Underwater Photography: It’s Easier Than it Was But You Still Need Some Skills

John BantinAt weekends, I work in a store that specializes in underwater photography equipment. We try to match products to each customer’s needs.

Recently, a young woman came in to buy an underwater camera. She professed to be a professional writer intending to supply articles to diving magazines. She wanted a camera that was very straightforward to use.

A friend had previously lent her an Olympus EPL7 camera in a housing so she naturally asked for that. It’s a system-compact with interchangeable lenses that can be matched to suitable lens ports. The salesman (an award-winning underwater photographer himself) would have been happy to take her money but once he got into explaining to her the intricacies of using it, it became clear that she just wanted to get into the water, press a button and get usable pictures. She also blanched at the price, even though the EPL7 in an Olympus proprietary housing represented remarkably good value.

So the sales assistant then suggested she might be happier with a more basic compact camera instead. She was with him for about five hours, during which time he told her virtually everything he knew about successful underwater photography.

She ended up purchasing a Canon G9X in a Fantasea housing that gave access to all the camera functions and with the possibility to add additional wet lenses later, when she felt she could afford them. It was a good choice. He also sold her an underwater strobe (a Sea & Sea YS01) with which he explained how she could get perfectly exposed TTL strobe-lit pictures. It appeared to be the perfect solution and within her limited budget.

The company was surprised only a few days later to get an email from the customer now in the Caribbean and accusing it of selling her equipment that was totally unsuitable for underwater photography. She stated that she was not sold the camera she asked for (the Olympus EPL7) and that it was not possible to adjust the white-balance with the Canon she had.

The G9X can be set up to provide a one-button manual white-balance setting – something she had been demonstrated during the hours of consultation in the shop. It can also be used to shoot RAW files, which is the professional way of shooting since many settings such as white-balance and even exposure to a degree can be decided on long after getting out of the water. Not only that, but the software, properly used, should take care of a lot of the contrast and color decisions.

Sadly, this is a case of someone neither managing their expectations nor bothering to read the manual!

Famous underwater photographers like David Doubilet must despair when they hear stories like this. The years that he has devoted to learning his craft are dismissed by a new generation who think they can simply buy an item of equipment and immediately become endowed with talent such as his.

I got my first job with a diving magazine (the very same one she intended to provide material for) because I could reliably take pictures that were correctly exposed, in-focus and nicely lit – a skill that was quite rare in the days of wet-processed film. Today, digital photography with its instant feedback from the camera’s LCD display means that it is possible to learn (by your mistakes) incredibly quickly, but learn you must. I worked as an underwater photographer for more than two decades and although I never considered I was a master of the art, I got results that were frequently published. Even so, I used a camera outfit that cost nearly ten times as much as the budget this young lady decided she had.

I contacted the editor of the diving magazine that this particular young lady said she was intending to contribute her work to. He told me she was a good writer but that he’d told her she needed to be able to support her writing with good photography. He told her to buy a camera.

It was disappointing that the editor of a magazine could think that merely buying a camera makes someone into an underwater photographer! Have the standards of magazine publishing dropped so low?

Magazines pay extremely poorly nowadays. Not many make a living supplying original material anymore. Most take pictures for their own pleasure and are knocked out if they see their work in print. If they can get a few hundred dollars in payment as well, that’s a bonus. Pregnancy is a very difficult stage, especially for first-time mothers and if you are looking for things to make your life a lot easier, then you can start looking for the best pregnancy pillow . There are different types of pillows and if you are looking for the best ones, you may try getting a Comfort-U Body pillow (since it’s one of the most reputable ones in the market) or you might want to read some pregnancy pillow reviews to help you find other nice buys. For this young woman to make any return on her investment in the most basic underwater photography kit will take a great many pages published.

Most take pictures underwater purely for their own pleasure. Digital photography has made getting good results easier than it ever has been. However, it does demand a degree of dedication in that one should be totally familiar with your camera’s functions and operation long before entering the water. Don’t buy underwater photography kit on your way to the airport and expect to come back with masterpieces in light and shade. As is so often said, “RTFM!”

If you’re really intent on being an underwater photographer and don’t have time to be apprenticed to a master, enroll on an underwater photography course.

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4 thoughts on “Underwater Photography: It’s Easier Than it Was But You Still Need Some Skills”

  1. Before starting off with the underwater photography, you have to be a good diver. first you need to master the art of diving to get your buoyancy and everything right. Then go ahead with the photography.

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  2. There is no such thing as “gin clear vis,” as we called it. Color and light disappear really fast. Going at 5-10 feet, mostly gone at 60, goodbye at 90 plus. The environment isn’t stable, and harming the pretty stuff is a no-no. (Unlike many years ago when most didn’t know – or care.) —

    Which isn’t to say that filmless photography below the surface isn’t easier than that old “wet” stuff, as the author says. Still, the more innings you put in learning – and practicing – the better your results. —

    And because digital is easier, so will be your competition’s. — I began teaching the subject in 1971 and ended after the millenium: you can’t imagine how much easier it is to get decent results.


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  3. I read an excellent book recently and all the hundreds of species of marine life he had taken pictures of were done with a snorkel and a point and shoot. For most people I feel this is enough.

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  4. I would like to add to this that before even thinking of taking a camera UW one should be a really good diver with at least say 200 dives to avoid being a safety threat to him/herself and others.
    I would also suggest that to become a half decent UW photographer one have to be a good land photographer. UW environment and extremely limited opportunity to develop even basic skills for average vacation diver (how often do we mere mortals dive?) are major hurdles. Memorizing the owner’s manual along will not help, one has to practice as much as possible, know about composition, lighting and other elements of photography underwater or land.

    While a lot of people are totally obsessed with image quality and ready to remortgage their dwellings for the latest full frame miracle and everything else that is needed for UW photography, few of them asking themselves what is going to happen with those pictures after PP.

    The sad fact is that most if not all of them are going to be buried on the hard drives of their computers and, if displayed on their websites, will be looked at (if they are so lucky) using tiny smartphone displays or ten years old cheap office terminals.

    The attempt of the sales assistant to sell her G9x is plausible. If somebody cannot produce great photography with that camera it is not the camera’s fault.

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