By Margo Cavis & Jack Connick, Optical Ocean Sales
Capture the unique beauty and wonderment of the underwater world where mysterious creatures exist. Underwater animals represent a unique world that not everyone gets to experience. Capturing these interactions fuels the imagination and inspires creativity.
There are two ways to photograph animals underwater – Wide Angle and Macro. Wide angle is best for big animals, groups of fish, animal interaction & the larger animal in its environment. Macro is for details or close-ups and little creatures. Don’t fall into the habit of using a single lens for everything. Research your dive sites and change your lens for best results.
When photographing animals underwater, 4 things come into play – luck, patience, knowledge and skill.
Many times it is sheer luck when you find the animals you want to see; but also, to improve your chance of good luck, you need the knowledge of where specific animals are likely to be. Then, there are many situations or types of creatures where you need quite a bit of patience, like waiting for shy animals to emerge or big animals to swim by. Once you have those things, you need the photography and diving skill to be able get a great shot.
So, in general the whole luck thing is out of your control, it is being in the right place at the right time, right? But still – most times, you aren’t going to luck out, if you don’t stay aware of your surroundings. Keep your eyes open – not only looking at the small part of reef you might be next to, but look around regularly. Look at where other divers are, over peaks and valleys… and out into the blue. You never know what you might find.
Preparing yourself with as much knowledge as possible before jumping in the water will help you achieve the most satisfying images. Being in the right place at the right time can be a large part of getting good photos, but did you ever notice how some photographers always seem to be in the right place?
So, do your research. Look into the types of animals that you would like to see the most. What do they feed on, when are they the most active, how do they mate, what is their habitat, usual depth they are at, best time of year, etc. There is a lot of information that is readily available, so take advantage of it. Using a dive guide that is very familiar with the area is also a good idea. Let him or her know what you want to see ahead of time and many times they can make it happen.
Patience and an easy-going attitude are extremely important when it comes to photographing underwater creatures. Not only do you need to have patience with the animals you wish to photograph, you need to have patience with other divers that might be around. Remaining calm and collected will get you the best results in both cases.
This is also where your newly acquired animal behavior knowledge comes in. Animals will often repeat behaviors, so spend some time watching. Does it repeat a pattern? Does it open its mouth, yawn, or have a mate? If you know the behaviors you’d like to see, or know that there is a shy animal hiding from you, sometimes you have to just hunker down, wait and observe. Watch for several minutes before moving closer. When you are ready to move in, be relaxed, and move in slowly to keep from spooking the animal. Let them get used to you, breathing calmly and approaching with your camera up and ready.
Be prepared to shoot lots and lots of photos. Shooting underwater is a lot more challenging than shooting on land, especially when you are first starting out. Then add animal behavior and motion and you have lots of challenges. You won’t get it with two or three shots.
Taking a large volume of images also allows you to experiment with your lighting, composition and camera settings. Try the shot both vertically and horizontally, shooting wider and then tighter so that you don’t scare the animal until you at least have a few shots. But use discretion, and be cognizant of other photographers and divers. General etiquette is to take a few shots, then let others take their turn, being very careful not to disturb the bottom or animal as you move away (floating up is a good plan). Also be aware that sensitive animals like seahorses can be harmed by repeated strobe firings – be careful and ask the guide if in doubt.
Diving Skills: Your first priority for underwater photography is obtaining excellent in-water skills. You need to have buoyancy mastered in order to get nicely composed images. Also, more importantly, if you are not in control of your body, you pose a threat to the environment or yourself. Another phenomenon that sometimes happens is a loss of time. Underwater photography is exciting, especially when you are engrossed in the actions and adventures of that super cool sea creature, so it’s very easy to lose track of time—which can be very hazardous. Your diving needs to be completely comfortable and well tuned.
Practice Above Water: Learn your camera before you get in the water, so that you don’t end up fumbling around trying to figure it out and miss that whale shark that just swam by! Remember, you can’t get the manual out at 80’!
Spend time in your backyard shooting insects and practice your macro shots, same with the flowerbed and shooting wide angle – the exposures may be brighter, but the skills are pretty much the same. Being comfortable with your camera when you don’t have a time clock running and adverse conditions to deal with, will allow you time to experiment and try out various features of your system. Then put the camera in the housing and try some more shots, learning what controls are placed where. This all will make you more comfortable underwater and save time.
Get Close: Whether you are doing macro or wide angle – you need to get closer than you might think – then maybe a little closer. Use the rule of thirds, but most important, if you are shooting an animal that is moving, leave some space in front of it. Try to never put their face right at the edge of the composition. It’s also usually never desirable to photograph an animal's back side... there are some exceptions - mostly for video - such as a large whale swimming away can sometimes be intriguing or make a good transition. But for still photos - try to position yourself for a side or three quarter shot, or even better – the animal swimming towards you. This is another time that knowing animal behavior will help you anticipate movement.
Shooting Angles: Shoot "upwards" for a brighter background, letting the ambient light work for you. Every once in a while – don't be afraid to shoot "blind" if necessary by bringing the camera to the ground and just pressing the shutter without looking through the viewfinder, sometimes that is the only way to get close shots of certain animals. Use a continuous auto focus mode so the camera does not have to wait to lock focus.
Strobes and Lighting: When using your strobes to shoot wide angle, you need to be careful to avoid backscatter and blowing out the highlights of animals like sharks, barracuda or other silvery fish. Careful strobe placement and use of low strobe power settings will enhance the quality of your images. Point your strobe outwards and use the edge of their beam to avoid backscatter. Turn off your strobes if your subject is more than 5-10ft away, choose a shutter speed that will give you a good “blue” or “green” and move your aperture and ISO for exposure. You should use a fast shutter speed if the fish are moving quickly to freeze their motion. If you are shooting macro, really good quality strobes are a necessity and a focus light is desirable. A focus light is extremely helpful so that you can always make sure the eye of your main subject is in perfect focus.
Once you have it down, experiment with different techniques:
- Small depth of field to get a blurred background
- Panning the camera to show motion
- Different or unusual compositions or angles of view
- Extreme close-up of the eye, or a pattern on its body
- Creative lighting
In underwater photography - like anything else, it comes down to practice, practice, practice. Shoot lots of photos, be creative... and have fun!