Natural Light Underwater Photography Tips

With the increasing popularity and availability of waterproof point and shoot cameras, waterproof action cameras (like GoPro) and even waterproof camera phones (like the Sony Xperia), we’re seeing more and more underwater photography.

Concurrently, the style of underwater photography that we’re seeing is evolving from the more traditional scuba diving sea-life photos, to more everyday fun-in-the-water lifestyle shots.

But, taking really good underwater photos is a little trickier than it may seem – so I thought I’d share some of my top underwater photography tips.

Woman swimming freestyle underwater

Underwater Photography Gear

There are a lot of point and shoot cameras that are waterproof right out of the box, but they usually only safe to a depth of a few feet. 

However, in most situations, just a foot or two below the surface is plenty for great underwater lifestyle photography.

Then, there are waterproof plastic bags that are designed to protect a camera while underwater. 

This style of waterproof housing has the advantage of being generic, so that different cameras can be used with different housings.  I use an EWA Marine U-BXP100 housing which has a glass port and even has room for an on camera flash. 

There are also Outex underwater camera housings, which are pretty similar.

The big disadvantage with camera-in-a-bag type underwater camera housings is that it is nearly impossible to change any settings while your camera is in the bag. 

Finally, there are hard cases. 

Hard case underwater camera housings from manufacturers such as Ikelite or Sea&Sea are by far the best quality and easiest to use. 

Unfortuantly, hard case underwater camera housings are pretty pricy, and they are camera specific – meaning if you bought a hard case underwater camera housing for your Canon 5D Mk II – its not going to work with your new Canon 5D Mk III. 

I have a Canon hard case underwater housing for my old Canon G9 that I still use on a regular basis, and GoPros come with one, so the cost isn’t always prohibitive.

Little Girl Underwater With Surf Board

Water Is Not Air

Light behaves much differently underwater than it does in air.

The biggest difference is that different wavelengths of light have different abilities to penetrate through water. 

Light in the red spectrum travels the shortest distance through water, while blue light travels the furthest. 

What that means for underwater photography is that the further the distance is between your subject and your camera underwater, the less red light will be captured by the camera – which is why things look blue underwater.

Woman Swimming Freestyle Blue

The other huge difference is that light falls off at a much higher rate underwater than it does in air and the clarity of the water also has a big difference in how quickly light falls off as it travels through water. 

Cameras and other photography equipment are calibrated based on the inverse square law which governs how light travels through air – but underwater, the same rules do not apply.

But, as long as we are conscious of the differences between water and air, we can compensate.

Natural Light Underwater Photography Tips

1.  Use a wide angle lens and get as close as possible to your subject.

I am constantly balancing between getting as close as possible with a wide angle lens and wide angle lens distortion. 

Being as physically close as possible to your subject underwater gives you the best chance of capturing natural looking skin tones and accurate colour.

Woman swimmin in pool underwater

2.  Stay near the surface. 

Your camera only needs to be an inch or two below the surface for amazing underwater photography. 

Near the surface, you have the most abundance of light and the best quality light available.  Plus, there are a lot more interesting things going on near the surface, such as interest and texture from waves, ripples and bubbles.

Underwater canoe paddle

3.  Pay attention to the quality and direction of the ambient light.

Bright, sunny days tend to look the best underwater.  If the light is dim or overcast, it seems to just compound the low contrast and flat look of unprocessed underwater photos that come out of the camera.

The first underwater photo below was taken in bright, late day sun.  The second was taken when the sun went behind a cloud.

Man treading water underwater

Man treading water in blue lake

The direction of the light is also important, and easy to forget when you are underwater. 

Try to frame your underwater photographs the same as you would on land – and remember, if you are shooting up towards the surface, you are shooting into your light source.

Underwater photography of woman in clear blue water

4.  The cleaner and clearer the water the better. 

Even water that looks clear tends to look quite murky in underwater photos. 

For example, this is a fairly pristine lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada.  This lake looked crystal clear with an underwater visibility of twenty feet or more.   (In fact, we were drinking water out of this lake for about a week on our last camping trip.) 

But, as you can see in the photos, it’s not actually clear at all! 

The halo that you can see is actually light reflecting off of my body, which is illuminating all of the small particles in the water.

Man swimming in murky green water

5.  Get your white balance as close as possible in the water, and then fine tune it in post.

Accurate underwater white balance is notoriously tricky – so shoot all underwater photos in raw. 

Most of the time I just use auto white balance (shhhh don’t tell anybody), unless I am in a controlled setting like a pool, in which case I’ll set a custom white balance. 

The problem is that the white balance changes drastically with the direction and amount of water you are shooting through. 

If in doubt, I find that a color temperature of 7500 to 10,000 kelvin and a strong tint shift towards magenta gets the white balance for underwater photography into the ballpark.

Woman swimming underwater in wedding dress

6.  Use manual or aperture priority and give focus priority to releasing the shutter over focusing.

Using a low speed continuous mode is often helpful too.

Most of the time I set my camera to manual with the exposure set to slightly brighter than similar lighting conditions on land.  Then, once the camera is sealed in the housing, I can make a minor adjustment to the aperture or shutter speed if necessary.

If I know that I am going to be shooting a variety of different scenes, such as in shallow water near shore, and then in deep water looking up towards the surface, I set my camera to aperture priority with an exposure adjustment around +1.

It is very important to set your camera’s focus priority to release (just take the shot) over focus (focus, then take the shot).  If you don’t, you will miss a lot of shots while you are waiting for your camera to try and get a solid focus lock before it releases the shutter.

Dog swimming underwater

7.  Be patient and concentrate on accurately framing your shots.

It is extremely difficult to frame underwater photos.  It is tempting to shoot from the hip, but it really pays to slow things down and try to look through the viewfinder. 

Using a weight belt, or just some rocks in your pockets really helps you to sink and stay stable while holding your breath too.

I have my scuba certification, but if you are a good swimmer, scuba gear is really not necessary for underwater lifestyle photography. 

Speaking of holding your breath – if you are looking for ways to hold your breath longer, take a look at this great video on a very effective technique to hold your breath for an extended period of time.

8.  Post production touchup editing is critical for underwater photography.

Underwater photos generally come out of the camera looking very flat and need significant post production work to look good. 

Start with correcting the white balance (as previously discussed). 

If I am trying to get an accurate white balance for skin tones, I usually tweak the hue, saturation and luminance of each individual color.  Raising the saturation and luminance of the reds, oranges and yellows and lowering the saturation of the aqua, blues and greens to taste is often pretty effective.

Next, adjust the overall exposure and apply lens profile correction to take out some of the wide angle distortion. 

Then, the most important step is to add as much contrast back into your photo as possible.  In Lightroom, I adjust the blacks slider first, then I add some contrast and clarity. 

In Photoshop, one very effective technique is to burn the shadows by about 5% and dodge the highlights by 5%.

Underwater woman swimming in rocky lake

Do You Dare Take Your Camera Underwater?

Are you taking more underwater photographs?  Is underwater photography something you would like to explore further and add to your own portfolio?  Have any questions?

Leave a comment below.

About the Author

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada.  JP
can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube.

JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

  • KYL3R

    I bought an aquapack for my phone, because the Cases for Sony Alpha Cameras are either not well designed enough to use all the buttons or they are just very expensive.
    The aquapack is quite cheap (compared) and I don’t have the button-issue, because I can still use my touchscreen.

    I Appreciate your underwater-tips – Tanks!

  • Dan

    Awesome tip. Gonna use it on my iPhone.

    • http://www.diyphotography.net/ udi tirosh

      well, that only makes sense, getting an iPhone underwater is waaay cheaper than any a case for any camera.

  • Sheldon

    I can’t say I entirely agree with the statement about the camera-in-a-bag type housings.
    I bought the U-BXP100 (or at least one from UWA that looks identical, i.e. SLR+small zoom+flash) and don’t have too much of a problem with the controls. Okay, you can’t quickly change anything but it’s not impossible to thumb things through the thick rubber.

    The hardest things I found were aiming it (it’s hard to look through the viewfinder as my camera doesn’t have ‘live-view’) and making sure there weren’t splashes of water on the front when you’re taking photos on the surface!