Imagine you’re on a beach. You’ve just bought a sweet new camera, picked out an underwater housing, and packed up your snorkel. You’ve checked the tides and are beyond excited to hop into the water. Think you’re ready? Think again!
Don’t dive in without reading through these nine tips for underwater photography from ocean photographer Zach Stadler:
1. Have a vision of what you want to capture.
Like with painting or sculpture, having a vision at the beginning of the process pays off. Having a creative vision is, in many cases, the difference between someone with a camera and an artist.
Decide ahead of time what you’d like to capture based on where you’ll be shooting. This little bit of pre-planning will impact the decisions you make about your equipment, camera settings, and final printed work.
2. Use a variety of lenses.
If you want to create a variety of ocean photographs, I suggest using at least three lenses. Shots that are half above water and half underwater are amazing, but they’re only made possible by using a wide-angle lens.
If you want to shoot marine life completely underwater, you’ll want to use a fisheye lens. A fisheye lens always adds a unique quality to underwater shots. The rounded edges make the underwater world look almost surreal and will make the subject you are shooting really stand out.
Finally, you can’t go wrong with a standard lens (like a 12-50 mm). If you want to get intimate, close-up water shots, or if you just want to shoot a fun surf session, a 12-50 mm has good range and will almost always do the trick.
3. Customize your camera settings.
Most underwater housings do not allow you to adjust settings once your camera is inside, so think ahead and set up accordingly before entering the water. Having technical control over what you are capturing will make for a better experience, as you won’t be making changes while magic moments are happening below you.
The ocean is always moving, so if you are shooting marine life or waves, a faster shutter speed such as 1/250 will do the trick. If you are going for a close up ‘texture’ based shot, slowing the shutter speed down to 1/60 can also be fun.
4. Shoot when the conditions are good.
There are so many factors that come into play when judging underwater shooting conditions. Underwater visibility can range from six inches to sixty feet, depending on your location and the current weather conditions. If you are going for that vibrant, clear, electric blue underwater shot, it’s crucial to shoot under full sunlight. If the sun is blocked by clouds, you will lose a lot of light and natural contrast in the shot.
Low winds and calm seas are also preferred when shooting in the water. Wind and fast-moving water will stir up the sand on the sea floor and reduce the visibility underwater. The shot above was taken under full sun with zero wind and very calm seas. Ocean people usually refer to these conditions as “glassy.”
5. Keep your port clean.
Keeping a clean port will in most cases dictate whether you are capturing gold or just wasting your time. Bubbles and debris can get stuck in front of your lens multiple times in a single shoot. The best way to prevent this is to lick the surface of your port, then submerge your camera and lick it again (seriously). Repeat this a few times. Don’t let a drop of water ruin your best shot!
6. Take more photos than you think you should.
Water photography is a lot different than shooting on land for one main reason: Everything is in constant motion! Sometimes it takes hundreds of shots to nail that look you were going for. Don’t be scared to shoot excessively!
7. Know your boundaries.
This may sound very obvious to many, but the ocean can be dangerous! Currents, waves, marine life, boat traffic, and riptides are only a handful of the infinite risks you may face when in the water.
It’s very important to know your strengths and weaknesses in the water and to understand the area that you are swimming in. Many places have strict laws about how close you can come to certain marine animals, and some marine habitats are totally off-limits to visitors.
If you are on a trip somewhere you have never been, ask a local for advice! They’ll know the area better than anyone (including the internet) and will fill you in on the dos and don’ts.
8. Be patient.
Nothing good comes easily. Shooting marine life can be tricky for a few reasons: Fish move quicker than you do, they often hesitate to come close enough for a good shot, and they sometimes don’t show up at all. Remain calm, enjoy your surroundings, and prepare yourself mentally to wait around a little bit. Patience will pay off in the end.
9. Take your time while post-editing.
It’s incredible how much we can do with a photograph these days. In some cases, you can turn a decent photograph into a work of art with a click of a button. Don’t be scared to mess with a photo for hours on end.
Once you’ve created the masterpiece you were envisioning, test out different print media, as well. Vibrant underwater photos shot in full sun look amazing on aluminum metal prints, while black & white photos may look better in a frame. Try new things and be picky!