Guide for Underwater Photography

Compile by : Bebebearbear

Underwater Photography Tips

Underwater Photography tips for Beginner and Advanced Photographers. Also visit our underwater video tips.

Enjoy these 100 underwater photography tips, including basic tips, tips for
compact camera photographers, and advanced underwater photo tips.

Basic Underwater Photography Tips

These are the “traditional” underwater photography tips everyone should know
1 – Get close to your subject – preferably within 12 inches. Water reduces color, contrast, and sharpness.
2 – Make sure your camera flash is turned on, preferable in “forced flash mode.”
3 – For best composition – get low, shoot at an upwards angle, don’t center the subject, try to fill your frame with the subject. Don’t shoot “down” at the subject.
4 – Make sure the subject’s eyes are in focus.
5 – Get your diving skills down before you start using a camera underwater.
6 – Practice topside with your camera inside the housing. Try taking close-ups of flowers and household objects.
7 – To minimize backscatter, buy an external strobe/flash and position it away from your underwater camera housing.
8 – Set your camera to the highest resolution, and the lowest ISO possible to begin with.
9 – Use auto white-balance when using a flash/strobe, and custom white
or underwater mode when not using a flash.
10 – 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.
11 – If you are shooting with natural light, shoot in 20ft of water or less, with the sun behind you.
12 – For quickest focus, use spot focus mode. Learn how to focus on an area without taking a photo (pressing the shutter button halfway) and recomposing.
13 – If your underwater photos don’t look sharp, check to see which shutter speed was used, it should needs to be 1/30th for still objects, 1/60th for slow moving objects, and 1/125th of faster for faster moving fish.
14 – Most underwater photos can use an increase in contrast when postprocessing your photos – but don’t overdo it.

If you can recite all 80 of our underwater photo tips backwards, you will be able to take picture perfect photos like this one. F13, 1/250th, ISO 100, Nikon 105mm VR lens

Underwater Photography Tips for Underwater Compact Camera Users

1 – Make sure you read the Beginner’s Guide to Underwater Photography
2 – Cover the front of the housing directly in front of the internal flash with duct tape when adding an external strobe that is optically fired, otherwise you will still get backscatter from the internal flash.
3 – Make sure you understand the focusing distance of your camera in and out of macro mode. Use macro mode when you are within the macro focusing distance.
4 – If you use an external flash, make sure you place it as far away from your housing as possible, and your internal flash is blocked, in order to reduce backscatter.
5 – Bring a dive light with you to help your camera auto-focus.
6 – If you turn your flash off, either manual white-balance your camera, or set it to underwater mode.
7 – Don’t use digital zoom.
For people using only a compact camera and internal flash:
8 – The lower the visibility, the closer to the subject you must be to avoid
9 – Avoid using the flash when shooting more than 3-4ft away for better colors in your underwater photos.
10 – When not using the flash, make sure you use manual white balance mode.
11 – When using the flash, make sure white balance is set to auto.
12 – Look into using wet lenses for a wider range of focal lengths.

Mistakes beginner photographers make

1 – Use manual white balance every 5-10ft when shooting ambient light.
Newbies often don’t do this and end up with blue photos.
2 – Taking photos with a lack of contrast: You should shoot in clear water, get closer, use strobes to light the subject. Use Photoshop to increase the contrast.
3 – Taking photos with a lack of color: The solution is to shoot with strobes!
Block out ambient light with a fast shutter speed. Get closer. Make sure your settings are not letting in too much ambient light.
4 – Lack of subject, or taking a photo that is cluttered without a clear subject.
Solution – try CFWA or fill-the-frame techniques.
5 – Lack of sharpness: See the section on getting sharp photos.
6 – Too much backscatter: See the backscatter underwater section.
7 – Shooting only in landscape mode: Think portrait, shoot vertically 50% of the
8 – Don’t shoot a subject more than 2-3ft away if possible. This is also called
“shooting through too much water”
9 Having a distraction background. See the underwater composition section.
10 – Thinking you can use a long zoom lens (e.g. – 18-200mm zoom
underwater) – not a good idea. Either there won’t be a port long enough, or
performance will suffer at the long or the short end.
11 – Trying to shoot a busy reef in one photo. Try to isolate subjects on the reef,
instead of creating a cluttered photo
12 – Trying to shoot a fish 2 or 3ft away at F22, after shooting a nudibranch very
close-up. It won’t work, the subject will be very underexposed due to strobe
falloff. Dial-down to a larger aperture, such as F7
13 – Accidentally shooting at ISO1600 or at small jpeg quality the entire dive.
Always check your ISO and JPEG/RAW quality before starting a dive, this should
be part of your test-shot routine.
14 – Oversaturating your photos. Many beginners pump up the saturation too
much. Try increasing the saturation only 5-10% at most.
15 – Not using the lens for what it’s for, and therefore trying to shoot through too
much water.
16 – Not reading the Beginner’s Underwater Photography Guide

More underwater photo tips

1 – Get out and shoot. Find a place to dive near where you live.
2 – Share your photos, show them to your friends.
3 – Shoot in raw mode if possible.
4 – Anticipate what you might see underwater, adjust your strobe, f-stop ahead.
It would be big mistake, to see a shark and having your camera at F22.
5a – If you find a good static background, look for a good foreground subject.
5b – If you find a good static foreground subject for wide-angle, wait for a good background to “swim by”.
6 – Learn how to use your histogram and highlights screen, and use them often.
7 – Check photos UW for sharpness, by viewing at 100% magnification.
8 – Use a 100mm or 105mm lens to emphasize or isolate the subject, and
reduce the background.
9 – Compose subjects parallel to the camera for close-up macro photography if possible, to get all of the subject in the focal plane.
10 – Get the exposure right in camera; don’t rely on post-processing.

Underwater photography tips for advanced underwater shooters

Underwater photography tips for advanced underwater shooters
1 – Get inspiration from others, but inspire to be different. As a friend of mine said, Imitate, then innovate.
2 – To get the best reds – shoot close, within 2ft. Remember, the light has to travel there and back, a total of 4ft, some red color is already being lost.
3 – Think about your background.
4 – Think about ideal color combinations.
5 – Think diagonal compositions.
6 – Use your DOF appropriately, blur out distracting background if needed.
7 – Previsualize your shots.
8 – Think about the best lens to use for the type of shot you want to get.
9 – Shoot in raw, expose to the right, bracket your shots.
10 – Get it right in camera. Experienced shooters will need to do very little
processing on the computer.
11 – Use excellent equipment, especially the best lens and strobes you can get.
12 – When shooting macro with a dSLR, move your center focus point around so you can focus on the eyes/rhinophores of the subject, without having the focal point in the center.
13 – Don’t approach subjects from above, get at their level, observe them for a while, and approach slowly.
14 – Bring your macro lens & port with you on the boat if you are going out to shoot wide angle. If sky is dark and cloudy, you’ll be able to switch to macro before the dive, while your camera is dry, and shoot WA another time.
15 – If you only own cooler strobes such as Inon or S&S, try gelling them for your wide angle shots to 4500-4800K, for better colors and a bluer background.
Ikelites and subtronics will already be warm enough.

Underwater photography tips for common problems underwater

1 – Strobe is firing erratically.
• Solution – there is moisture is in the system somewhere, immediately
surface, and dry out strobe, sync cord & bulkhead connections
2 – Strobe power is getting low.
• Turn up the ISO and shoot at a larger aperture to use less of your strobe
battery power.
3 – Reflections in your photo when taken sunny shots with a dome port.
• At certain angles, metal inside your wide-angle lens can reflect light that
shows up in your photos. This will usually only occur at certain angles,
and shooting at a slightly different angle will usually solve the problem.
Scratches in your dome port can also cause this issue, and those can be
removed with a mesh kit if your port is acrylic. It is also sometimes
possible to put tape over these metal or gold strips inside your wide-angle
lens to reduce the chance of reflections.
4 – I’m diving and there is nothing to photograph –
• Try to think of ideas from the artistic composition section or creative
shooting section
5 – My photographs are partially black on the top or the bottom.
• You accidentally set your shutter speed faster than the sync speed your
camera supports. Bring your shutter speed back down to the sync speed.
6 – I’m shooting wide angle and the visibility isn’t as good as I had hoped
• Think about shooting some silhouettes or black and white photos.
7 – I’m trying a split shot, and the area underwater or above water is always
• Focus on the underwater subject, and use a very small aperture. Bump
up your ISO if necessary.
8 – My photos are coming out red or orange
• Your white balance setting is probably wrong. When using a flash or
strobe, don’t use the cloudy white balance setting, use auto or sunny.
Also, don’t use the underwater mode with a flash or strobe.
9 – I’m using a strobe or internal flash, but my colors are not looking very good
• You may be letting in too much ambient light. If your shooting at F5.6,
1/60th for macro, or even worse, F2.8 1/60th, that is letting in too much
light in shallow depths. You want most of your light to come from your
strobe or internal flash for macro, try shooting at F8, 1/250th for better
reds and oranges.

Underwater Camera Modes – Auto, Program, Manual, Priority

A guide for compact camera users

By Scott Gietler
New underwater photographers are often confused by the modes on their camera. Manual? Auto? Priority? Here I will demystify the modes on your camera, so you cantake the best possible underwater photographs.

*Please note that the best mode to choose will depend on whether you are using your flash, or using only natural light – which is why there are two sections below.

Taking Underwater Photos With Your Flash or Strobe

Using your camera flash or an external strobe to add color to your subject and help freeze the action is recommended especially when photographing close up subjects or subjects in deep water. Let’s discuss the different modes your camera may offer and how the added lighting may effect the outcome.

Auto Mode (A)

This mode should not be used, because you give up control of the flash on most compact cameras.

Program Mode (P)

In program mode, and the other modes below, you should choose “forced flash” to make sure the flash fires. The shutter speed is usually chosen at the camera sync speed of 1/60th, and the camera chooses the aperture. Use this mode only if it is the only choice.

Aperture Priority Mode (Av)

You choose the aperture, and the camera will choose the shutter speed, usually the camera sync speed of 1/60th. By choosing F8, you can block out as much ambient light as possible, resulting in a photo that has better color, contrast and sharpness. This is the preferred mode if you are trying to get TTL with an Inon or Sea & Sea strobe with a Canon compact camera.

Shutter Priority Mode (Tv)

You choose the shutter speed, and the camera chooses the aperture. This can be useful when you need to freeze the motion of a fast-moving object such as a sea lion or shark, when 1/60th of a second might be too slow.
Full Manual Mode (M) This is the best mode to use, if your camera offers it. You choose the aperture and shutter speed. The only downside is that you loose TTL on Canon compact cameras, but that is not a big deal, as you simply set the strobe power manually.

Underwater Mode

This is generally just a white balance setting that the camera chooses to warm the image. Be careful using this mode with a flash, since it can make your underwater photos look red on many cameras. Carefully test this mode to see what kind of settings the camera is choosing.

Instant Recall Modes (C1, C2, etc.)

These are custom settings that you set and can “call back” with the turn of a dial or the push of a button. Read the full article here.

Taking Natural Light Underwater Photos Without a Flash or Strobe

When photographing large scenes in very shallow, sunny water, large
, silhouettes, or sometimes black and white photos – you may choose not to use a flash, but to use only natural (ambient) light instead. Let’s look at the possible modes.

Auto Mode (A)

This mode should not be used, because you give up control of the flash on most compact cameras.

Program Mode (P)

Choose “Flash off” so the flash doesn’t fire. The camera will choose the aperture and shutter speed. This will often give decent results with ambient light photos.

Aperture Priority Mode (Av)

You choose the aperture, and the camera will choose a shutter speed. This is a good mode to use when you want to control the depth of field.

Shutter Priority Mode (Tv)

You choose the shutter speed, and the camera will choose an aperture. his is useful when you need to use shutter speed to freeze motion, or you want a slow shutter speed for creative effects.

Manual Mode (M)

Manual mode is useful when the other modes are not giving you the exposure that you want, for example when the sun is in the photograph. You set the aperture and shutter speed yourself.

Underwater Mode

Underwater mode automatically tries to color correct natural light photos. This can give decent results in very shallow water, but I suggest using one of the other modes above and using custom white balance if your camera offers it.

Great Underwater Photos Without A Strobe

Lately many people have been complaining about the underwater photos they are getting with their compact cameras, and that they are thinking of getting an external strobe. But if you aren’t getting good photos without a strobe, buying one may not help your underwater photography. In this article I discuss how to get the most of your compact camera, and how to know when you are ready for a strobe.

Part 1: Using the Internal Flash

• Your camera must be in “forced flash” mode, “macro mode” for close-ups
• Get within 12 inches of the subject
• Adjust your settings to block out ambient light. F8, 1/60th, ISO 100 will
work in all but the sunniest of conditions. If you only have “auto” mode,
see if your camera defaults to F2.8, 1/60th. If this is the case, you are in
trouble because lots of ambient light is getting in your photo. So if you
only have “auto” mode, for good photos you need to photograph at night,
down deep, or in shadowed areas. Make sure your camera is using ISO
100 on these shots underwater.

Fuji F11, F8, 1/60th, macro mode, Internal flash

Fuji F11, internal flash, F8, 1/60th, macro mode

Part 2: Taking underwater photos with natural light

• You must be in shallow water, 30ft or less, preferable 20ft or less. Read
about loss of color at depth.
• The water should be clear and sunny, with the sun behind you, unless
you are going for a silhouette.
• Your camera should be taking photos at 1/60th of a second or faster. If
not, you may see some blur in your photos.
• You must use custom white balance. Most cameras support this function.
Bring a white dive slate with you to white balance your camera.
• Using a red filter can add even more colors to your photo (actually, it
subtracts some wavelengths). Again, you need to use custom white
balance and follow all the other rules mentioned.
• These photos can usually benefit from a small contrast and color
adjustment in Photoshop using the levels tool, but don’t over-do it.

Reef fish, Fuji F10, F3.6, 1/200th, ISO 200, Natural light, Custom white balance
Schooling Salema, Natural light, Fuji F11, custom white balance

Understanding the two types of light in your photos

When using a flash or strobe, the light in your photos comes from two sources; the flash and the sun. The light from the sun is called ambient light, or natural light, and will be poor in color. Even when using a flash or strobe, if your camera settings are allowing too much ambient light, the color of your photo will be poor.

Why are my underwater photo colors poor?

Either you are using natural light and did not follow all the rules in Part 2, or you tried to use your internal flash but too much ambient light is in the photo. This can happen for two reasons:
• The subject is more that 12 inches from the camera, so the internal flash
suffers from light falloff.
• Your settings are letting in too much ambient light. F2.8, 1/60th in
shallow, clear water lets in too much ambient light. Unfortunately,
exposure compensation on compact cameras usually only works with the
flash off, not with the flash on – so on underwater cameras with no
manual settings (i.e. – “auto” mode only), F2.8, 1/60th is all you are going
to get – which is really not good!

Underwater photo with some backscatter and poor color. The subject was too far
for the internal flash to be effective, and the settings let in too much ambient light.
Fuji F11, F2.8, 1/100th, ISO 800.
Why is my photo blurry?

Two possible reasons:
• It is out of focus, usually as the result of incorrectly being in or out of
macro mode
• Your shutter speed is too slow. Increasing the ISO can alleviate the
problem. When zoomed all the way out, you’ll need 1/30th at a minimum
to photograph a still object, 1/60th for slowly moving fish, 1/125th for
objects moving at a normal speed. Double these speeds if you zoom in.
Of course, if an object is mainly lit by your flash/strobe, then the strobe is
freezing motion and the shutter speed doesn’t affect the results.

Rhinopias in Lembeh, F8, 1/60th, Fuji F11 compact camera, internal flash

When am I ready to purchase an external strobe?

An external strobe is a great way to advance your underwater photography, I highly recommend them. But before purchasing one, you may want to wait until both of these are true:
• You are able to get good close-up photos with the internal flash
• Your camera supports aperture priority or manual mode, or you have
some way to block out some ambient light with your settings. For
example, my Fuji F11 and F30 default to F8 on macro mode, which helps
a lot. Otherwise, a camera with only auto mode is very limited with a
strobe. Think about getting a better point and shoot camera.

Getting Great Color in Your Underwater Photographs

Underwater photos that stand out usually have great detail and color that pops. In this article I explore how to get the best possible colors in your underwater photos, whether shooting with or without a strobe.

Underwater Photography With Great Colors
Closeup Texture of a Sea Star. Molokini, HI Canon 5DSr 100mm EF f/2.8L Macro Lens Dual Sea & Sea YSD2j

Tips for Getting Great Colors with a Strobe or Flash In Your Underwater Photos

• Expose properly – many colors are easily blown out, especially reds. Slightly underexpose them.
Play with strobe positionfront lighting will enhance color and saturation, but be sure to check your histograms with direct front lighting to watch out for blown out highlights.
• Don’t shoot with your subject more than 1ft (.3 meters) away. For macro, try to be less that 6 inches away. This helps ensure that minimal reds and oranges are absorbed by the water.
• Make sure your subject is not already brightly lit with natural light. If it is, your camera settings must block out that natural light with a small aperture or fast shutter speed. Otherwise, the natural light will have many colors absorbed from it.
• This is related to the above item – use manual mode if possible. When shooting a shallow, sun-lit subject in clear, shooting at F8, 1/100th will let in too much ambient light. You’ll need to shoot at a faster shutter speed so only your strobe is lighting the subject. Do a test – shoot with your hand covering the flash. If the photo is still exposed well, your settings are wrong.
• Use the proper white balance setting when using a flash or strobe, auto or sunny is usually correct. Using cloudy will usually make the photos look too yellow or orangish.

What Not To Do For Underwater Color

• Using auto-flash instead of forced flash. Set your compact camera to forced flash, your internal flash goes off every time for added color.
• Not getting close enough. Red color is quickly absorbed by water. If your photo subject is 3ft away, your strobe light is making a 6ft round-trip, the distance is more than enough to absorb a lot of the red color.
• Shooting in auto mode or priority mode, instead of manual mode
• Not using a strobe or internal flash. You can get decent color if you are very very shallow, but you really need a strobe or flash to get great colors underwater.

Getting Vibrant Color In Wide Angle Shots

• Shoot with the sun in front of you (sun behind the subject), so that the subject is dark and is mostly lit by your strobe. Use manual settings to underexpose the ambient light in the background.
• Use a very wide angle lens, like a fisheye lens, to get within 1ft of the subject.

My tokina fisheye lens let me get very close to the featherstars, allowing my strobes to give them a nice
color. F13, 1/160th, ISO 200
How To Get Great Colors Underwater Using Natural Light

• Use manual white balance and adjust every 5-10ft, or shoot in RAW and white balance in your raw editor
• Shoot in calm, shallow, sunny water – preferable in less than 20ft / 6 meters.
• Shoot with the sun behind you.
• Use filters to block out some of the blue spectrum, like a magic filter.

Female Pencil Wrasse. Kona, HI Canon 5DSr 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens with Ambient Light, 10ft deep

Image Sharpness

How to get sharp photos

By Scott Gietler

One of the qualities photographers most want to improve in their photographs is image sharpness. I think subject matter, composition, and lighting are equally or important, but let’s address image sharpness since so many people ask about it. Although these image sharpness tips are for underwater photographers, many of these sections apply equally for
land photography also.

Most common causes for lack of image sharpness:

1) Not being in the plane of focus. Every photo has a plane of focus where
sharpness is maximized. Obviously the subject must be in this plane to be sharp. With close-up macro photography, small movements or surge can put the subject out of the plane of focus. Look over the depth of field tests.

2) If photographing underwater, there is loss of image sharpness from too much distance through murky water. A underwater subject needs to be close to the lens to be sharp, since sharpness falls off rapidly as you put more water in between the lens and the subject. This is especially true when the visibility is not great. This is a large advantage of ultra-wide fisheye lenses, they allow you to get very close to a large subject for a shot. 12 inches or closer to the lens is ideal. Even in clear water, you can lose sharpness quickly.

For a very sharp photo, you’ll usually want at least 40 feet (12 meters) of visibility.

3) Incorrect camera settings let in too much ambient light. Usually a strobe, firing at 1/1,000th of a second or faster, will freeze any subject movement or camera shake.
However, people often have their camera on auto mode, P mode, or A/S mode with no exposure compensation. All of these choices can cause the camera to expose for ambient light, which will usually result in a slow shutter speed, un-sharp photos, with washed out colors due to a very weak strobe being fired. Shoot in full manual mode unless you really know what you are doing. Read more about underwater camera settings.

4) Not using a strobe. When shooting ambient light, it can be difficult to
get shutter speeds necessary for very sharp photos with ambient light, unless they are taken in bright light at large apertures. However, absolute sharpness is not necessary for a great photo. When shooting ambient light, keep the sun behind you, or shoot silhouettes, unless you are going for a moody wreck shot.

5) Having the improper dome, extension and diopter for a wide-angle lens. For example, the nikon 12-24mm lens will need a large dome port, a 40-60mm extension, and a +3 or +4 diopter. Read about dome port optics

6) Shooting at too small an aperture, like F40. Diffraction will start to blur the details. But don’t get too hung up on this, it’s only noticeable at very small apertures. Use F8-F11 for optimal image sharpness. See the results of my diffraction tests on the 105mm lens, and read about aperture and depth of field in underwater photography.

Even Sharper images

Once your photo is sharp, let’s look at how we can make it sharper:

• Shoot with a quality prime lens (F2.8) at optimal aperture (F5.6 – F13). These lenses usually have great image sharpness. Every lens has a “sweet spot” where sharpness is maximized. This is usually when the lens is stopped down 1-2 stops, but if you want to be sure, test it out yourself. But make sure you have enough of depth of field, especially when shooting very close-up.

• Get very close to your subject, within a few inches, to minimize loss of sharpness from shooting through water.

• Fill the frame with your subject, so no cropping is needed.

• Shoot in RAW or at the highest quality, largest size JPEG

• Using a large dome port with the proper extension

• For areas of the photo not lit by the strobe, make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the motion

• Look at your lighting and contrast. Side-lighting will bring out detail, making a photo appear to be sharper, as will higher contrast. See types of lighting underwater

• Make sure the photo is properly exposed, especially the area in which you want to see detail. watch out for lost shadow detail, or blown out highlights in 1 color spectrum.

• Use spot focus. If your camera has the ability to move the focus point with the cursors, move the focus point over the area of the subject that you want in focus (e.g. – eyes).

• Check your histogram, and make sure all 3 color channels are properly exposed.

• Post-process your photo, adjusting levels to get the proper amount of contrast. To slightly sharped a photo, use the unsharp mask, and view your photo at 100% magnification to see the results.

This photo has excellent image sharpness. It’s a colmani shrimp on a sea urchin, taken in Anilao, phillipines. Note the texture on the spines of the urchin. This texture is also caused by side-lighting the photo, and sufficient depth of field. Image sharpness on the shrimp would appear to be lost if the photo was over-exposed.

Even blown up to 100% magnification, this chameleon is very sharp, especially the point of focus at it’s eye. 105mm VR lens, F10, 1/400th, ISO 320, daytime. Good depth of field, steady handholding, focus point on the eye, vibration reduction turned on, and a shutter speed faster than 1/160th (35mm equiv of 105mm is 157) all helped create a sharp image.
Shooting “topside” above water, it is much easier to get a sharp imageness, because there is no water to suck the sharpness out of your photo.

Getting sharp images in a wide-angle photo underwater can be difficult, especially when there are fine details in a subject like sea fans. I’m getting good at it but there is always room for improvement. It helps to have clear water, get very close with a wide-angle fisheye lens (30cm away), expose the image properly (I slightly overexposed this one in some parts), and shoot at F11 when possible. Nikon d300, Tokina 10-17mm lens, F9,
1/160th, ISO 320

Underwater Settings & Technical Matters

Underwater camera settings

By Scott Gietler
Many photographers start out worrying about technical matters too much. Just get out there and shoot! Most cameras work great right out of the box. Stick it on manual mode, find some subjects, and start shooting. You’ll be fine, and you’ll be having fun. It only takes a minute to learn how to change your shutter speed and aperture. Still, at some point you should know your camera and it’s capabilities. Read the camera manual cover to

Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, I think it’s very important for an underwater photographer to have a solid knowledge of aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and their effects on underwater photos. Thinking about these variables should become second nature.

Chapter Topics

Chapter Topics
Shutter speed
Aperture and depth of field
• Shooting in RAW vs jpeg
• Recommended underwater settings for macro and wide-angle
• More technical matters such as sensor size and dynamic range
Application to underwater photography is emphasized. A solid foundation in these basics
can only help your photography.

Understanding Exposure

Exposure can be defined as the amount of light your camera lets in for any given shot. In the old days, “the exposure” was another term for your photo that was produced by your camera.
Alternatively, you can say it’s the amount of light that hits your camera sensor.
Exposure is one of the most important things for an underwater photographer to master.

What is a good exposure?

When people talk about having a good exposure, they mean that their photo is not too dark and not too bright.
But what is a good exposure? A good exposure can be defined as a an exposure that gives your photo the tonal values and colors that you imagined when you ook the shot. Many people will tell you correct exposures are defined by a histogram. In the end, a good exposure is defined only by your judgment. A histogram can be very helpful in telling you what kind of exposure your photo has.
The definition of a proper exposure is an exposure that matches the exactly what the photographer’s vision was. Even the best camera will not automatically expose a photo in the way a creative photographer imagined the scene, which is why photographers often take control of the exposure.

Spotted Eagle Ray. Kona, Hawaii

Spotted Eagle Ray. Kona, Hawaii

The four factors of underwater exposure

Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all affect your exposure. If you are using a strobe, then the strobe power is also a 4th (and major) factor in your exposure.
• Shutter Speed
• Aperture
• Strobes

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is typically used to blur or freeze motion, reduce camera shake and/or to control ambient light in the image. When the camera shutter is opened, light enters through the aperture of the lens. The slower the shutter speed is the more time light is allowed to reach the sensor therefore the brighter the image.
Read the detailed tutorial on understanding shutter speed here.

Aperture ‘f stops’

The aperture of your lens is like a curtain that can be opened in varying sizes. The size of an aperture is referred to as an F-stop. Your lens will have the largest aperture printed on it such as “f/2.8”. A “stop” is a relative term. Making a photo one “stop” brighter means you are letting in twice as much light. Making a photo a stop darker means you are letting in half as much light. People will often say “go up one stop” or “go down one
stop” or “make it one stop brighter”.
Read the detailed tutorial on aperture here.


Base ISO is the ISO at which your camera will have the optimal amount of noise, dynamic range and color sensitivity. Base ISO on most cameras is ISO 100. On high end dSLRs it is ISO 50.
Read more on ISO and noise here.


Strobes are used to properly light your subject underwater bringing out its true colors. It can be tricky however, because it is easy to ‘blow out’ or over expose your image if the strobe power is too high or underexpose if too low.
Read more on lighting with strobes here.

Day Octopus. Maui, Hawaii
Exposure Value (EV) and Exposure Compensation

EV stands for “Exposure value”, which is the amount of brightness in a
photograph. Changing either the shutter speed, ISO, aperture, or strobe power, depending on the circumstance play a role in the exposure value. When a camera is set to “automatic”, the camera will choose what is best in each situation. However, in auto or manual mode you can choose to darken or lighten the image in-camera digitally with exposure compensation.

Refer to your camera’s manual for its specific settings.

Understanding Exposure

Proper exposure is when all of the above elements work together
seemlessly. Having an understanding of how each one operates or how they affect your image is important in achieving the intended exposure every time.

Understanding Shutter Speed

An essential underwater photography tool

Shutter speed affects the amount of ambient light entering the camera. Shooting at “one over 30” or “1/30th” means that the shutter speed is open for one thirtieth of a second. Cutting the shutter speed in half will increase the ambient light exposure by one stop (i.e. let in twice as much light as 1/60th).

The following shutter speeds all have a difference of one stop:
1/15th, 1/30th, 1/60th, 1/125th, 1/250th, 1/500th, 1/1000th, 1/2000th

Changing the shutter speed – what does it do?

• Affects ambient light, which is the background light in strobe-lit shots. The slower the shutter speed, the more ambient light is let in.
• Does not affect strobe light. This is important to understand, and is
counter-intuitive to many people new to underwater photography.
• Is used to freeze or blur motion. See freezing motion.
• Is used to reduce camera shake. See camera shake below.
• Can’t be faster than the camera sync speed when using a strobe.
• The faster the shutter speed, the less light that comes in. Using fast
shutter speeds is very difficult in low-light situations, without added strobe
• The portion of the photograph lit by ambient light will be sharper with
faster shutter speeds, to a point. Read the sharpness chapter for more

Understanding shutter speed

High shutters are used to freeze motion. 1/125th is the minimal speed usually needed. Fast moving dolphins or sea lions may need 1/200th or faster to get sharp photos. Fast speeds also help capture sun rays.
Wtih medium shutter speeds, 1/30th to 1/100th, moving objects may or may not be sharp. Enough light is coming in to use mid-range apertures.
Slow shutter speeds, 1 second to 1/15th, motion trails may appear, and creative effects can be done. Anything that moves in the photo will be blurred. Small apertures must be used unless light levels are very low. If the camera is moved, the entire photo will be blurred, except for any portion frozen by a strobe light.

Shutter speed and wide-angle photography

When shooting wide-angle underwater photography with strobes, a close subject is illuminated with a strobe, while an interesting reef, diver, sunball, fish, or silhouette is composed in the background. Adjusting the shutter speed effects the background exposure.

What shutter speed does not do

When shooting macro photography with strobes, changing the shutter speed doesn’t affect the photo, and doesn’t affect sharpness. (Most of the time). How can that be, you ask? Many beginners struggle with understanding this. You have to remember that in macro photography, your strobe supplies most of the light.
The strobe fires faster than 1/500th of a second, and is not affected by shutter speed changes. (See the caveat below in the technical note).
Ok, I lied a little in the above paragraph. Changing the shutter speed can effect the photo when shooting macro, but only if the ambient light is bright enough, and if your aperture is low enough. For example, in dark waters, shooting at F16, ISO 100 you’re not getting any ambient light into the photo, whether you shoot at 1/250th or 1/30th of a second. However, if you’re shooting strobe-lit macro at F5.6, ISO 200, 1/100th in bright water near the surface, now you are getting a lot of ambient light into the photo. In this case, the less ambient light you let in (using a faster shutter speed), the better colors your photo will have, and the sharper they will be.
Using a slow shutter speed can also be used to get a blue background, see
the creative underwater shooting section for more detail.
Technical note – some electronic shutters (e.g. – in compact cameras such as a Canon G10) can fire as fast as 1/4000th of a second. So if your strobe is doing a “full dump” that takes 1/500th of a second (full dump durations vary), and you set your shutter speed faster than that, it’s possible you are cutting down your strobe power. However, a strobe doesn’t always do a full dump.

Synchronizing with strobes – sync speed

Mechanical shutters have a maximum shutter speed that will work with an
internal or external flash or strobe. This is called the strobe sync speed. On most recent dSLR’s this shutter speed is 1/200th or 1/250th of a second. I can push my D300 up to 1/320th. If you try to use your strobes, and have the shutter speed set faster than this speed, you will see a black or partially black photo. This is due to the “curtain” of the shutter coming down or raising while the strobe was firing. Of course, the faster the sync speed, the better, especially when taking underwater photos with the sun in the photo. Electronic shutters can sync must faster, up to 1/1000th or 1/2000th of a second.
The nikon D70 camera has an electronic shutter, this gives the camera a nice advantage when it comes to including sunbursts in a photo, it really helps to shoot sunbursts with a fast shutter speed.

Read more about sync speeds here:

Camera shake

If you’ve ever tried to take a photo in dim light without the flash of stationary subjects, and the photo came out blurry, you’ve experienced the effects of camera shake. When the shutter speed is slow, you must hold the camera still.
There is rule of thumb, that says a photo lit by ambient light may loose sharpness due to camera shake if the shutter speed is less than one divided by 35mm equivalent focal length of the lens. For example, according to the rule, if you are shooting at 30mm focal length on a Nikon D200 camera, which has a 1.5 crop factor, you will want to use at least a 1/45th second shutter speed to avoid camera shake blur. Of course, someone’s technique will effect the result, and one can shoot at slower speeds with IS or VR lenses However, if a strobe is the main source of lighting, this only applies to the background (ambient) lighting. This is because the strobe fires very quickly. See the section on strobe sync speed.
In general, camera shake is not a major concern UW as it is topside.

Motion blur and depth of field issues are more relevant.

Motion blur

When shooting subjects in motion, a fast shutter speed or a strobe must be used to freeze the motion. Generally, 1/125th to 1/200th of a second will freeze motion underwater, depending on how fast the subject is moving. If the subject is lit by a strobe, this does not apply due to the strobe sync speed. The strobe will fire fast enough to freeze motion.
Some photos will have “trails” before or after a moving object. This happens when the lighting is a mix between strobe light and ambient light, and a slower shutter speed is used. The strobe “freezes” part of the subject, while the ambient light coming in at a slow shutter speed leads a motion trail either before or after the subject.
Most cameras use front curtain sync by default. This means that the strobe fires as the shutter is opened. In this case, the trail will appear in front of the moving subject. DSLR’s can also be set to rear curtain sync mode. This will cause the trail to appear behind the subject, looking more natural looking. Creative shooting and Rear curtain sync is discussed more here.

These fusiliers were moving quite fast. This was an ambient light shot, so there
were no strobes to help freeze their motion. Shot at F5, 1/160th, ISO 320. Using
1/160th of a second just did the trick. Taken at bunaken, Indonesia, D80, Tokina
10-17mm lens at 17mm.

Minimum shutter speed for sharpness and freezing motion

As you read above, shutter speed is mostly irrelevant when lighting up a subject with your strobe, unless you are trying to get a blue blackground.
However, if a subject is completely or mostly lit by ambient light, then read on. Now that you have read about camera shake and motion blur, you understand that you should have a minimum shutter speed for sharp photos. Of course, many other factors come into play, make sure you read the sharpness section.
Here are some general guidelines for minimum shutter speeds underwater, but please re-read the previous sections to help you understand when you can go a little lower or higher.
• Subject is still – 1/20th – 1/125th, depending on focal length of the lens. to eliminate camera shake blur.
• Slowly moving subjects – 1/50th – 1/125th, to freeze their motion.
• Fast moving subjects – 1/125th – 1/250th, depending on their speed. Very fast moving subjects may even need a faster shutter speed.

Example photos

Below are some examples showing how the shutter speed controls the ambient light. I lit the sea fan, my foreground subject, with my strobe. as the shutter speed got slower and slower, the scene got brighter, and less of the stobe light lit up the sea fan. I had my strobes on TTL, so the power of the strobe was automatically reduced as the shutter speed got slower. If I had my strobes on manual power, the same strobe intensity would have lit up the sea fan in every shot. You can also see how the blue color of the water was affected. Depth of field is the same in all photos. Photos were taken at Catalina island with a tokina 10-17mm lens at

F8, 1/320th

1/25th. Still objects are still fairly sharp, although the fins are slightly blurred now. Good exposure for a natural light shot. A touch of strobe still hits the lower right
1/10th. the photo is slightly blurry, and no strobe light is being used, and the
scene is overexposed.

Aperture, F-stops and Depth of Field Underwater

The aperture of your lens is an opening that can be made smaller or larger. Each lens will have a largest aperture, e.g. F2.8, which lets in the most amount of light.
The size of an aperture is referred to as an F-stop. Here is a slightly more
techincal explanation. As the aperture is made smaller, the F-stop increases in number (e.g. F8, F11, F16) and the amount of light that enters through the lens decreases. So remember – a small F-stop (e.g. – 2.8) is a large aperture. As the F-stop number gets larger (e.g. – F22), the aperture gets smaller.
Decreasing the aperture by one “stop” will let in 50% less light. Let’s look at the apertures that have a 1-stop difference, going from a large aperture to a small aperture.

F2.8 F4 F5.6 F8 F11 F16 F22 F32

Making the aperture smaller, e.g. going from F2.8 to F4, is called “stopping
down,” or closing the aperture. F4 is one stop away from F2.8, so we “stopped
down 1 stop.”

Defining depth of field

Depth of field (DOF) is an important concept. The depth of field is the area of a photo that is in focus. Areas outside of the DOF are blurry, with the blurriness increasing the further away they are. The sharpest area of the photo is the location your camera focused on. This area, parallel to your camera lens, is called the focal plane. The depth of field extends in front of this point, towards the camera, and behind this point.
Look at the first two photos below, in the last section on this page, and you can clearly see the areas that are in focus, which lie within the depth of field. In nature photography, people are often told that the depth of field lies 1/3 in front of the focal point (closer to the camera), and 2/3 behind the focal point. This is sometimes true, but when doing macro photography, the DOF lies equally in front and behind the focal point.
Another good resource for understanding DOF is here.

Depth of field and compact cameras

Compact cameras, with their small sensors, will have more depth of field than a dSLR. This means it will be more difficult to get a blurred background. For best results at getting a blurred background, shoot wide open at F2.8, zoom all the way out (so your lens is “telephoto”, not “wide”), and get close to the subject. The examples in the photos below are from a dSLR. The smallest aperture on a compact is usually F8. This should give you plenty of depth of field.

Changing the aperture does the following

• Affects ambient light and strobe light. The smaller the aperture, the less
light that enters the lens from all sources.
• Smaller apertures (e.g. F22) result in larger depth of fields. In general,
closing the aperture by 1 stop, e.g. changing from F11 to F16, will give
you approximately 40% more depth of field.
• Smaller apertures on a dSLR, around F20 & greater, will result in loss
of sharpness (Diffraction) at 100% magnification.
• Aperture controls the bokeh, or blur, of the background. A large aperture
such as F2.8 will heavily blur the background. A very small aperture will
keep the background almost in focus.
• Aperture will effect the performance of lens, especially zoom lens and
non-prime lenses. Lenses often perform best when stopped down 1 or 2
stops. A quick rule of thumb, known as “F8 and be there”, says shoot at
F8 when you want maximum sharpness and don’t care about depth of
field or the background.
• Using too small an aperture will prevent your underwater strobes from
lighting the subject if they are not close enough, due to strobe falloff. It’s
very common for beginners to try to shoot something 2ft away with an
aperture of F22. Unless you have a very powerful strobe, the subject will
be underexposed. If you are shooting a close-up at F22, and then you
want to shoot something further away, you have to quickly “dial down”
your aperture.

Changes affecting Depth of Field, and other fact

• As I stated above, making your aperture one stop smaller will give you
40% more depth of field. Making your aperture two stops smaller (e.g.
changing from F8 to 16) will give you 96% more depth of field.
• Getting closer to your subject will give you less depth of field
• Backing away from your subject gives you more depth of field. Backing
up, snapping a photo, and cropping is a trick used to get more depth of
field for a subject, especially when you don’t need a large print.
• The smaller the aperture, the less defined the boundary between the “in
focus” area and the “Blurred” area.


• Light waves traveling through the lens aperture get dispersed when the
aperture is very small. This causes a loss of sharpness at small
apertures, known as diffraction. Stated another way, diffraction is an
effect that happens when light passes through a very small opening. The
smaller the opening, the more this effect results in the image getting
• At some point, usually around F29-F32 on a cropped sensor dSLR,
increase of depth of field does not compensate much for the loss of
• Diffraction happens much earlier on a compact point and shoot camera,
because of their small sensors. This is why the smallest aperture is
usually F8.
• The effects of diffraction are normally not noticed when posting photos
“on the web”, but you will notice the difference at 100% magnification.
Please view the results of my diffraction tests in my Nikon 105mm lens
. I’ve also tested diffraction at 1:1 magnification.

Choosing your aperture for macro shots

When taking a photo underwater, I usually think about three things when
choosing an aperture:
• How much depth of field do I want for this shot?
• Do I want the background blurred or in focus?
• Am I worried about losing a little image sharpness to diffraction?
• Am I shooting near 1:1 or supermacro? If so, your depth of field is tiny, so use larger apertures such as F8 at your own risk, even for flat subjects
parallel to your camea.

Continue reading about…

DOF Examples Lens Basics Image Sharpness Shutter Speed ISO Pixels, Sensors & Dynamic Range Fisheye Lenses RAW vs JPEG Histograms

Understanding Depth Of Field (DOF) and Bokeh

Depth of field is related to the aperture of a lens used, the focal length of a lens, and how close you are to the subject. WA lens have large DOFs, while macro photos taken at 1:1 magnification will have very small depths of field. Also, note the difference in bokeh, or background blur in the following photos.

Goby at Catalina Island, taken at F4. Only the eyes are in focus, and the
backgroun is blurred very smoothly.
Ronquil, F7.1, California. Heavy blur in the background. By changing from F4 to
F7, we get the mouth and eyes in focus.
Mantis shrimp, Anilao at F8. The entire front is in focus, with the background nicely blurred.

Goby taken at F11, Anilao. F11 got both the eyes and mouth in focus, and a little of the next. Still, the entire background is blurred. This is partially because I am so close to the goby. The larger this ratio is – background-to-subject distance / subject-to-camera distance, the more blurred the background will be.

Vase Tunicate, F18. 60mm lens, Raja Ampat. I wanted to get the entire vase in
focus, so I used a smaller aperture, but I didn’t want diffraction to ruin the tiny
details. As a byproduct, the colored background is not blurred, but is still a little
out of focus.

Pillow starfish shrimp, Maui. 60mm lens. F18 gave a good enough depth of field
for this shot. The shrimp lives under the starfish.
Nudibranchs, F25, Anilao. The rhinophores and the gills are in focus, but now the
background is distracting. That’s what happens with a small aperture.
Starfish at Catalina, California. F29. There is a large depth of field, and the
background is also very prominent. In this photo I find the background distracting. I use this aperture only when I need all of that depth of field.
100% crop of the photo above, at the point of focus. As you can see, diffraction is
causing it to loose a little bit of sharpness.

Depth of Field example – Nudibranchs

If you are using a dSLR or mirrorless camera to photograph the front of a
nudibranch, you have 3 choices when choosing your f-stop:
• Choose a large aperture between F4 and F9 to blur the gills in the
• Choose a medium aperture between F10 and F16 to slightly blur the rear
of the nudibranch. This is often my choice, as I find that it results in the
most pleasing photo. The focus is on the front of the animal, but you can
still recognize the background.
• Stop down to a small aperture between F18 and F29 to get as much of
the subject in focus as possible. This is useful for natural history or field id

Changing the depth of field in Photoshop

Read the article on Using photoshop and the Gaussian Blur

Depth of field test on a Nikon 60mm lens

This test is not designed to show you a precise measurement of the depth of field, since the ruler is actually at an angle. It simply shows you how the depth of field increases. Notice how the boundary between the in-focus area and the outof-focus area becomes less defined as the aperture gets smaller. The test is done fairly close to 1:1 magnification.

60mm lens at F4
Further Reading

Using Shallow Depth of Field Underwater
Understanding ISO in Underwater Photography
Aperture, F-stops and Depth of Field Underwater
Scott Gietler

Understanding ISO

In the film days, ISO represented a film’s sensitivity to light. In digital cameras, ISO works similarly. Light that hits a photodiode is converted to a signal, and this signal is amplified. The higher the ISO, the more the signal is amplified. The net effect is that the camera appears to be more sensitive to light. Base ISO is the ISO (usually ISO 100 or ISO 200) at which a camera has the highest dynamic range, tonal values, etc. Using a higher ISO increases noise, and can decrease dynamic range.

• A higher ISO can be used when the desired shutter speed and aperture does not let in enough of light (ambient or strobe light)
• A higher ISO will let you use a higher shutter speed, smaller aperture
(getting more depth of field), or both.
• A higher ISO will reduce strobe recycle time, and save on strobe battery
• Higher ISO’s result in more noise, reduced dynamic range and reduced
color sensitivity. So you see, there is a cost for these benefits. Every
camera will experience different amounts of noise at higher ISO’s. In
general, the larger your camera’s sensor, the less noise at high ISO’s.
More recent camera sensors are better at keeping noise down than older
In general, cameras with larger sensors will have less noise at higher ISO’s. This is why a Canon 5D Mark IV or Nikon D850 photo can look good at ISO 1600, where a photo from a compact camera at ISO 1600 could look very noisy and grainy.

How to set your ISO underwater

Here’s some simple rules for how to set your ISO underwater. Treat these rules as guidelines. It is important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of a higher ISO, so you know when to it.
• Don’t set your camera on AUTO-ISO, always know what ISO it is using.
One exception is if you are shooting ambient light, e.g whale or whale
at the surface. You can fix your aperture and shutter speed, and
turn auto-ISO on.
• Scenario #1 – you are completely illuminating your underwater subject
with the flash or strobe, or you have excellent ambient light. Use the base
ISO of your camera. This is usually ISO 100, but can be ISO 200 on
some dSLRs.
• Scenario #2 – you are either shooting ambient light, or your subject is too
far away to be completely lit by your strobes. In this case, you must make
sure your shutter speed is fast enough to remove camera shake and
freeze motion. Review the shutter speed section. If you are shooting wide
open (at your largest aperture), usually F2.8, and your shutter speed is
not fast enough, you must increase your ISO until you get the required
shutter speed. For example, 1/30th for still objects (this will vary
depending on the lens you are using), 1/100th for slowly moving objects,
1/200th for fast moving objects.

Ambient Light and Dark Water

Sometimes you will find yourself having to shoot in ambient light in dark water. For example, Orca trips in Norway are popular in the winter, when the sun is low. Light levels are very low, so in order to get a fast enough shutter speed, your ISO must be set very high, between 3200 and ISO 12,800. Because of this, using a camera that has low noise at that level, like a full-frame camera, is very important.

Understanding your Histogram

A useful tool for reviewing your underwater exposures

A useful tool for reviewing your underwater exposures
A histogram is a display on your camera that shows your exposure – how much of your photograph is shadows, how much is bright, and if any areas are completely black or white. This information is also referred to as the tonal range of a photo.
All dSLR’s and most compact cameras can show a histogram. Most also can show 3 histograms at once, one for the red, green, and blue channels. All pixels in your photo are actually just combinations of red, green, and blue values, called an RGB value, that ranges from 0-255.
Proper exposure is very important. I recommend always having your histogram on display underwater so you can monitor your exposures. An underexposed image will have to be brightened afterwards, which can greatly increase noise.
There is much more noise in the in the darker areas of the image than in the brighter areas. Overexposure will result in “clipping”, or blown out highlights, which is lost data permanently set to the brightest pixel levels. Shooting in RAW will give you a couple extra stops of highlight data that can be recovered in the raw editor, so you can overexposure slightly more when shooting raw, but at some point highlights will still be permanently lost.
Professional photographers often recommend “exposing to the left” when
shooting jpeg, to minimize the change of blown out highlights, and “exposing to the right” when shooting RAW, still being careful not to expose too much to the right. This will minimize the noise present in the photo. Here is more information on “exposing to the right” when shooting raw:

Reading the histogram

Viewing your histogram underwater while taking photos is important. Learn how to get your histogram to show up next to your photo after taking each shot.
Histograms can be viewed as a single histogram, or as 3 histograms for red, green, and blue. I usually just view the single histogram unless I am checking to see if my strobes are properly firing, in which case I will want to make sure the red histogram is strong.
The left side of a histogram represents shadows, the mid-section mid-tones, and the right side highlights. You want to avoid “clipping” unless you are intentionally introducing very bright or dark areas into your photograph. Clipped data is lost data in a JPEG, and somewhat recoverable in a RAW file to a small extent.
Shadow data lightened to bring it up to a proper exposure can show considerable noise, which is why its important to get exposure correct in the camera. A slight overexposure can be ok, as long as you are not blowing out highlights unintentionally.

Blown highlights and recovery

When shooting JPEG, and data to the right of the histogram is not recoverable, and is recorded as pure white. When shooting raw, you can usually recover one or two extra stops of data. To recover blown highlights in just one color channel (the red channel always seems the one to overexpose), use the luminance/hue/saturation slide in your raw editor. Choose luminance, and slide the red slider to the left.

What is a correct histogram?

There is rarely a “correct” histogram, it is up to you how you want to portray an image. Use the histogram as a tool to tell you how the image was captured. If the histogram is showing you significant dark, bright, or blown out areas, make sure that is what you wanted.

Understanding histograms:
There is an excellent overview of histograms here, they’ve done an excellent job.

I highly suggest you look this page over:
Here are some of my own histogram examples:

Evenly distributed exposure. Notice 2 things about this histogram. 1) Follow the
bottom of the histogram from left to right. The data reaches all the way to the left
and the right. this means the full spectrum from 0 to 255 (pure black to pure
white) is utilized.

High contrast photo. Again, the full spectrum is used. If you look to the left, you’ll see significant dark shadow areas. All the way to the right, along the right edge, you will notice a line that rises up one third of the way. This represents blown highlights. This photo has a greater dynamic range then can be recorded in your jpeg file. If you are shooting in RAW, some of this may be able to be recovered.

Exposure with a “black background.” This photo was of a bright nudibranch. Notice that most of the photo is quite dark, but the full spectrum is used, the data along the bottom reaches all the way to the right, without any blown highlights.

Exposure with some “hot spots.” This photo has some white coral in the
foreground that was blown out by the strobe. Notice the vertical line all along the right edge, this represent pure white (pixel value 255).
Probably an underexposed image. Notice that the data along the bottom does not reach all the way to the right edge. It could probably use a little more exposure, but it really depends on the photo.

Using a histogram to test your strobe

Like I mentioned before, many cameras can show 3 histograms at once, one for red, green and blue. If I am having strobe problems, I will often check the red histogram. If the right side of the green and blue channels are strong, and there is almost nothing in the red channel, then most likely the strobe is not firing properly, or possibly is too weak or too far away from the subject.

Further reading

Preventing blown highlights and overexposure
Understanding exposure
Sensors and dynamic range of cameras

Top 5 settings that will improve your underwater photography

Understanding your Histogram

RAW versus JPEG Formats
Scott Gietler
A useful tool for reviewing your underwater exposures

RAW versus JPEG Formats

A JPEG is a compressed file format used for displaying and printing images. Jpeg is also called a lossy format, because repeatedly saving a JPEG file will slowly degrade the quality. RAW format contains all of the camera data captured by your camera’s sensor.
Most photographers start out shooting in JPEG, because the files are smaller and you don’t need a RAW editor to save them. However, RAW files store much more information, especially in the shadows and highlight areas, and allow for custom white balancing to be done. When shooting RAW, white balance, shadows/highlights, tone (contrast), sharpening, color space, and exposure (to a limited extent) can be managed in your computer. An extra stop of exposure in the highlights and shadows can be recovered when shooting in RAW. Many serious photographers shoot in RAW, although a few excellent macro photographers mainly shoot in JPEG because they may not have time for RAW file processing.
Let’s review some differences between RAW and JPEG files formats:

RAW files


• Saves all of the data from your camera sensor
• Gives you more data to work with when adjusting color space, white
balance, tone, exposure
• Has 12-14 bits of color vs 8 bits in JPEG
• Has a higher dynamic range


• Needs to be converted to TIFF or JPEG to be displayed/printed
• Larger file format
• A RAW editor usually needs to be purchased, and upgraded for newer
camera models
• Sometimes needs contrast adjustment

JPEG files


• Smaller format allows more photos to be stored on a memory card
• Photos can be instantly printed or displayed on the screen / web
• Some recent dSLR’s, such as the Olympus E-PL2, Nikon D300 & D7000, do an excellent job of noise reduction, sharpening, exposure control, etc. when creating a JPEG, saving the user time in post-processing


• Difficult to adjust exposure, recover highlights, and change white balance
• Lossy format means repeated saves slowly degrades image quality. Repeated changes can introduce types on noise known as JPEG artifacts
TIFF is another format. Data is stored in 8-bits, but there is no loss with repeated saves, and no compression. TIFF files can be very large, and people sometimes only store TIFF files if they have done extensive processing in Photoshop and want to save a lossy format.
I usually shoot in RAW + JPEG format. At first I only used JPEG files. Then I started processing RAW files more often, which took up a lot of time. Now I find myself being able to get great color and exposure in my JPEG files, especially when shooting macro, and using them is saving me time. It is possible to get it “right” in camera. However, just in case I need it (and sometimes I do), I always have a RAW file available for what I shoot underwater.

The big question – should I shoot RAW or JPEG?

It’s really a personal choice. Someone shooting with a G10 recently asked me this question. I suggest you try shooting one dive in JPEG, one dive in RAW. See if you feel that the additional RAW workflow is worth it to you. Try RAW first with some ambient light shots, that’s where you will initially see the biggest difference in recovering contrast and some color, depending on depth. RAW + JPEG will be the answer for most intermediate and advanced photographers.
If you have a large enough memory card, and space on your hard drive (and most people will), and think you may ever want to sell photos, definitely shoot in RAW. Keep in mind that all photos saved in RAW must be converted to a format such as JPEG eventually to display them on the web or to print them. Your photo editing tools can’t re-write a RAW file, only your camera can do that. Some RAW editors will maintain a list of edits in a separate file however.

Underwater Settings for Macro and Wide-Angle

Includes settings for compact and dSLR cameras

By Scott Gietler

One of the most popular questions people ask, is what are the best underwater camera settings they should use for macro or Wide-angle underwater photography, on a digital camera. There is no 1 setting for all shots, but I try to give people an idea of what settings they can start with, and how to adjust them underwater. After reading this section, you should read the section changing settings during a dive.
This section covers digital compact camera settings and dslr underwater settings, for all digital cameras such as the Canon G7X Mark II, Canon G10, Canon G9, Nikon D90, D80, Nikon 72000, D500, Nikon D850, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon 5D Mark IV, Olympus E-M1 Mark II, Sony A7r III and all other cameras.

Best Underwater Settings for Macro:

Digital Compact Camera Settings:

• Put your camera in macro mode. In auto-mode, with the macro-mode on, the aperture will default to F8 on some cameras.
• Turn the flash to forced flash mode.
• Focus mode to spot focus.
• Keep the zoom in the widest setting at first. Once you get comfortable
taking macro photos, you can start zooming out to get more working
distance between your subject.
• Use base ISO (usually ISO 100, sometimes lower).
• If your camera has full manual mode, use F8, 1/1000th shutter speed.
The fast shutter speed will block out ambient light. Once you are
comfortable, try zooming in half-way on some shots.
• If you camera does not have full manual mode, use Aperture priority
mode (Av mode), set at F8, otherwise use program mode if Av mode is
not supported.

Auto vs Manual mode

Read this article on underwater camera modes.
On a compact camera, when using the internal flash, auto-mode can work fairly well for macro photos. But give full manual mode a try if it is available. For people using an external strobe, I highly recommend using manual mode. For people who haven’t shot in manual mode before, it often sounds difficult, with lots of settings to worry about. In reality, it’s very simple. Make your initial settings, and then start off only worry about changing one parameter. It’s actually quite simple!
Unless you are an advanced user, if you have full manual mode, I don’t
recommend starting off using aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode if
you are using strobes, unless full manual is not available.

dSLR Camera Underwater Settings:

Manual mode, Base ISO (usually ISO 100 or 200), F13, 1/200th (or whatever your maximum shutter sync speed is); single-spot focus; center-weighted metering. Aperture may need to be lowered to F7-F8 or a larger aperture for fish shots. When shooting small objects, shoot at a smaller aperture (up to F29) for more DOF. If shooting supermacro, use F25-F50 with a 100-105mm lens. If you are worried about diffraction, see my diffraction test results.

Macro underwater, shooting with a TTL converter:

• Adjust your f-stop as needed for greater DOF or blurred background.
your TTL converter will control the strobe power

Macro, strobes in manual mode (you don’t have a TTL converter):

• When starting out, leave your strobes on 1 power setting (full power or
half power, depending on how strong your strobe is). Adjust your f-stop
depending on the distance to the subject, and other factosr. For example,
F22 for very close up, F11 for 1ft away, F8 for 2 ft away, etc.

Important: you need to get used to changing your f-stop (aperture) for different kinds of shots. It is very important how the aperture effects your shot, depth of field, and the background. Make sure you review the aperture & depth of field section.
Note on underwater settings: people will give different opinions on the best initial setting for macro with a dSLR. Some will say shoot at F22, others will say F14, etc etc etc. The truth is, you should learn the difference between these apertures. I’m constantly changing my aperture on different shots, depending on what I want to accomplish, changing from F2.8 to F32. If you haven’t read the aperture section, please do.
Please see the section Changing settings during the dive for more details on changing these settings during a dive.

Settings for Wide-Angle Photography:

Use Full Manual mode underwater

• I strongly suggest using manual mode.
• Manual mode, Base ISO (usually ISO 100 or 200), F8, 1/100th; maximum number of focus points; matrix metering. Shoot at F11 if you are close enough to your subject and have the strobe power or available light.
• During the dive, adjust shutter speed up or down for desired background
color. Changing the shutter speed only effects the background exposure.
This is because your strobes fire almost instantaneously.
• Read the section on choosing shutter speed, and the tutorial on wideangle underwater photography.
• Be sure to utilize your dSLR’s Instant Recall Modes.

Wide-Angle Settings Underwater for Compact Users with a Strobe

Wide-Angle Settings Underwater for Compact Users with a Strobe
Shooting wide-angle with a compact camera & strobes is very similar to shooting with a dSLR. Read the paragraph above.
Use macro mode if you are using a dome port so your camera can focus on the virtual image.

Try manual mode, ISO 100, F5.6 – F8, 1/100th – 1/200th depending on the light. Compact camera users without a strobe shooting wide-angle

• Turn macro mode off, flash off, set your custom white balance, use
Evaluative (matrix) metering, try focusing on taking photos in shallow
sunny water (25ft deep or less). Shoot in aperture priority (AV) mode if
available at F2.8, otherwise use program mode. Start at ISO 100, but
increase your ISO if you are using F2.8 and your shutter speed falls
below 1/30th for still objects, 1/60th for slowly moving objects or 1/125th for fast moving objects.

Photo taken at F8, ISO 250, 1/25. Oil rigs in california. The water was dark, so I had to shoot at 1/25th to get the green background in the photo. The shutter speed did not affect the fish and colored anemones lit by my Inon Z240 strobes.
Other modes for wide-angle

• Experienced users can also try aperture priority or shutter priority modes
under certain circumstances, like rapidly changing ambient light
• Aperture priority mode, F7, exposure compensation at –1 or –1 ½. This is helpful if your background lighting is constantly changing (e.g. trying to
shoot fish that may be above or below you).
• If you are shooting fast-moving subjects, and are worried that the subject
will not be completely lit by the strobe (and therefore freezing the motion),
you can use shutter priority mode, 1/125th (or faster), with exposure
compensation at –1 or –1 ½.
• Please see the section Changing settings during the dive for more

Underwater Settings on Night Dives:

On night dives, there is no ambient light, except from your dive light. Set a fast shutter speed to block out the light from dive lights. If you are shooting with TTL, you can simply shoot away, and adjust your aperture as needed. Otherwise, you can leave either your strobe at one power, and change the aperture to get the right exposure, or fix the aperture at one setting and change the strobe power as needed.

More Underwater Camera Settings

Before going further, I want to talk about one thing. People who just get new dSLR’s are constantly asking me what underwater settings I use, are there any custom menu settings I need to know about. After mastering aperture and shutter speed, you should try to think about the photographic process, about your composition, subject selection, lighting, etc. I don’t think the other 100 settings on a dSLR will have much effect on your photos compared to understand the photographic / creative process behind photography.
On my Nikon D80, D200 or D300 (for macro or wide angle), I initally set the following:
Quality: RAW + large fine JPEG. Read about choosing RAW or JPEG
White Balance: Auto white balance.
ISO 200 (Base ISO). Read more about choosing ISO

Light metering

I use matrix metering for wide angle, and center-weighted for macro. If you are shooting with your strobes on manual, this will have no effect.

White balance (effects JPEGs only)

First, read more about color temperature.
I set my white-balance to auto when using a flash or strobe. If you are using a dSLR, and you are not happy with the white balance you are getting, you can set a custom kelvin white balance to the color temps of your strobes. For example, 4800K for ikelite DS-125s, 5500K for Inon Z240s. If you are shooting in Raw, you can adjust the white balance after the fact.
Use a manual white balance (custom white balance) with a white, gray, or silver object when shooting ambient light. Read more about manual white
and setting white balance in the lighting section.

Focus metering mode

I often use center spot focus for macro, and all focus points for wide-angle shots. If you are in center spot-focus mode, and your camera allows you to move the focus point, I highly recommend you take advantage of this feature.

Focus priority mode

If your camera has continuous focus mode, also called servo-focus mode, that means the camera will continuously focus, and allow you to release the shutter at any time. I often use this mode with low-contrast subjects, in low-light, and when doing supermacro. This article on low-contrast underwater photography may be helpful. I adjust this with my C/S/M switch on my Nikon D300, and I use this switch often.

Macro mode (for compact users)

Most compacts have a macro mode for shots closer then 12-24 inches. Trying to take macro shots without going into macro mode is guaranteed to cause many headaches! Make sure you understand the range of your lens when in macro mode, and out of macro mode.

Color space (for dSLR users, effects JPEGs only)

dSLRs have the option for shooting in adobe RGB, or sRGB. Adobe is a larger color space, is better for printing, and is the recommended color space. However, you might have to convert to sRGB for posting photos to the web. sRGB is the color space used on monitors. There are also other color space options, but these are beyond the scope of this guide. There are entire books out on color spaces.

Vivid mode (effects JPEGs only)

When shooting in JPEG, UW photos often look better in vivid mode, especially since color saturation is sometimes reduced lost when light travels underwater. Give it a try, you can always turn it off if you think your photos are coming out too saturated. Objects that are very red can get oversaturation, so if you are shooting JPEGs, you might want to turn this setting off, or make sure you don’t overexpose.

High ISO noise reduction (effects JPEGs only)

Many dSLRs have a setting for High ISO noise reduction, which will be turned on only for ISO above a certain number, e.g. ISO 800 or above on the D300. I leave mine on normal, but some people prefer low or off, since the noise reduction is in effect slightly blurring the photo.

Sharpness (effects JPEGs only)

I usually keep this at normal.

Custom Menu Settings

• I turn off my AF-assist light (A9 on my D300)
• I turn my flash-sync speed to 1/320th (E1)
• My dynamic auto-focus area is on 51 points (A3).
• My LCD illumination is turned on (D8) right combination of settings will make all the difference when shooting extrememly fast subjects like this sailfish off Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Sony a7R II with Sony 28mm lens + fisheye converter. ISO 500, f/5.6, 1/320.

Some settings specifically for compact cameras:

• Underwater settings on cameras such as the Canon g9, g10, g11 or
Canon S80, S90, Fuji F50, Panasonic, Sea & Sea DX-2G are similar.
• If your camera has full manual mode, use it, otherwise with aperture
priority mode (AV mode) if your camera supports it.
• Most of the time you will set the camera to ISO 100. Don’t have AUTO
ISO on. Read more about setting ISO.
• Set your White balance to auto, sunny, or “flash” when using the internal flash or a strobe
• Set Macro mode on when shooting within 2ft, or within the macro
distance of your lens. (very important)
• Read more about using your compact camera modes, and getting great
colors in your photos.

Further Reading

Underwater camera modes
How to change underwater camera settings during a dive
Understanding aperture in underwater photography
Understanding shutter speed in underwater photography
Improving sharpness in your underwater photos
Underwater Photography Tips (over 90 of them)
Improving your underwater macro photography
Improving your underwater wide-angle photography
Close-focus wide-angle (CFWA) underwater photography
Keeping your digital images safe
Utilizing your dSLR’s Instant Recall Modes
Taking wide-angle shots with the Canon G12
Underwater Settings for the RX100
Underwater Settings for Macro and Wide-Angle
Scott Gietler
Includes settings for compact and dSLR cameras

Pixels and Camera

Pixels, Photosites, Resolution, Bit-depth and
Dynamic Range Explained

How Cameras work

Let’s look briefly at how digital cameras work. Here’s an overly simplified
• Light enters through the lens, and is recorded by the sensor. Photo
diodes on the sensor create an electrical signal, which is converted into a
digital value by the processor, and then stored in the buffer, then written
to a memory card.

Sensor Size

A sensor is the silicon chip inside your camera that converts photos of light coming from your lens into voltages. The larger the sensor, the more light that can be collected to crease your image. Let’s look at the approximate horizontal sensor width of various sensors (some models were “rounded” into the nearest category):
• Compact camera 5.8mm (canon a570)
• Advanced compact 7.6mm (Fuji f30, f50, canon g9/g10, Ricoh
gx100, Olympus 5050/7070, Oly sp350, Nikon p6000, fuji e900)
• High-end compact 8.8mm (Olympus 8080, Panasonic LX3)
• Micro-four thirds camera 17mm
• Olympus dSLR 17mm
• Sony Nex-5 24mm
• Nikon D300 24mm
• Full-frame (Nikon D3, canon5D) 35mm
Here is a diagram showing camera sensor sizes.

Sensor types – CCD vs CMOS

CCD (Charged Couple Device) and CMOS (Complimetary Metal Oxide
Semiconductor) are two common types of sensors found in cameras. Most recent dSLR cameras use CMOS sensors. CMOS sensors have tiny transitors associated with each pixel, and each pixel is read individually. In a CCD sensor the data is transferred across the pixel array, and converted to an analog signal in an output node separate from the pixels. CMOS sensors require much less power. Because the CCD lacks transistors on the pixels, the CCD pixel is more sensitive to light, which can theoretically lead to
less noise.

Photosite (photosensor, photodiode)

The photosite, also known as a photodiode, is an area on the camera
sensor that captures light and converts it into a signal. Photosites are actually dedicated to either red, blue, or green – and cameras have internal algorithms to interpolate accurate RGB color values for each pixel.


Pixels are the building blocks of an image. Pixel comes from the phrase
“Picture element”. When light hits the photosensor of a camera, signals are converted into value for each pixel. In a JPEG file, each pixel actually has 3 values, ranging from 0-255, for red, green and blue, known as a RGB value. A photosite (either red, green, or blue) is usually mapped to a pixel (which has a RGB value). Interpolation from neighboring photosites are used to compute the pixel RGB value. The term pixel and photosite are sometimes interchanged. I like to think of a photosite as the physical device on the sensor exposed to the light, and the pixel is in my image.


The resolution of an image is the number of pixels per inch (dots per inch,
DPI). 72 DPI is sufficient for viewing on a monitor, but 300 per inch is required for high-quality prints. Based on the pixel count of a sensor (e.g. – 3872 pixels across on a D300 sensor), you can calculate the theoretical maximum print size – 14 inches across for a photo from the D300. In reality, when the pixel data is considered high quality, the print can go much larger. Trying to cram too many pixels on a camera sensor will result in more noise, and lower quality pixel data.
This is why you can print a 12-megapixel photo from a dSLR larger than a 12- megapixel photo from a compact camera, the dSLR sensor is larger, therefore the photosensors that generate the pixel data are larger, better quality, and have less noise. Photosensors range in size from 2-8 microns. Bigger is better, so check out your camera to see how big your photosensors are. Larger photosensors can collect more light.


Some compact cameras do not have enough photosensors to justify the
resolution of the images they create. They use interpolation to guess at pixel values. This is why some resolution numbers on small sensors must be met with suspicion, and can’t be printed as large as higher quality cameras. For example (not to pick on Fuji), some Fuji cameras suddenly “increased” in resolution from 6 to 12 megapixels.


The bit-depth is the number of bits of data that each pixel holds. 8 bits
corresponds to 256 different tonal values. 12-bit raw files in a dSLR has a bit depth of 4,096 tones, while a 14-bit raw file has a bit depth of 16,384 tones. Shooting in 14-bit mode, when available can show slightly more detail in dark shadows and highlights, although the differences are sometimes hard to see. The raw files will be 20% larger.

Dynamic Range

I want to start off with some definitions. The dynamic range of a photo is defined as the ratio between the darkest and lightest parts of the photo. The dynamic range of a camera is the largest dynamic range that be captured by the camera sensor in a raw file. The dynamic range in a JPEG file will be smaller unless it is processed in a RAW editor.
Dynamic range can be expressed in terms of stops (e.g. – 10 stops), or as a ratio (1:1,000). to convert stops to a ratio, raise 2 to the power of the stop. E.g. – a 6- stop dynamic range = 2^6 = 1:64.
Lets look at some common dynamic ranges:
• human eye 1:10,000 13-14 stops
• outdoor sunlit scent 1:1000 10-11 stops
• dSLR camera 1:512 9 stops
• compact camera 1:256 8 stops
• color film 1:256 8 stops
• printed image, glossy paper 1:128 7 stops
• printed image, matte paper 1:32 5 stops
• indoor scene 1:64 6 stops
As you can see, the human eye is capable of seeing much more dynamic range than your camera can capture. This problem has plagued photographers forever. Your challenge as a photographer is to manage the dynamic range of what you are shooting.

For maximum dynamic range

• Shoot at base ISO. Dynamic range is decreased at higher ISO’s
• Use a camera with a larger sensor. Full-frame cameras have the largest
dynamic range.
• Watch your exposures – decide ahead of time whether you want to
sacrifice shadows, highlights or a little of both

Sensor noise

Noise is the result of random inaccuracies that occur when light hits the
photo sensor and is converted to a signal. Since putting your camera on a higher ISO setting is simply amplifying this signal, the noise is also amplified. A more meaningful measure of noise is the signal-to-noise ratio. A low SNR means the noise is less noticeable in the image. This is why noise is worse in the shadow areas, there is less signal in the SNR formula. This is also the basis of the rule “expose” to the right; areas of high exposure will have a lower SNR than darker areas, even when the exposure is brought back down. Since most UW photography is done at low ISO or base ISO, noise is normally not a considering in underwater photography, with some exceptions (e.g. – low light wreck photography). Books on advanced digital photography will go into noise in much more detail.

Some technical differences between compact cameras and

Compact cameras have smaller sensors than cropped sensor dSLRs. Canon
(1.3x – 1.6x) and Nikon (1.5x) sensors are larger than Olympus sensors (2.0x crop). Full-frame dSLR’s have the largest sensors. Because of their smaller sensors, compact cameras have a larger depth of field than dSLR’s at the same aperture. A macro photography taken with a point and
shoot at F8 will have considerably more depth of field than a dSLR photo shot at F8 Noise at higher ISO’s will be considerable higher on a compact camera. In general, the larger the sensor, the less noise given the same number of megapixels. With bright light or powerful strobes, optimal shutter speeds, apertures and ISO’s can often be selected. However, underwater, light is often at a premium, and tradeoffs must be made between the three.

Further Reading

Lens basics including focal length, primes, zooms
Reading histograms
Understanding exposure
Digital ISO
Pixels and Camera Sensors
Scott Gietler
Pixels, Photosites, Resolution, Bit-depth and Dynamic Range Explained

Macro Underwater Photography

Macro photography preparation for taking great

Equipment for Underwater Macro Photography

Macro Lenses

If you are shooting with a compact camera, you don’t have to worry about
switching lenses, because your lens is fixed. For micro-four thirds shootes, the Panasonic 45mm macro lens or the Olympus 60mm macro lens will be your best choices. If you are shooting Sony APC-S sensor size or full frame, like a Sony A6500 or a Sony A7r III, you can use the Sony 50mm macro lens, or the Sony 90mm macro lens – I prefer the 90mm.
For cropped-sensor DSLR shooters, you can use a 60mm or 100/105mm macro lens. The 60mm macro lens is easier to start off with. If you are using a full-frame DSLR camera like a Nikon D850 or a Canon 5D Mark IV, then you will want to use the Nikon 105mm VR macro lens, or the Canon 100mm macro lens.

Strobes / Video Lights

Although you can use your internal flash for macro subjects, I strongly
recommend getting one or two strobes. One is ok, but two is better as it will be easier to reduce backscatter and reduce shadows. Some people will also decide to get a powerful video light instead, as it allows them to use automatic exposure modes. The downside is that it limits you to very close subjects, and you have the possibility of camera shake blur.

Wet Diopters

To advance in your underwater macro photography, I consider a wet diopter, also known as a wet macro lens, a must-have piece of underwater photo equipment. They usually screw onto the end of your port, although there are flip-adapters and bayonet adapters available for certain underwater housings. Diopters come in different strengths, although more powerful is not always better, as the stronger diopters are more difficult to use. If just starting out, I would get a +5, +6 or +7 wet diopter.

Subject – choosing a macro subject

Taking great macro underwater photos starts with research. Where can I find good subjects? What dive sites and what depths are they at? Will I need a wet macro lens? Do searches on the internet, ask divers who have been there before. If possible, use a guide who specialized in macro subjects. Next, look at photos that have been taken at these locations. What subjects are producing the best photographs, which backgrounds and compositions look the best, what can you improve on. Try to previsualize the shots you would like to get, image how the light should fall on your subject, whether the background will be blurred or in focus. Based on your research, and imagined shots, decide on which lens or lenses to take on your dives.
When you start your dive, you should have an idea of what you are looking for, the type of habitat it lives in, and what depth ranges it is at. so you find a subject, now what? If another photographer is shooting the subject, be careful not to get too close, or to cause silt to flow towards them. Keep your distance; watch the direction of the current and your silt. Try to get in their line of vision so they know you are often interested. See if there is another subject nearby you can shoot while waiting for them.
You must be able to evaluate the potential of a subject. Some subjects you will want to pass over because there is no chance of a good moment or presentation. This is something that comes with experience.

Bright colors make for great macro subjects. Janolus nudibranch.
Ribbon Eel from Anilao, Philippines. Focos on the eye is vital for macro subjects. When you see a cooperative subject, don’t leave it, be sure to stay until you get an excellent photo
Further reading on choosing macro subjects:

Macro and muck-diving critter list
Destinations for underwater photography travel
Photo Workshops & Trips

Moment – when to take the photo

To get good at underwater macro photography, it’s time to think about moment and presentation. You want to watch your subject. What is it doing, will it exhibit any behavior? Does it change position, yawn, or ambush fish? Is it carrying eggs? Opening / closing its mouth? Try to imagine what the best possible moment to capture will be. Sometimes the subject will be a beautiful slow-moving nudibranch all by itself. You may think there is no good or bad moment for this subject. But even for a nudibranch, there is often a best moment, when its gills are fully out, if it has gills.

It can take a long time to get a macro subject in the right position – in this case, with the
background completely filled with the crinoid. F13, 1/200th, ISO 200, 60mm lens in Anilao,

Read further about Photographing Marine life behavior

Presentation – Composition, lighting, and focus in underwater macro

I want to capture the subject in the best possible presentation. I will think about 6 things – composition, strobe position (lighting), background, focus, exposure, and depth of field.
Composition – I will try to get low, and evaluate different compositions, such as head on, fill the frame, diagonal, shoot from underneath. Sometimes the best composition can really take work. Try a few different compositions.

It took a long time to get “low” beneath this soft coral crab on the left for the right composition.

Strobe position – based on the texture of the subject, and the water visibility, I will think about my strobe position. Do I want front lighting, side lighting, backlighting do i have to worry about backscatter Do I need to position my strobes for a black background? I almost always have my diffusers on, giving the light a softer look that looks better in macro photography. You can review strobe positon examples here.

One strobe from the side helped me light this anemone the way that I had wanted to.

Background – what color do I want my background to be? Do I want it black, blue, green? Is it in focus or blurred? Is there a colorful object nearby that I can get into the background? Do I need to carefully move the subject to a better background, and can that be done without stressing the subject? Sometimes lembeh sticks are used to carefully reposition crabs or shrimps. don’t use your dive gloves, they may injure or stick to the subject. Do not risk injuring a subject or causing it to flee its habitat just to get the shot you want.

Eubranchus nudibranch. Getting a black background helps make the subject stand out. You need to have nothing immediately behind the subject. Nikon 105mm VR lens, D810, subsee +10

Focus – you will want to usually focus on the eyes or rhinophores. Lock focus on them and recompose. If your camera has a moveable focus point, use your arrow keys to move your focus point to where you want it.

You may need to do this often if the composition changes, or your subject moves. this will help avoid a bull’s-eye composition also. Depending on the subject and how easily my camera is focusing, I will switch between C (continuous) and S (single-shot) focus modes. Luckily my housing allows me access to this switch. C mode allows me to shoot without the camera “locking” focus, which can be difficult when shooting supermacro.
To keep the eyes of this goby on the left in focus, I moved my focus point to where I wanted it, and moved in quickly for the shot, keeping the focus point on its eye.
Exposure – you need to check your display and/or histogram to ensure a proper exposure. With my TTL converter I almost always have a proper exposure, but sometimes I’ll need to adjust my TTL converter up or down. If you are shooting manual, you’ll adjust your strobe power up or down. A TTL converter is a big help in shooting macro. You really don’t need to worry about exposure the majority of the time. I think people shooting macro without TTL are at a big disadvantage.

I took my time with this hairy squat lobster to get a good diagonal composition
from corner to corner, and to get the eyes in focus. Having TTL meant I didn’t
have to worry about exposure, and I could focus on the other aspects of

Depth of field – this is related to the background. How much DOF do I need, or want, for the composition that I have chosen? Do I want to blur the background? Is the ambient light so strong I need a small aperture to help block it out? (This is common in clear, shallow water at mid-day). All these factors will help determine the proper f-stop to use for the shot. Review the f-stop and depth of field examples if you need to. Remember – there is no best F-stop for macro photography. A large aperture (small f-stop) will blur the background, and a small aperture will bring more of the background into focus.

F13 was a good choice for this photo of a Catalina goby, who I was fairly close to,
taken with a nikon 105mm lens. The entire face is in focus, but the rear is nicely
blurred. F25 would have had a very different effect.

Take your time, think carefully about these items, and don’t forget to check your LCD. The better you become as a photographer, in general you will spend more time with subjects you feel are special, waiting for the right moment, and experimenting with your presentation.

After finding a unique subject for underwater macro photography, it was perfectly presented showing just enough of its habitat to convey the sense of camoflauge it has developed. Portrait composition, slight diagonal line and black groundground all helped it come together. Photo by Keri Wilk. The black background was possible because there was nothing behind the subject. The frogfish was on sargassum floating at the surface of the ocean in shallow water. When you find a great subject like this, you want everything to come together.

F20, ISO 320, 1/320th, 60mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter. I carefully composed the image so the focal point was on the eyes of the large shrimp, the shrimp was on a diagonal line, and it almost filled the frame. F20 ensured a good depth of field while retaining detail. Strobes were fairly close in to reduce shadows and maximize the great colors.

Patience waiting a long time for the right moment, great single-strobe lighting
from the top (note the shadows), and excellent focus and composition all helped
make this a great Harlequin shrimp photo. F16, 1/125, Nikon D200, 60mm lens. Photo by Uwe Schmolke.

After the shot, underwater etiquette

If there was another photographer waiting for the subject, find the photographer. Show them exactly where the subject is before leaving the scene. if the subject is very small, you may need to show them on the viewfinder first. Be careful that you don’t loose the location of a subject; this is where a lembeh stick will come in handy. Plant the lembeh stick next to the subject, so you can retrieve another photographer and bring them to the exact location. Read more about underwater photographer etiquette. Your lembeh stick can also be used to stick in the ground when a current is sweeping you towards another dive taking a photograph. This way you can stay out of the way without kicking up silt.

Tips for Artistic Macro Shooting

Bring more creativity to your macro photographs with our Tips for Artistic Macro Shooting.

Further Reading

Guide to Fish photography
Guide to Supermacro photography
Learning Super Macro Photography in the PNG
Best muck diving destinations

Featured Articles

Essential Tips for Nudibranch Photography
Macro Surprises at the Blue Heron Bridge
Scott Gietler
Macro photography preparation for taking great photos

Intermediate Underwater Composition

Composition rules for Underwater Photography

1) Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds says that if a photo is divided up into “thirds” by lines, the key elements of the composition should be placed near the intersection of the lines. Using the rule of thirds helps give a photo a sense of balance. This rule is often broken, especially with extreme close up shots, but it is still useful for many compositions. If you are having trouble getting good compositions, use the rule of thirds to help your compositions achieve balance.
As your experience progresses, you will not need to think about “rules”, but use your own intuition for what makes a good design. Many excellent images do not follow the rule of thirds, so don’t be afraid to go against the rule.

In this photo, the white lines divides the photo up into thirds. The rule of 3rds
states that the key part of the main subject, in this case the eyes, should be
places near one of the four intersections. This photo follows the rule perfectly.
Photo by Mike Bartick.

2) Wide-Angle Composition Basics

• Try for a strong foreground and a strong background
• Shooting the foreground – get close, shoot up, light properly. Try to get
within 2ft of the foreground subject. Use as wide a lens as possible.
• Choosing the background – wait for a school of fish, have a diver swim
by, or have a colorful reef, kelp forest, or wreck in the background.

This cabezon has the oil rigs silhouetted in the background.
See the section on close-focus wide angle for more details and examples.

3) Wide-Angle Composition Basics

• Shooting low, keep the subject in-focus subject, and have a colored,
black, or camouflaged background.
• The foreground should be sharp
• Having proper separation between the foreground and background, via
depth of field or color, will make the difference between a good photo and
an excellent photo. Having a black or blue background is an excellent
way to isolate your subject.
• Keep the shot as simple as possible, without distractions in the photo. A
distracting background can ruin a macro image.

This macro photo is simple, and is shot from down low, not from above. An out of
focus background allows the viewer to concentrate on the subject, a Xenia soft
coral mimic nudibranch, while still maintaining a sense that it lives on a reef,
which is lost in the more artistic black background composition.
A straight-forward macro composition. Sharp, clear subject, colorful.
A “classic” macro shop. Colorful, sharp, in focus, eyes in focus, it’s clear what the
subject is, and it is almost filling the frame. Taken in Bali, Nikon 80, 105mm VR
lens. F14, ISO 200, 1/160th

4) Supermacro Composition Underwater

There are 3 compositions for super macro shots that I’d like to highlight here:

1 – Since the depth of field will be very small in a super macro shot, try to align the focal plane of your camera with the key areas of the subject. These could be the eyes, the eyes and the rhinophores, the eyes and the mouth, etc. Or it could be the entire side of the subject.

I tried to shoot with this crab parallel to my focus plane, to get it all in focus. F13,
1/250th, ISO 200

2 – Straight on facing the subject, getting low

Flamboyant cuttlefish from Anilao, F11, 1/200th, ISO 400. Here’s a great article
on “face-on” macro underwater composition.

3 – Align the subject at an angle to the focal plane. The key part of the subject must be in focus. The rest will be thrown out of focus, resulting in a dramatic photo. Many attempts sometimes must be made to find one that results in a pleasing blurring of the out-of-focus area of the subject.

Tiny nudibranch, carefully composed. The front is in fous, and the rear slowly
goes out of focus. Photo by Kevin Lee.

Supermacro shots are sometimes centered and ignore the rule of 3rds. See
what works best for your photograph.

5) Shoot in Portrait

You should shoot in portrait as much as you can. An ultra-light pivot tray can be used to keep strobes in the same position while you turn your body. Try to get both eyes visible in the photos and in focus. Magazine covers are always shot in portrait.

The walls of a reef are a great place to start taking portrait shots
6) Use the Viewfinder to Compose

Look through your viewfinder and adjust your position to get the composition you want, pay attention to distractions on the edge of the viewfinder.

7) Examine Edges for Distractions

Recompose if necessary.

8) Cropping your Photo

Use as a tool, not as a crutch. Try to get it right “in camera”.

9) Choose your Background Wisely

Reposition if needed. Use the right lens for the desired effect. A longer focal length will isolate the background; a shorter focal length will show more of the background. Read about the effect of lenses on composition. Use depth of field selectively as necessary.

I passed over many gobies before finding one on a red sponge. Only one
approach led to this composition, and I kept creeping forward while taking shots.

Next article: More underwater composition ideas

Further Reading
Super macro underwater photography – teleconverters and diopters
Wide-angle underwater photography
Composition ideas for underwater photos
Tips for Artistic Macro Photography
Intermediate Underwater Composition
Scott Gietler
Composition rules for Underwater Photography

Underwater Strobes

Features and comparisons of strobes for compact, mirrorless and dSLR underwater cameras

An external underwater strobe, also known as an underwater flash, is very
important in underwater photography. It allows you to reduce backscatter, and enables you to try different lighting options. After a camera housing, it should be your first purchase. Inon, Ikelite and Sea & Sea are popular makers of underwater strobes.

You can also learn about how to light underwater with strobes, and learn about various underwater strobe positions.

Underwater strobes come at many different price points, from $75 to $3200. Here are their features, and what you should look for to get the best possible underwater strobe.

Underwater Strobe Power:

• More is better. Power of an underwater flash is usually given by a guide
number. The higher the guide number, the stronger the strobe. The
precise formula for guide number = distance * F-stop. For example, a
strobe with a stated guide number of 20 (meters, above water) might
have a guide number of 10 underwater. This means, if you are shooting
at a subject 1 meter away at full strobe power, at ISO 100, F10 will give
you the correct exposure. At 2 meters away, you will need a larger
aperture, F5.6. At a half meter, you would use F20.

• Guide numbers are usually given in meters, at ISO 100, usually above
water but sometimes below water. Check to see if this number is with a
diffuser or not, since a diffuser will reduce the guide number. when you
look at the power of a strobe, you must also look at the angle of
coverage. For example, the Ike DS-51 is fairly strong, but has a smaller
angle of coverage, so this strobe needs less power.

• Also keep in mind that strobe guide numbers sometime vary from real
world results. View the strobe choices below for more insight on strobe

Strobe Angle of Coverage

• You will want a higher angle of coverage for wide-angle shots. Strobes
like the Ike DS-51, with an angle of coverage less than 90 degrees, are
sufficient for macro. Strobes meant for wide angle usually have an angle
of coverage of 90-100 degrees or more in both directions. The number
quoted can be with or without a diffuser, so check the specifications

Recycle Rate Of The Underwater Strobe

• Faster is better. 1 second is considered very good, 3 seconds a little
slow. This recycle time is only for a “full dump”, which means the strobe
fires for its maximum duration. Lower strobe powers will recycle faster.
Remember, when comparing strobe recycle rates, you also have to
compare them at the same power setting. If Strobe A and B have the
same recycle time, but Strobe B is a stronger strobe than strobe A,
Strobe B will recycle faster than strobe A when both are set to Strobe A’s
maximum power.

Shots Per Full Battery Charge

• More is better; the normal range is 100-300 shots per battery charge,
assuming a full dump (strobe is fired at maximum power). The best
batteries for your strobe are usually 2700mAH or 2900mAH
rechargables. Batteries often don’t meet their specs, so get a high-quality
battery like Maha powerex or Sanyo, and check out battery reviews.

Underwater Strobe Size and Weight

• Less is better. Figures are usually given for above water, and under

Spotting Light

• A spotting light, also know as an aiming light or a modeling light, is a
light that comes out of the strobe, lighting up the subject to help with
auto-focus. I find very few people use this feature, most of the times
strobes are not aimed exactly at the subject. They can be useful as a
backup light on night dives though, or as an emergency focus light if your
focus light goes out or floods. They can also be used to help you know
which exact direction your strobe is pointing. But I would never use an
aiming light as a criteria for selecting a strobe.

TTL Converter Compatibility

• Although TTL Converters are available for automatic operation, not all
strobes are able to communicate with the housing especially if they are
brand specific.

Color Temperature of A Strobe

• Color temp of most strobes will range from 4700 to 5600K. See the color
temperature section
for more info. A slightly lower (warmer) color temp,
e.g. 4700K, can be beneficial for wide angle shots because of the better
it produces. Ikelite strobes are a warmer strobe. Some of the
highest end strobes, like SeaCam, even have adjustable color temp.

Bulb size

• Some more expensive strobes have a tubular or curved bulb for better
quality of light. The difference will be very subtle.

Recommended Underwater Strobes:

Dual strobes are often needed to fully light a wide-angle scene like this. Dual YS-D2 strobes were used, a
popular choice for many photographers

dSLR users:

Some of the popular underwater strobes or flashes for dSLR users are the
following: Sea & Sea YS-D1, S&S YS-D2, S&S YS-D2J, Ikelite DS-160, Ikelite DS-161, INON Z240 and the new Inon Z330. All are excellent choices, at different price points. Subtronics and SeaCam have a good reputation at a higher price point and are used by many professionals. Ikelite came out with a stronger DS160 and DS-161 strobes, which are also popular. Sea & Sea first came out with the game changing YS-D1 strobe, read our YS-D1 strobe review here. They updated it to the YS-D2, and then moved production to Japan for the YS-D2J to improve the reliability of the strobe.
Some people may start choosing the Inon S2000 or the Sea & Sea YS-01 for a small macro setup – read my Inon S2000 review.

Mirrorless Users:

Most of you will be served best with a Sea & Sea YS-D2J. If you already own an Ikelite strobe, you can get a fiber optic adapter so it can work with the fiber optic connection of your housing. If you are only doing macro, you might be able to get away with a less expensive strobe like the Inon D200.

Compact Camera Users:

Sea & Sea YS-01, Sea & Sea YS-03, Inon S2000, and Ikelite DS-51s are all
popular choices. You may want to look at the Sea & Sea YS-D2J if you want to get great wide-angle shots. Check out our video on the Sea & Sea YS-O3 Solis


Bluewater Photo Buyer’s Guide to Underwater Strobes

Strobe Choices – A Quick Overview

I’m going to give a quick overview of some of the most popular mid-level strobes. This does not cover some of the very inexpensive strobe makers like Fantasea or Epoque, or the more high-end strobes like SeaCam, Subtronic or Hartenberger.

Strobes are listed in order of increasing power.

Sea & Sea Strobes

Great quality strobes – small, strong, with a fast recycle time – especial the YS-D2J, YS-02, YS-01 and Ys-110a. Those models also have an optical TTL feature that works well. Easy to use buttons. Takes AA batteries. Read our comparison between the wildly popular Sea&Sea YS-D2 and YS-D1 strobes.
• YS-17TTL – not considered a good strobe for the money
• YS-27dx – Popular choice for compact cameras with fiber optic cable
• YS-01 – New strobe, direct competitor to the Inon S2000, very similar
• YS-02 – same specs YS-01, but less expensive – no TTL or
LED modeling light.
• YS-90 – Replaced by the YS-110
• Sea & Sea YS-110 – Replaced by the YS-110a, good choice for macro &
wide angle. Three second refresh rate at a full dump. Read my YS-110
review, and the comparison of the YS-110 and the Inon Z240.
Sea & Sea YS-110a – Faster refresh rate than the YS-110, 1.5 seconds
on a full dump. Good choice for macro & wide angle. Has an optical TTL
feature. They are used by compact and dSLR users.
Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobe – great specs, this strobe is small and very
powerful. This is a top choice for underater photographers.
Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobe – similar specs as the YS-D1 but with upgraded control panel, better knobs, audible confirmation beep and redesigned battery compartment.
• Sea & Sea YS-D2J strobe – same as the YS-D2, but produced in Japan
where the reliabiltiy rate ranks equal to any other strobe
• YS-250 – Professional level, very strong, larger & heavier, made for wideangle. Ultra-fast recycle time.Recently discontinued.

Ikelite Strobes

Excellent reputation for strobes, known for good color temp (Ikelite DS-125 & above) and fast refresh rate. Strobes are larger & heavier than S&S and Inon, and take a proprierary battery pack. People with Ikelite housings usually get Ikelite strobes so they can use the Ikelite TTL converter. An Ikelite fiber optic adapter is needed to work with a fiber optic cable.
Ikelite recently came out with a new lithium battery for the DS-160 and DS-161 which gives it quite a good number of shots.
• Ikelite DS-50 – Replaced by the DS-51
• DS-51 – Used for compact cameras or dSLR macro photography.
Ikelite DS-125 – Replaced by the DS-160, used for macro and wideangle, one of the most popular strobes for dSLRs.
Ikelite DS-160 – One of the top choices for dSLRs, fast, powerful, used
for macro and wide angle. 2nd generation has new lithium battery.
Ikelite DS-161 – Released in Dec 2009, same as DS-160 but includes a
500 lumen LED video light. 2nd generation has new lithium battery.
• DS-200 – Professional level, made for wide-angle. Older strobe, the DS160 is a better bet. Discontinued.

Inon Strobes

Solid reputation for strobes, known for excellent build quality, small size, a good S-TTL (optical TTL) feature which mimics a camera’s preflash. The Inon S2000 is their latest strobe. The dials can be a little small on some models.
Inon S2000 – Brand new as of early 2009, could be the new top choice
for compact cameras. Slightly smaller, cheaper, and almost as powerful
as the D2000. Considered the “hot” new strobe for compact cameras.
Takes 4 AA batteries. Guide # of 20. Retail price is around $450 USD.
Read the Inon S2000 review
Inon D2000 – This strobe has been a top choice for compact cameras
over the last couple of years. It’s fired by a fiber optic cable. Replaced by
the Inon D200.
• Inon Z220 – Replaced by the Z240. great choice for dSLRs, fired by sync
cord only.
Inon Z240 – Outstanding strobe, small, powerful, great for compacts or
dSLRs. See my Inon Z240 review.
• Inon Z330 – Their latest strobe, more powerful than the Z240, equivalent
to the YS-D2J

Sea & Sea and Inon TTL, S-TTL

Sea & Sea’s TTL, and Inon’s S-TTL, also known as “optical” TTL, will allow you to shoot TTL without using a TTL converter, as long as the camera has it’s internal flash firing, and the strobe can “see” the flash fire via a fiber optic cable. The strobe will mimic the camera’s preflash. This type of TTL is becoming very popular in compact cameras, and is even spreading to dSLR’s where the housing allows the internal flash to “pop up”.

Subtronic Strobes

Subtronic strobes are heavier and more expensive strobes, but some pro’s swear by them for their soft light, power and even light coverage. If you have the money, and don’t mind the extra weight, consider Subtronic strobes.

Underwater Strobe Chart

Special thanks to Bill Van Antwerp for helping me put together this underwater strobe chart.

Strobe ManufacturerOutput Guide
Num (meters,
under water)
BatteryOutput Power
Optical TriggerSync Cord
coverage for
Price MSRP
Epoque ES 1509 2 AAYYY$299
Epoque ES 230132 AAYYY$449
Hartenberger 12516Proprietary125YYY$1,400
Hartenberger 25022Proprietary250YYY$1,800
Hartenberger 62532Proprietary625YYY$2,400
Ikelite AF35454 AA35YNN$420
Ikelite DS519A AA50YYN$400
Ikelite DS 12511Proprietary125YYY$600 used
Ikelite DS 16012Proprietary160YYY$840
Ikelite DS 20012Proprietary200YYY$1,100
Inon S2000104 AAYNY$449
Inon D2000104 AAYNY$600
Inon Z240124 AAYYY$750
Inon Ringflash114 AANYN$1,300
Intova ISS2000 Slave Strobe94 AAYNN$135
Athena Ringflash62 AAYYN$1,000
Sea&Sea YS 0110 4 AAYNY$430
Sea&Sea YS 15 62 AAYNN$250
Sea&Sea YS 1772 AAYNN$250
Sea&Sea YS 27 104 AAYNN$350
Sea&Sea YS 90114 AAYYY$300 used
Sea&Sea 110114 AAYYY$400 used
Sea&Sea 110a124 AAYYY$650
Sea&Sea YS 250 Pro16ProprietaryYYY$1,100
Sea&Sea YS16ProprietaryYYY$1,400
SeaCam 10011Proprietary150YYY$950
SeaCam 15016Proprietary250YYY$2,015
SeaCam 25020Proprietary350YYY$2,400
SeaCam 35026ProprietaryYYY$3,500
Subtronic Nova20ProprietaryYYY$2,400
Sunpak52 AAYNN$230

Saving Money: Used & Budget Strobes

If you are on a budget, older YS-110s are good strobes with good strength and coverage, and can be bought fairly cheaply if you look hard enough. I’m guessing around $250. Ikelite DS-125’s and Inon Z220’s are also great, strong strobes that be bought used at good prices.
And if you are really on a budget, the Fantasea Nano strobe costs $105 new, and works ok without a fiber optic cable, with most point and shoot cameras. I haven’t tried the Intova ISS2000 ISTR Slave strobe, but I heard it’s a good value for the money at $135, for macro shots. The Intova is also sold as the UltraMax Ultrapower UXDS-1 strobe.
You can find good options on less-expensive strobes here.
You can also read about choosing the right arms and clamps.

Marine Life Underwater

Comprehensive Guide to Learning About our Photo Subjects

No where on the planet can you enjoy the diversity of marine life as you can underwater. Marine life underwater photography will never disappoint you – there is always more marine life to see and photograph in new ways. Please enjoy the following articles:

Sweetlips fish from Bali, beautiful example of underwater marine life.

Marine Life & Underwater Photography

Marine Life Behavior

• Examples of underwater marine life behavior such as yawning, fighting, mating, predation, cleaning
Marine Taxonomy
• Taxonomy guide to marine invertebrates and vertebrates
California Marine Life
• Guide to California marine life such as fish, mammals, and invertebrates
Indo-Pacific Macro Life and Critter List
• Guide to Indo-pacific macro critters and photogenic fish
Hawaiian Marine Life
• Keiko Stender’s guide to the Flora and Fauna of Hawaii
Pacific Northwest Marine Life
• Janna Nichols’s fish and invert id galleries
Fish Photography
• Guide to photographing fish – the favorite activity for marine life enthusiasts.
Sea Turtle Photography
• The Ultimate Guide to Sea Turtle photography underwater
Shark Photography
• Photographing sharks, where to find them, lighting and lens selection
Underwater Photography of Jellyfish & Pelagic Invertebrates
• Trying out underwater photography in blue water
Facts about Orcas, aka Killer Whales
• An overview of the life of orcas, including range and habitat, food, size and conservation efforts
Ultimate Guide to Manta Rays
• Types of mantas, distribution, food and photo tips

Featured Marine Life Articles:
Face to Face with Killer Whales
5 Critters You Must See in the Indo-Pacific
10 Underwater Creature Facts You Didn’t Know
Inside Look Photos: Training Sharks to Eat Lionfish
Fascinating Creatures of the Pacific Northwest
Once in a Lifetime Humpback Whale Experience

ReefID: Not sure what you saw? Find it here
Basking Sharks – Where and how to photograph basking sharks
Black Sea Bass – gentle giants of California
Blue-ringed Octopus – this deadly, beautiful octopus can kill a human
Bobbit Worm – Dispelling common myths about this ambush predator
Cardinalfish – How to photograph mouthbrooding cardinalfish (eggs!)
Frogfish – Master of ambush and camoflauge
Giant Kelp Forests – Forests under the sea, an experience like no other
Harlequin Shrimp – The slow-motion samuri of tropical reefs
Leafy Sea Dragon – Photography tips and natural history of this beautiful fish
Manatees – Diving and photographing manatees in Florida
Nudibranchs – Natural history and underwater photography tips
Orcas – Everything you need to know about orcas (killer whales)
Pacific Seahorse – the only seahorse on the west coast of the Americas
Rhinopias – One of the “Holy Grail” of all critters
Whale Sharks – How to photograph whale sharks, plus Isla Mujeres travel tips
Wonderpus Octopus – Beautiful predator octopus of the black sand

Marine Life Underwater
Scott Gietler
Comprehensive Guide to Learning About our Photo Subjects

Underwater Camera Housing Set-up, Protection & Maintenance Tips

Preventing camera fogging, dome port scratches, oring 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
• 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
• 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.
Skip ahead to housing scratches and dome port scratches

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 oring 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
• 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, btw….
• 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

• #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
– 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 securly 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.

Thanks to Marcelo Mariozi for help with this last section.
If you feel like I missed anything important, please add you advice/story as a comment at the bottom of this page.

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
• 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

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. AO Cooler bags can be found here.

• 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
• 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

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. Order them here.

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” dome port repair kit here. This does not work with glass dome ports. Read more about acrylic ports versus 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.
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. There is a good cleaning kit here.

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
• 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 ziplock baggie, beforepacking 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.

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