When I teach photo workshops, one of the most common questions is, "How can I improve my images?" This is a big question, with a lot of answers. For some participants, the answer is working on a specific technique, such as using a tripod to capture tack-sharp images. For others, it’s choosing the right depth of field for accurate selective focus. We all have areas that need improvement in our photography.
One surefire way to improve your images is finding a fresh perspective. We’ve all seen the cliché shots of famous landmarks and activities. I’ve photographed kayaking for 25 years, from oceans to lakes to rivers. I have thousands of kayaking images in my files, and thought I had seen it all. But one hot day lying under a palm-thatched palapa in Baja, I realized I had only been photographing half the scene. I was capturing what was going on above the waves, but I didn’t see what was happening under the warm green water. Was there spiny coral, colorful fish or maybe a reef shark underneath? My creative juices began to flow, and I was reenergized to photograph sea kayaking. I needed to take my camera into the water for a fresh take on a familiar subject.
Most cameras aren’t waterproof and need a protective housing to work underwater. There are a few exceptions to this, such as waterproof point-and-shoot cameras, but most of us want to use our existing camera underwater, not go out and buy a new body just for underwater shots.
There are many underwater options, ranging from simple and inexpensive "splash" housings to advanced (and more expensive) dive housings that allow full control of your camera’s functions.
Some of the simplest underwater housings that work with almost any camera are PVC housings by ewa-marine. They come in a wide variety of sizes that accommodate everything from video cameras to SLRs with speedlights attached. These housings work by placing your camera in a PVC bag and sealing the opening flap with a metal bar. You access your camera controls by pressing buttons through the PVC or using the finger slots provided in the housing. ewa-marine housings have an optical glass port to fit your lens and ensure clear images. They’re waterproof from 20 to 150 feet, depending on the housing. These waterproof pouches are the cheapest option to waterproof your DSLR. For around $50, you can get a point-and-shoot housing, and for a few hundred bucks, you can get a DSLR camera housing.
Another inexpensive option is getting an underwater housing for your point-and-shoot camera. Companies such as Fantasea have numerous point-and-shoot housings for around $100. I use a Nikon P7000, a top-of-the-line Coolpix camera that produces terrific files. Fantasea makes a housing for the P7000 (around $400) that gives you full control of the camera functions, including flash and video.
The next step up are custom waterproof housings for your DSLR. These housing can cost more than your DSLR, but for serious underwater work they’re worth it. These housings allow full control of your camera functions, and they’re waterproof to depths of 300 feet and more, depending on the housing. These housings also offer sync terminals to use underwater flash systems. In addition to the housing, you need a lens port to match the lens you’re using.
I break scuba underwater housings into two categories: those for use closer to the surface and those for use at deep depths. If you’re a scuba diver and plan on diving a WWII wreck at 60 feet in the Philippines, you need a dive housing. Companies such as Aquatica and Ikelite make custom DSLR scuba housings rated for very deep diving.
Most photographers need a housing that works closer to the surface or snorkel depths around 20 feet. For this task, I use a sport housing designed for shooting on the surface and at shallow depths.
I shoot my Nikon D300S in an underwater housing by AquaTech. This housing is rated to a depth of 30 feet, but offers some notable advantages over other dive housings. First is its size. The AquaTech housing is very compact and easy to manage, much smaller than many dive housings on the market. Another huge advantage is the tight seal where the lens port attaches. Many dive housings aren’t designed for getting pounded by waves as you photograph whitewater kayakers (or maybe your kids playing in the pool). Dive housings can leak water in rough surface conditions until you dive deeper and the pressure seals them tight. The AquaTech lens port screws into the housing and can take a beating in waves on the surface without leaking. Another big advantage of this housing is that AquaTech manufactures lens ports to accommodate telephoto lenses for shooting at the surface. Standard dive housings generally have ports for macro and wide-angle lenses.
Using flash underwater can dramatically improve color quality in your images. As you go deeper, the red spectrum of light is filtered out, resulting in blue/green images. Flash can restore the warm color balance to an underwater image. You have three choices for using flash underwater.
First, PVC housings from ewa-marine have models with vertical pouches to accommodate an on-camera flash. You attach your speedlight to your camera, put it in the PVC housing, and you’re ready to go. You can access controls by pushing buttons through the PVC material. This is the simplest option.
Another option is buying a dedicated underwater strobe to attach to your dive housing. These flashes are attached via a waterproof cable to a sync terminal on the housing, and the cables are long enough to allow off-camera flash use. If you’ve tried underwater flash photography, you know it’s critical to get the flash off-camera to avoid backscatter, which occurs when particles in the water reflect light from the flash, especially if the flash is on-camera. Imagine a snowstorm in your underwater image and you get the idea. By moving the flash off to one side, a lot of backscatter can be eliminated. Underwater flashes work in a variety of modes, including manual and TTL mode, but you won’t have all the functionality of a dedicated speedlight.
There’s another flash option, however. AquaTech manufactures a speedlight housing for Nikon and Canon flashes, allowing you to use your speedlight underwater with full control of all its features. This housing uses a waterproof cable to connect the flash to the housing, with enough extension to use the speedlight off-camera. Better yet, you can use a speedlight in high-speed-sync mode in the housing or attach a PocketWizard transmitter to trigger larger studio packs on shore. I frequently use this setup to photograph fast-moving whitewater kayaking.
Underwater Shooting Techniques
Once you have your underwater housing for your camera, you’re ready to get wet. This is where your creativity kicks in and any patch of water will work. Try your local pool, a lake or even a kiddie pool in your front yard. Here are some shooting techniques to get you started.
1. Make sure the housing is sealed tightly.
The worst thing you can hear from your snorkeling partner when shooting in the water is, "I see water splashing a
round in your housing." Try out your housing close to shore to make sure it’s sealed tightly. Once in the water, check the housing regularly to make sure it’s still sealed, especially if you’re working in waves or a surf zone. Use lubricant on the O-rings (the rubber gaskets that seal the openings) to ensure they work properly.
2. Use a high-capacity flash card.
When I used to shoot film underwater, I dreaded frame number 30. I knew I only had a few shots left before I had to return to shore and change film. Inevitably, I would encounter a sea turtle right at the end of my roll of film. Those days are gone. Now I can put a 16 GB flash card in my camera and shoot all day.
3. Shoot in the middle of the day.
Photographers normally seek out warm dawn and dusk light, but underwater shooting requires all the light you can get, and this means midday bright sun. Overhead sun penetrates the water and illuminates the scene more evenly. Bottom surfaces that are light-colored, like sand, will reflect overhead sun and improve exposures. Avoid stirring up the water to ensure clear photos.
4. Photograph near the surface.
Many of my favorite underwater images are shot right at the surface. I often shoot with the lens partially underwater, creating an over/under image. Wide-angle lenses, especially fisheye lenses, let you capture the subject above water, as well as the scene below water. Try shooting underwater shots just a few feet underwater. The light is better, and coral formations can be spectacular just below the surface.
5. Use underwater flash.
As you become more comfortable in the water, you can snorkel deeper and explore coral and fish well below the surface. Since the red spectrum of light will be largely filtered out, try using a flash to improve your images. To avoid backscatter, try using your flash off-camera. Practice with your flash in shallow water to make sure your setup and exposures are working. Then try diving a little deeper to capture that orange clown fish resting in an anemone.