Underwater photography: 10 steps to shoot like a pro

1. Practise in the pool

Before you dive into the ocean, flash a-blazing, practice in a swimming pool. It provides a safe, calm, and controlled environment to learn your settings, experiment with new techniques, and make sure your gear is in good working order.

Practise with family members, especially children, as they often resemble fish – always moving!

2. Get comfortable underwater

One of the most important elements of underwater photography is feeling comfortable in the environment. Remember that the photographer becomes a floating platform on which the camera rests. The ability to swim well—and in some instances fast, to catch up with the subject—is a must-have skill.

One of the advantages of shooting while scuba diving rather than snorkelling is that you can spend long periods in deeper water, closer to marine life. To be successful at shooting underwater while scuba diving, you must master flotation and have control of where you are at all times.

There’s nothing worse than watching a new photographer trample over fragile coral reef just to get that photo!


3. Maintain, lube and double-check all O-rings and seals

You spend your hard-earned wages on a beautiful new camera and then on the first dive you flood it. Not cool. Water and electronics don’t mix very well.

Whether you’re using a waterproof compact camera or an SLR in an expensive housing, make sure that EVERY time you head underwater you thoroughly check the seals for any sign of dust, dirt, sand or stray hairs.

Buy a tube of silicon grease and apply a light coating to any seal. Water will find its way past the smallest obstruction when under pressure and this is the best way to stop it.

Rinse your camera gear off with fresh water after every dive. Never let salt water dry on your equipment.

Check all your seals again and again

4. Wash your lens with anti-fog liquid

Sometime the best photos can be ruined by a mischievously positioned air bubble.

If you spray the outside of your camera lens or port with the same liquid that’s used to stop your mask fogging up, any air bubbles trying to hitch a ride on your camera will be miraculously sent to the surface where they belong.

5. Check everything twice… Then do it all again!

Not even the best photographers in the world remember everything. I recently went on a liveaboard trip with three professional photographers and all of us did something wrong at one stage or another:

  • Check you have an empty memory card in the camera
  • Check you have taken the lens cap off
  • Check that your camera is set to auto-focus
  • Check that your battery is full (cold water shortens their life drastically)

6. Get as close as you can to your subject

Sometimes this can take real patience, you get too close and your subject swims away. Perseverance pays off. The closer you can get, the better your photo will come out.

Removing the amount of water between the camera and the subject will mean a clearer, sharper, and more colourful image.

Water absorbs light very quickly, and the most common complaint from underwater photographers is the dull blue-grey hue of their images. Colour is lost the deeper you dive — reds for instance, are the first to go.

Using the flash on a compact camera (if you’re close enough to your subject), or strobes on an SLR, will bring back the full range of colour to your photos.

A good look at the intricate patterns and colour of the Humphead Maori Wrasse

7. Stay in the shallows

If you dive or snorkel in the first five metres of water the full spectrum of colour remains, eliminating the need for a flash.

Try swimming the shallower reefs and you’ll find a mass of marine life hangs out here. On a sunny day an entire kaleidoscope of colour bursts out at you! The best of the colourful coral is always found nearer the surface too, like here at Flynn Reef off Cairns.

Corals of the Great Barrier Reef

8. Experiment with macro

Most waterproof compact cameras have a macro setting (the one that looks like a flower). Taking close-up photos allows you to focus on a small area of reef rather than the entire ocean. It’s here you learn loads about the relationship between different marine creatures, too.

Try to photograph a Cleaner Wrasse inside the mouth of a bigger fish, a Glass Shrimp on an Anemone, the eye of a Sea Turtle or an outcrop of Staghorn Coral.

I’ll spend an entire dive at a single coral bommie watching everything that goes on there. You can get friendly with the locals, have more chances to take that perfect photo and use less air. It’s a win, win!

Glass Shrimp

9. Download your images ASAP

Once you’ve finished your snorkel or dive, download your images and back them up as soon as possible. There’s nothing worse than finding out the images from your once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Great Barrier Reef have been overwritten by the ones of you dancing on the table at the bar that night!

10. Enjoy the experience

Always remember to look with your own eyes rather than just through your camera’s viewfinder. The reason we dive and snorkel is for the underwater experience and to enjoy being immersed in another world.

Photography should always come second to the experience itself. If you take it in with your eyes first, you’ll learn what makes a decent picture in your own head, then the good photos will come from there.

Don’t get too caught up in the technical side. Start off with the basics, get a feel for it, and learn the technical side later. There’s no better place to hone your skills than with the 1,500 species of fish and 350 types of coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Go get wet and enjoy yourself!