I wrote this article hoping that others can share my love of capturing the beauty of the underwater world. Although we all may have slightly different interests underwater, I am sure we all share a common bond of wanting to take great photographs underwater.
Modern technology has greatly changed our view of underwater photography. Cameras are much easier to use and housing manufacturers have given us a sometimes bewildering array of options. While this guide focuses solely on digital technology, the fundamentals remain. Finding the right subject. Capturing the right moment. Presenting it in the right fashion. The new technology makes it a little easier, and a little more accessible. Thank you to my great buddy Scotty Geiller, who has given a lot of knowledge about underwater photography.

Ready to try underwater photography?

Great, now you have an underwater camera and a housing, lets get in the water! But first, please make sure you are comfortable with your diving skills and buoyancy. Using a camera can be distracting, and it can be too easy for a new diver to crash into the reef, or worse, float to the surface without knowing it.
Before going underwater, it really helps to use your camera indoors, in a dimly lit room. Take some photos with the camera inside the housing, macro mode, flash on. Take photos of some small objects, and see how your photos come out. Test out the range of the camera with macro mode on and off.

Important Underwater photography facts

• Water absorbs colors such as red, orange, and yellow. This is why your underwater photos will look blue if you don’t use a flash or strobe. The deeper you are, the more color is absorbed.
• Compact cameras come with internal flashes that can be used to add colors to your photos.
• Underwater photographers often buy an external strobe/flash as a way to add color.
• Water reduces contrast, color and sharpness, which is why underwater photos should be taken within 1 meter of the camera, preferably much closer. You need to get very close to your subject.

Underwater photography definitions

Strobe or Flash – a source of full-spectrum light vital to underwater photographers. This can be built into the camera, or supplied as an external light.
Underwater Housing – also known as an underwater casing, this allows you to take a camera underwater and operate the camera. Housings can cost anywhere from $100 to $5,000.
O-ring – a rubber ring that creates a waterproof seal. Underwater housings and strobes will have several o-rings making them waterproof.
Macro lens – a lens attached to either the camera or underwater housing, that allows an underwater photographer to get very close to small subjects
Wide-angle lens – a lens attached to either the camera or underwater housing, that allows a very close approach to large subjects. Without a wide-angle lens, underwater photographs of large subjects have poor color and contrast.
Shooting macro – dedicating a dive moving slowly, looking for small subjects, often with a macro lens.
Shooting wide-angle – dedicating a dive to photographing large subjects, often with a wide-angle lens.
Ambient light – also known as natural light, this is light from the sun. Underwater photographs are often a mix of ambient light and strobe light.
White balance – a setting on cameras telling the camera processor how to interpret pixel values it records when taking a photograph
Manual White balance – also known as Custom white balance, a setting on most cameras that will give your photos more natural colors when not using a flash
Backscatter – specks, spots or blotches that appear in your underwater photos due to strobe light reflecting off particles, sand or plankton in the water.
TTL – technology that automatically sets the power of your strobe/flash to the correct value
Fiber Optic cable – a simple cable that can transmit light that will synchronize the firing of your strobe or flash with your camera.
Shooting manual – a phrase that implies you are either setting the camera aperture and shutter speed values yourself, or setting your strobe power yourself.

More Underwater Photography Facts

• Using a flash or strobe in underwater photography is very important. Put your camera in forced-flash mode when taking close-up photos. Buying an external strobe is the best way to improve your underwater photos.
• If using an internal flash, don’t be surprised if your photos have backscatter in them. At first you might think it’s dust or dirt on your lens. This is due to particles in the water.
• Try getting low and shooting at eye level with your subject, instead of photographing them from above.
• Get your buoyancy and diving skills down before taking a camera underwater.
• Use auto white-balance when using a flash/strobe, and custom white balance or underwater mode when not using a flash.
• Learn how to use manual mode or aperture priority mode if your camera offers it, so you control the balance between the natural light and the light from your flash.

Preventing camera fogging, dome port scratches, o-ring care

• Never let your underwater housing sit in the sun, to prevent camera fogging. When in the open, and especially in the hot sun, keep a wet towel over it. Letting the sun hit your underwater case can cause condensation later when you dive, and can dry it out and cause salt crystals to form.
• Always keep 1 or 2 desiccants in the waterproof housing to prevent fogging up.
• Always have your rig handed to you in the water, don’t jump in with it.
• When you exit the water, if you have a wide angle dome port on, train the crew to put your dome port cover on immediately to avoid scratches.
• Soak the underwater case in fresh water for a few minutes after every salt water dive, if possible. Soak it for longer if the salt water had a chance to dry. “Work” the buttons and controls for a few seconds while the camera is underwater, if possible. Afterwards, quickly towel-dry the housing.
• After your dive, don’t leave your camera unattended in the rinse tank*. I have heard many, many stories that start with “it flooded in the rinse tank”.
• Get your housing serviced every year with the appropriate authorities.
• Keep a neoprene cover over your dome port as much of the time as possible, to avoid getting the dome port scratched. I try to enter and exit the water with a cover on my dome port.

O-ring maintenance

• After every dive day, you should clean and relube the o-rings and grooves: Do this on the housing o-ring, the port o-ring, and the strobe battery compartment o-ring. Also perform this on your sync cord o-rings after every few dives.
• Do not over-lubricate the o-rings. Just a little bit is fine. Make sure you use the o-ring grease supplied by the manufacturer.
• I use a q-tip and a high-quality paper towel to clean the groove the o-ring was in. First remove the o-ring; wipe out any dirt from the groove using a q-tip, with a paper towel underneath it. Gently wipe off the o-ring, being very careful not to stretch it. I usually wipe the o-rings off with my fingers, gently feeling for any dirt or particles. Wash the o-ring off if it has sand on it that won’t come off, or if it is really dirty. Use an air-blower to blow off any hairs or dust from the groove, and relubricate the o-ring with a small amount of lube that your housing manufacturer suggests. Look at the o-ring one last time, and again being careful not to stretch the o-ring, place the o-ring back in.
• Some people are comfortable going a couple days without removing and relubing their o-rings, if they are not opening the port or housing up.

Underwater Housing preparation and your test shot

Very important – underwater housing care must be done in a non-hurried fashion, in a calm, uncramped, well-lit area. Preferable well before you dive. Rushing this procedure, or doing it on a small boat, has been the cause of many floods! Inspect the housing carefully before and after closing it to make sure nothing got caught in the groove, like a hair or the o-ring. After inspecting the o-ring and surfaces, close your housing quickly.
• After preparing your camera, always do a test shot, with your strobes on. Make sure it took a photo, properly exposed, and both strobes fired properly. Verify your camera ISO and JPEG/RAW quality setting. Verify the camera will focus. If you forget to do all these things, I guarantee you will go under water with either the lens cap on, strobes disconnected, or the lens on manual focus. Or you will shoot the entire dive on ISO 1600, small JPEG. You have been warned. The lens cap on is the most likely scenario, by the way….
• Some of the most common blunders include the following – leaving the lens cap on, having no memory card in the camera, having the lens set on manual focus, not having the hot shoe not plugged in. The most common test for me is leaving the lens cap on, I never remove my memory card. Your test shot should catch any of these problems. Always bring a spare memory card and spare batteries on boat with you.
• Make sure your test shot is at a small aperture or higher shutter speed, so that you can clearly tell if your strobes fire. Make sure you are in manual mode. You don’t want to have your camera exposing for ambient light during your test shot.
• After receiving a new housing, or after repairs, always test your housing in a pool or ocean without the camera to make sure it is leakproof. Place a soft weight inside to help make the housing neutrally buoyant.

Common Causes of underwater camera / housing floods

• Number 1 top cause of flooding – closing the housing and having a desiccant pack caught in the o-ring, or a large hair. This has happened to many people – beware – always watch carefully when you close the housing. Nothing can be touching or laying on the o-ring as the housing shuts. Close it in a well-lit area so you can see. This applies to strobe and port o-rings also.
• Salt/dirt building up in the o-ring grooves over time. Make sure you clean the grooves, I use a qtip over a good-quality paper tool.
• Failing to fully screw in sync cords – always double check them.
• small floods have happened when people jump into the water from up high with their gear, and the gear slams into the water – bring it into the ocean gently please, or better yet, have it handed down to you.
• Latches on the underwater camera housing not being securely shut – always double check them. This will causing a housing flood for sure.
• Latches or tabs or clips locking the dome port coming undone or not being fully secure. This affects certain dSLR housings more than others, such as Ikelite housings. Always double-check your port lock if you need to before submerging your camera in water.
• O-ring popped out after momentarily opening the underwater housing. This sounds obvious, but always double check the o-rings before closing the housing to make sure remain fully in the groove. If you open a housing on a boat, you can’t be a rush when you close it back up – inspect carefully, and re-read the 1st item in this list.
• Water dripping into open sync cord connections – when removing sync cords, make sure salt water can’t drip onto the metal contacts.

Camera Fogging Prevention

Has your underwater camera fogged up underwater? Is your waterproof housing fogging? Many people have had this problem. Here’s some tips to avoid having a a fogged up lens. I have not had fogging problems in a long time, even with my compact cameras.
• Always keep one or two fresh, newly “charged” dessicants in your housing
• Try to setup your housing and close it in a cool, dry area to minimize the moisture inside the housing. Inside your cool, air-con room is a good choice. Outside on the boat on a hot, humid day can be a poor choice and can lead to fogging.
• Don’t let your camera & housing get hot – keep it cool, out of the sun. Having a wet towel over it at all times is a good idea.
• Be very careful when you close the housing, that the dessicant doesn’t get caught on the o-ring, and can’t fall onto the lens port.
• Compact cameras are more susceptible to fogging.
• Fogging is more likely to happen when it’s hot on the surface, and cold underwater.

Maintenance on the boat – changing lenses/batteries

This is a popular cooler for carry a camera on the boat, and it doubles as a rinse tank. I’m not afraid to change lenses or batteries on the dive boat if I need to. Here’s what you need to do:
• Quickly rinse the housing in fresh water first, if it’s available.
• Dry it off, first with a towel, and then with an absorbent lens cloth.
• Have a paper towel handy.
• Open it in a calm, sheltered area without people around.
• Don’t drip on the camera. Be sure not to lean directly over the camera or housing.
• Wipe off water on the o-ring with the paper towel immediately after opening the housing.
• Examine carefully before closing the housing; have a flashlight if necessary.

Opening a compact camera housing on a boat

Compact camera housings more easily fog up after being opened on a boat. If possible, have fresh dry dessicants to place into the housing to help this problem.
If your waterproof housing has a leak detector, glance at it while you are descending into the water.
If your underwater and your housing has a leak….
It can still be saved. Remain calm. Try to hold your housing in one position so any water will collect on the bottom. Safely surface, open the housing, and dry everything out. Sometimes a strobe misfiring is a sign of a problem. Abort the dive and check it out, before it turns into something worse.
Always double-check your photo quality, ISO, battery life, and memory card space, before starting a day of diving.

Protect your housing

Soft coolers, originally designed for beer, can be used to hold your small or large camera housing in between dives and prevent it from being banged up. You can see a red one in the photo above. They can also be filled with water and used as a portable mini-rinse tank.

Sync cord maintenance

Yes, sync cords deserve a special section. Be sure to unplug them carefully after every few dives, and carefully dry out the bulkheads, and wipe water off the sync cords. Use a toothbrush to clean off the metal threads on the ends of the cords. My setup has 3 sea&sea sync cords – 2 single cords between my TTL converter and strobes, and one going from the converter to my housing bulkhead. The washers of the sync cords can freeze up permanently if they are not unscrewed after every few dives, and the area under them cleaned with a toothbrush. And when you remove sync cords, it’s easy for water to drip into the open bulkheads, be careful and dry out any water that is in there. Carefully remove and wipe off the sync cord o-rings, and re-lube them every time the cords are removed. If you are ever on a dive, and your strobes fire on their own, you have a little moisture inside one of the bulkheads where your sync cords connect. Leave the water, carefully open, check, and dry all connections.

Dome Port Scratches

If you scratch your acrylic dome port on the outside, no worry, it can be “meshed out”, even if it has some nasty gashes. Light scratches on the outside usually won’t affect your photos because they will be “filled in” with water underwater, and you won’t see them in photos, but they might reflect the sun in sunny water shots. Get the “micro-mesh” kit by Finishing products, inc. The one you want is the NC-78-1 Acrylic restoration kit. This does not work with glass dome ports.

Removing the dome port scratches

This mesh kit works wonders, you use multiple layers of sandpaper to sand down your dome port. It’s hard to believe your dome port will ever be useable again, but believe it or not at the end of the process it will be just like new! At first it will look all roughed up, but by the time you get to the smoothest paper, the dome looks brand new.

Take a look at this: http://www.sisweb.com/catalog/08/G7

I even scratched the inside of my dome port one time. My focus ring came off my tokina 10-17mm lens. Make sure your focus rings are on tight! I needed to add extra tape to my lens to make the fit tight. These scratches do not fill up with water. I ended up carefully using the micro-mesh kit on the inside of my dome port. It wasn’t perfect, but it got the scratches out for the most part. The very outside edges of the inside of the dome port aren’t perfect, but those don’t appear in photos. It was more difficult than doing the outside of the port, but definitely doable.

Lens, Port & camera cleaning

Get yourself a good bubble-blower, and a lens kit that contains a blower-brush, lens paper and lens cleaner.
Cleaning your glass dome ports and lenses
• Every so often, your lenses and ports will need cleaned. Clean your lens glass carefully. Always blow off dirt and dust first with a blower, then a soft brush, before wiping it with lens paper. Otherwise you may scratch the glass. Always use lens paper or a lens cloth to wipe the glass. This also goes for ports and diopters. A put a few drops of lens cleaner on half of the lens tissue paper, and then I wipe the glass until it is clean. Then I wipe off the liquid with the dry half of the lens paper until the glass is dry.
• Always store lenses with the lens caps on when not in use.
• Try not to change lenses in dusty environments. Change your lens as quickly as possible to avoid getting dust on your sensor. When your camera does not have a lens on, your sensor should be facing down, to avoid dust falling on the sensor.

If you are going on an Underwater Photography dive trip and flying

Remove your main housing o-ring, and put it in a zip-lock baggie, before packing your housing away. When you reach your destination, make sure you remove every o-ring in your system, clean it, lube it, and put it back. The pressure from an airplane can dislodge o-rings. Trust me, you don’t want to learn this first hand.

Be relaxed underwater. If you are distracted by bottom time, air, unfavorable conditions, etc, you can’t focus on getting a good shot.

Always strive to learn more

• Read underwater photo books and magazines.
• Read general photography books and magazines. You can learn many things from topside nature, wildlife, and portrait shooters. Composition is universal. You can learn a lot about lighting from studio photographers. A lot about nature and wildlife photography can be applied underwater.
• Take a class or workshop on underwater photography. Or read a book, or this guide page by page. Great artists all have a strong desire to learn, improve. Technology is changing and there is always more to learn about your art.
• Read your camera body manual carefully. Get to know your camera inside and out.
• Practice and shoot, practice and shoot, practice and shoot!

Find inspiration from others

• Get feedback from someone more experienced than yourself, tell the person you want them to focus on areas you can improve, not on compliments. You can also get feedback on on-line forums. You should make it clear that you don’t want advice on cropping or Photoshop adjustments, you want to know how you could have taken a better shot underwater.
• Dive with photographers better than yourself. See how they photograph, where they go, what subjects they choose, what compositions they select. Compare your photos with theirs.
• Get inspiration from others. Look to see what other photographers have produced from where you are diving, especially pros. Don’t worry about copying what others have done, your conditions and subjects will be slightly different. They probably get their ideas and tips from other people. Who are your underwater photography heroes? If you don’t have any, check the resources page. If you have some, maybe it’s time to revisit them and their photos.
• Find a great coffee table book with underwater photographs, that gives you inspiration, and study the photos.

Other ideas for improving your photos

• Use a good guide.
• Focus on how to improve your shooting underwater, not on how to post-process your photos better.
• Join an Underwater Photographer’s society, you will learn from other members in the club, and it will be helpful to see what types of photos others are submitting in monthly photo contests.
• On your next dive trip, try to find some calm, shallow water. Look for interesting light and reflections. Practice taking shallow shots with little or no strobe power.
• Enter a few competitions. If you don’t win, try to see what techniques, subjects and compositions won. I like the competition sponsored by Underwater Australasia (http://www.underwater.com.au) because it’s free to enter, and they have good prizes.
• Prepare for your dive – research the destinations & dive sites, understand the marine life and behavior.

Go take some shots, and good luck!

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