-tune things with the Temperature and Tint sliders. Next head to the Color Mixer panel. Here you can boost the saturation of weaker colours. Grab the target tool in the Saturation tab and drag over colours to boost them.

Shoot in raw and use the white balance eyedropper tool in Lightroom/Camera Raw (as per the screenshot) to fix colour casts by sampling a neutral point in the image

Convert to black and white

A black and white treatment can be wonderful for underwater photos, as the lack of colour draws attention to the shape of animals and the play of light and dark across the scene. There are lots of good black and white tools out there. For a quick conversion, try the B&W Profiles in Camera Raw and Lightroom.

Also, see our tutorial on how to get a striking black and white conversion in less than 1 minute.

Humpback whale. Photo by Joaquin Fregoni - f/11 | ISO 800 | 1/250s
Tip: A monochrome effect can lead to bold underwater photos and as a bonus, it means you don’t have to worry about colour correction.

Capture the underwater surface

Seen from underwater, the surface of the water creates wonderful reflections. So this is a great angle for interesting portraits. You can also create eye-catching compositions by using half in, half out framing to show above and below the water. For this the best results come from using a dome port in front of the lens to create a clear divide between air and water.

Seal lion coming towards you. Photo by Andrea Izzotti - f/8 | ISO 250 | 1/320s
Tip: Angle the camera towards the surface for wonderful underwater reflections, or try a half in, half out composition.
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