How to Get Clear Sharp Pictures Underwater

John BantinThere are some basic rules to getting clear sharp pictures, whether it be video or stills, while under water because it is the water that ruins so many good photographic opportunities. Firstly, the clearest water is not clear. Well, it’s not as clear as clear air might be. If you could eliminate the water, think how much clearer your pictures would be!

How do we do that? Simply by getting as close to your subject as possible and thereby eliminating as much water as you can between your camera’s lens and your subject. That’s why inexperienced underwater photographers have most success initially photographing macro subjects. Because they are small, it’s easy to get the camera up close and personal to them. You only need to enable the camera to focus on them. Those with top-of-the-range DSLR cameras can equip themselves with a macro lens specifically designed to focus very closely. The lens merely needs to be installed behind a flat lens port or ‘macro port’. Those with cameras that have a fixed lens (such as most compact cameras) will need to fit and auxiliary macro lens to the outside of their housing. The same can be said for GoPro POV cameras.

But what about bigger subjects? That’s where a wide-angle lens comes into play. Again, a DSLR user will need to fit such a lens and mount it on the camera behind a suitable dome port. Dome ports produce a virtual image just ahead of the camera so you must be sure your choice of lens will focus close enough on that. The advantage is that a dome port keeps the angle-of-view the same for the lens as it would be if used in air. Wide-angle lenses are not used to ‘get more in’ but to allow the photographer to move closer without ‘cutting more out’.

Again, compact camera users will need to fit an auxiliary wide-angle lens to the outside of their housing. There is a variety of choices but you should be advised by an expert as to which will suit the fixed lens of your camera if it is not to vignette the photographs. The advantage of fitting lenses to the outside of the housing is that these wet lenses, whether macro or wide-angle, can be interchanged at will, whilst submerged.

Water has another property that makes the life of an underwater photographer a little complex. It absorbs light so that as you go deeper it gets darker, but it also absorbs light selectively. The longer wavelengths of light (red and green) get soaked up first so that very soon, at a depth of no more than a few metres, everything will look blue in your pictures. What can you do about that

One way to look at it is to see it as a surplus of blue light and if you can reduce the amount of blue light you will allow the camera to make the most of the red and green light that still penetrates the water to the depth you are at. Some cameras allow you to ‘White-balance’ and provided the software designer has provided enough range to account for the excess of blue light, this can be very effective. It’s best to point your camera at something neutrally grey to do this. A piece of white Perspex is ideal but failing that, the palm of your hand underwater can usually be good enough. Canon compacts are especially good at white-balancing against an excess of blue. Sadly for underwater photographers most software designers are thinking in terms of white-balancing against incandescent light, which tends to have an excess of red and green but those who work for Canon seem to have it nailed.

Of course, some cameras do not have the facility to white balance, so what then? A red filter will make the most of what red light is present but of course you will need different degrees of red according to the depth you are at. You can fit alternate filters to a GoPro camera or you can fit a Backscatter Flip Filter system. This gives you the option to flip the appropriately coloured filter in front of the lens and make a judgement by looking at the image on the LCD screen. If you have a Hero 4 Black or an earlier GoPro 3 you can fit an LCD back available as an accessory.

A better way to get good colour in your pictures is to take some white light with you. In the case of video a constant light source is necessary and can vary in price from a basic rig to something more ambitious. You cannot have too much light but it needs to be of the right colour and exceedingly even in its spread, or your video camera will try to look into the shadows and the lit areas will burn out. You will need a lot of light to get good still photographs even for macro subjects when the light source is very close indeed. Even a high-output Swiss-made Keldan light has a limited range. For good still pictures there is no substitute for an underwater strobe or even a pair of them. They emit a quick burst of light but it is many times brighter for that short duration than any constant light source. These can vary in price from the Sea & Sea YS-03 and Inon S2000 to the bigger hitters like the Sea & Sea YS-D2.

Professional underwater photographers shoot RAW files and there is a very good reason why they do this. RAW files allow you to do a lot of adjustments to your pictures after you have been under water when there might have been time constraints. Many compact cameras can shoot RAW files but because these files can be very large it can mean a significant delay of a few seconds between taking pictures. DSLR cameras have buffers of varying size that allow users to shoot a lot of RAW files without this annoyance. Depending on what you are photographing, the delay between shots might be worthwhile.

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5 thoughts on “How to Get Clear Sharp Pictures Underwater”

  1. After I learned to relax while diving, I got into underwater photography. I was already an air photographer, so I read all I could about underwater photography. The most important rule I learned was your best underwater photography is less than 1/3 the distance you can see underwater at the time you are shooting. Even with underwater flashes, this rule applies. Also with underwater flashes, triple the flash setting for the distance on the camera. If you are shooting at three feet, use the 10 foot setting.
    Fresh water photography is more of a challenge than sea water photography, more suspended particulate and less colour.
    I used a Nikonos II and the most powerful flash I could buy in the mid ’70s, with a home made underwater housing for it. Framing the subject with the Nikonos was almost imposible, but I quickly learned how to judge the framing. I just took lots of shots and kept the best.
    I think anyone interested in photography should continue to read all they can about it, sometimes they will re-read forgotten knowledge and have it refreshed. I enjoyed your article, Thanks.

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  2. exactly our photos didn’t came clear when we did some scuba diving adventures in Thailand and Maldives, although we were using very high hand equipment, but i think what we lack was professionalism and some expert skills. Although this was our first time ever taking photographs or filming underwater but we enjoyed it. This summer we are planning to go to hawaii and bahamas and i think this information will help us, thank you.

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  3. What a generational world of difference between the writer of this article and Zagachin’s comment. Two different worlds, a diver here in seeking that ancient art in search of quality of production that no longer is extant in todays modern world’s approach to distracted IPOD, IPAD or IPUD’er efficiency. Zagachin here is right. Few immersed in the modern world care about old world quality of art. They can’t see it anyway. Not judgemental here, it’s just what it is……

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  4. This blog is intended for those who might already be familiar with photography but do not realise the difference taking pictures through water makes.

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  5. Great post, except not clear who is it for. If this is for beginners divers, then the best advise should be concentrate on learning how to dive before you take camera with you to dive …just to stay alive.
    If this is for beginner photographers, then the best advise should be …learn how to take pictures before you take your camera with you to dive.
    If it is for those who are already into UW photography…well then they better know all this by now.
    If this is for experienced divers, knowledgeable about land photography and want to shoot underwater then I see a few useful points.
    I suggest that the important thing is to realize what are you shooting for. Most likely to record some memorable moments and to impress those who do not dive, providing they are not familiar with the art of underwater photography. Most of that audience will be easily impressed with your “good enough” pictures. I have a shot of a dozen bull sharks made on shark dive in Fiji with $200 compact camera that is noisy and a bit blurred. It was tough shooting at 90′ in low light. Lousy shot really. But you should hear the reaction of viewers. Always.
    One more thing to consider. Your pictures taken with super duper equipment that you remortgaged you house to buy will be looked at…on smart phones, if you really lucky on tablets. Now, whether you took those pictures with equipment that cost $20,000 or $400 they will look the about same.
    If you aiming high in your photographic career, take a note that National Geographic fired all his staff photographers, so competition for publications will be pretty high.

    All said my recommendation is symple: buy a good Canon compact camera (S120 or G7x) in Canon housing, use custom white balance before every shot, shoot continues (spray and pray manner), open lens wide and don’t forget to take photo courses.
    You will be quite happy and all money saved you can use for you next dive trip.

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