Tips and tricks for taking the perfect underwater shot

Good images aren’t shot, they’re created. However, working in a different element comes with an entirely new set of challenges that requires a completely different set of skills. While underwater photography can be mesmerizing, there’s no doubt that it can be equally frustrating at times. Not only does water reduce light, color, contrast, and sharpness, but your subject and environment are constantly changing. With all these challenges, how can underwater photographers create a good image? The following tips will help you create underwater art:

Master scuba diving skills

If you want a sharp image, you’ll need steady hands. Place diving skills above photography skills and learn to master buoyancy control. Essentially, the photographer acts as a flotation device on which the camera rests, so you need to be able to hover and remain stationary without disturbing the environment or holding onto the reef. The more comfortable you are under the water, you more confident you’ll be in your photography.

Understand marine life behavior

Photographing animals in any setting requires some knowledge of their behavior. As it turns out, the best way to observe a fish is to become a fish. Make a dedicated trip to spend as much time in the water with the species you’re trying to photograph. You’ll find that spending multiple days in the water with the animals will help you understand their temperament, behavior, and the possible risks involved. Ultimately, this will help you get closer to the subject and anticipate the perfect shot. Going on a liveaboard trip is the perfect opportunity to test out different lighting rigs, lenses, and shoot the animal in different conditions.

Turtle and Scuba Diver

Complement light sources

There are many advantages to a strobe. Position it away from your camera/housing to minimize backscatter, use it to freeze or convey movement, or to accentuate bold colors. However, keep in mind that this is only one of your light sources. In order to highlight the blue of the water and surrounding environment, let ambient light complement strobe lighting. If shooting without a strobe, shoot in shallow water (20ft/6m or less) with the sun behind you. Pro photographer Raul Touzon agrees, saying “a lot of my most successful images were made at the surface, where the light is abundant and where most of the big guys, like whales and sharks, can be found.” Remember to adjust the power of your strobes according to what you’re shooting. Decrease them to 1/2 or 1/4 power for marine animals that are too close or highly reflective.

Play by the rules

Fortunately, underwater photography is still photography, so the same rules of composition apply. Familiarise yourself with the rule of thirds, leading lines, framing, and the golden spiral, then use these in your underwater images. Try to fill your frame with the subject instead of centering on it and shoot from an upwards angle, never from above.

Time it right

“Normally takes you 30 minutes to nail a shot? Don’t count on it when playing underwater,” says underwater photographer Benjamin Von Wong. There are various factors you need to consider when planning your shoot, including oxygen levels, dive environment, and time of day. In addition to this, every element of photography takes longer, such as framing or adjusting settings. Accommodate time for this and, instead of snapping left and right, ready your settings and wait for the shot you want.

Diver and cuttlefish

Be familiar with best practices

There are basic camera settings that will improve the quality of your underwater imagery. Generally, it is recommended to put your white balance in daylight mode, especially when you’re using a flash. High ISOs will usually result in “digital noise” in your photos, so keep your ISO as low as 100 or 200. To get a greater depth of field, shoot between f8 and f16 aperture, but remember to adjust this to how deep you’re diving. Look for a balance between speed and aperture for the ideal exposure: use a higher shutter speed (1/125th or 1/250th) for those still, sharp images or slow down to 1/15th to convey motion, like a shark swimming.

Scuba Diver and Fish

While each underwater photographer has their preference and some enjoy shooting while freediving, the general consensus is that scuba diving sets you up for success. This allows you to take your precious time in composing a creative underwater image, spend more time at depth, and get closer to marine life. Not to mention it places you in the perfect position for those one-of-a-kind marine life encounters. If you’re itching to get in the water and try these tips, check out the top dive sites in the world to start planning your next underwater photography trip.

Photo credits: Olga Khoroshunova, Richard Carey.

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June 15, 2019


Great guidance. Thank you for sharing!

June 11, 2019


This is a great article! Since I've never attempted underwater photography, I had never thought of these issues of attempting to hold a camera steady while simultaneously swimming. Thanks for writing! William 

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