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Underwater Photography: 5 Tips for Getting Started

The rise of waterproof camera cases and underwater cameras like the GoPro means underwater photography is quickly becoming more popular among amateur photographers, hobbyists, and even holidaymakers.

But taking good underwater photos can be more difficult than most people expect. Underwater photographers must work with low light, tricky colour tones, and a rapidly changing environment, as well as unexpected challenges like underwater currants and poor visibility.

Underwater and conservation photographer Irene Mendez Cruz has been working to document marine biodiversity in Panama. Her recently published photo book ‘Kiss of the Oceans’ celebrates the diverse and fragile marine life of the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts of Panama.

“I set myself a two-month period to travel across Panama in order to photograph as much biodiversity as possible, both terrestrial and underwater, as well as documenting some of the main threats to the environment such as plastic pollution and deforestation,” she explains.

“I identified two main hotspots of marine biodiversity where I absolutely needed to dive. The first was Bocas del Toro, because of its beautiful Caribbean coral reefs and colourful macro life.

I also wanted to photograph the waters surrounding Coiba National Park, which are part of the Tropical Eastern Pacific Marine Corridor, as they’re a valuable habitat for sharks, cetaceans and large schools of pelagic fish.”

She explains that Panama is where ‘two oceans kiss.’ It’s the narrowest strip of land between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Caribbean waters are warmer, saltier, and rich in nutrients, which makes them the perfect habitat for one of the most diverse coral reefs in the world. Meanwhile, the deeper and cooler waters of the Pacific have highly active currents and a high concentration of plankton. They also host impressive schools of fish and marine mammals.

“In order to get enough images to make a whole book, I had to dive at least 30 to 40 times. Whilst diving in the Caribbean waters was fairly easy, the diving conditions of the pacific were more challenging,” says Mendez Cruz.

“The current can be very strong and you can spend a whole dive just fighting and swimming against it. I remember one dive in particular where we weren’t able to swim around and explore the dive site because of the poor visibility. In the end we just had to get a grip onto the rocks and enjoy the wildlife around us. It’s a beautiful but inhospitable world for humans, and I have a lot of respect for the ocean and the extraordinary survival skills of the animals that live in it.”

If her photos and story have inspired you to get out there and start experimenting with underwater photography yourself, here are some important things to keep in mind.  

1. Always put safety first

The first and most important rule of underwater photography is to always put safety first. “Photographing wildlife underwater is a totally different story than above water,” says Mendez Cruz. “You need a lot of experience; you need to be a good and safe diver for yourself and for others, before you can even start thinking of taking your camera with you.”

One of the most frequently reported incidents in scuba diving is running out of air, so it’s important to know your depth limits when diving and always keep track of your air. Staying warm in the water can also be challenging, so even if you’re just swimming, you may need to invest in a good wetsuit.

Developing good buoyancy control is also necessary in order to get close enough to your subjects without scaring them off or harming marine life such as coral. So you’ll need to spend some time practicing not only your photography skills, but also swimming and moving underwater.

2. Research your subject and location

Before you decide to dive or swim anywhere to shoot underwater photos, you should thoroughly research your subject and the location. This will help you work out the best time to visit and greatly improve your chances of getting sharp, well-lit photos.

For instance, if you’re hoping to photograph a specific type of fish or mammal, you’ll need to know what time of day it is most active, where you have the best chance of spotting it, and how you can get close to it without startling or harming it. Clarity is also important in underwater photography, so you’ll need to check the tides if you’re shooting in the ocean and avoid areas where sediment and sand will be swirling around.

3. Get to know your equipment

When you’re just starting out, it’s best to keep your gear as simple as possible. It would be far better to buy or rent a high quality waterproof housing and use the camera you’re already familiar with than spend thousands of pounds on fancy equipment that you don’t know how to use.

Remember that you won’t be able to switch lenses once you get in the water, so you’ll need to choose the lens that meets your needs, whether that means using a wide angle or macro lens. Getting the settings right will take some practice, but the aperture and shutter-priority modes are usually good starting points.

If you’ve never photographed underwater before, it’s a good idea to get to know your equipment and the camera settings you want to use in a controlled environment such as a swimming pool before you head out into the ocean, a river or lake.

4. Be patient

As is the case with many other types of photography, underwater photography requires a lot of patience. In most cases, you’re not going to dive into the water and immediately spot all the things you were hoping to photograph.

If you want to get interesting and well-composed images, you need to be willing to spend a considerable amount of time in the water looking for your subject, watching and anticipating its next move, and simply waiting for it to move into the right position.

5. Don’t skip the post-processing

Processing your underwater photos is a must, and involves everything from weeding out the undesirable photos to cropping to adjusting the colour tones, clarity and contrast.

“The fun part is definitely being in the water and getting the images but the hardest work comes in the post-processing stage,” says Mendez Cruz.

“I have spent countless hours selecting the best images out of a pool of thousands, to then editing each one of them. I am quite a perfectionist and I enjoy working in Lightroom and Photoshop to get the best results and full potential of an image. With underwater photography the biggest challenge is to get the white balance and the colours right. They should be as true to nature as possible.”