Diving Into Underwater Photography

Jason Bradley

Not every photographer will get to dive with sharks, but with the right techniques and gear, it’s possible to capture breathtaking sub-aquatic photos on any aquatic adventure. Gear Photography By Backscatter Underwater Video and Photo

Photography today has no shortage of technical hurdles. It can be daunting to learn about camera sensors, flashes, lenses, tripods, filters software, computers and hard drives, not to mention how to set your camera and find and create compelling compositions. Needless to say, if your next step is taking your camera underwater, then get ready to take your craft to the extreme.

A lot of the rules change with underwater photography. Water is thicker and denser than air, and visibility is comparably limited even in the best of conditions. Telephoto lenses can’t be used. Subjects need to be much closer. There’s less light, far less color and, when shooting in ocean environments, life, nutrients and your average ocean flotsam drift through the water column, obscuring your lens’ view of your subject. And that’s far from all of it.

Electronics and water, especially salt water, don’t play well together. All gear has to be well protected, well maintained, and can be quite expensive. Nonetheless, I can’t imagine ever giving up shooting underwater. Everything feels more beautiful and magical underwater, there’s mystery and excitement exploring aquatic environments and, in my humble opinion, few terrestrial scenes are as captivating. If you’re thinking about diving into shooting underwater, I say don’t wait.

Read our underwater photography gear guide

Keep Things Close And Simple

One of the big tricks in underwater photography is to keep subjects close—really close. Telephoto lenses are never used underwater, and I almost exclusively pack my gear bag with two lenses: a Sigma 15mm fisheye lens and Nikon 105mm macro lens. Admittedly, there are some situations where I use a mid-range lens, but I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve done that over the last five years. Either way, the wide-angle lens is a must-have.

Arguably, more important is to keep your compositions simple. To start, I suggest thinking about a simple, clear and prominently placed subject and foreground framed by a simple and clear background. The image above of the ray offered a clean and uncomplicated negative space, allowing the graceful shape of the ray and his companions to become the only discernable element of the composition.

Jason Bradley
Many images can be made underwater without the use of strobes and working only with ambient light.

Capturing tiny things in marine environments is a passionate pursuit for many scuba-certified photographers. The macro lens is thus an invaluable tool for such photographers, and one of the big tricks for macro photography is to not over-rely on your auto focus. Shooting tiny things underwater, with water surging back and forth, with extremely shallow depth of field, isn’t easy for most auto focus systems. Either pre-focus your lens on your subject and then slowly move your camera in until your focal plane lands where you want it or equip your lens with a zoom mechanism, which is available for any number of camera housings.

Ambient Light

One of the simplest ways to approach underwater photography is to focus on taking images with available light only. Underwater strobes or flashes are a must-have tool for aquatic shooting, but that doesn’t mean that beautiful work can’t be made without them.

Whether you’re in a pool, ocean or lake, there’s less color underwater than on land, and what’s left to work with are monochromatic images that are varying shades of blues and greens, depending on the environment. As a result, many of the images I create using just ambient light convert easily to black and white. Remember—keep subjects close and backgrounds simple!

The Underwater Housing

Twenty years ago, you’d be lucky to find underwater housings for anything other than Nikon. Today, you can find housings for Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Fujifilm, Sony, Pentax and Panasonic, as well as for compact cameras and video systems. Housings come in all shapes and sizes, and are made out of different metals and acrylics. Bearing all this in mind, no housing or housing manufacturer is the same, and prices run the gamut from somewhat affordable to crazy expensive, costing well more than the price of the camera itself. An underwater housing is thus an investment that requires thought and consideration, and in my humble and experienced opinion, ergonomics and quality should trump savings.

Jason Bradley
Housings are made today to fit almost any camera. From compact point and shoots to professional level SLRs, you can find a housing for almost anything.

A few good manufacturers are Nauticam, Sea & Sea, Seacam, Subal and Aquatica. I also suggest contacting Backscatter Underwater Video & Photo (backscatter.com), which is an excellent store located in Monterey, California. They are experts at such equipment; almost all the staff are scuba divers and photographers, and can help guide you to the right housing for you.

Mirrorless Vs. SLR

The choice between SLRs and mirrorless systems isn’t restricted to land lovers. Personally, I’m an SLR guy. In part it’s what I’m used to, and in part I prefer the lens selections. Of course, if you’re buying gear for underwater use only, the lens selection won’t be as much of a concern as you’ll only use a few lenses. There are certainly pros and cons with each choice. See page 64 for a list of comparable considerations when choosing one versus the other.


Underwater Strobes

The underwater strobe is almost as important a tool for the underwater photographer as the camera itself. I suggest considering either the Sea & Sea YS-D2 or the Ikelite DS160. Both are powerful strobes with decent recycle times, allowing for easy handling in most underwater situations. Ikelite does also offer a DS161 model that’s a bit more money, but the DS161 offers a built-in hot light or video light in addition to the flash.

Most of my shoots with strobes consist of my diving down with two strobes attached to my housing by way of Ultralight arms (ulcs.com), but at least half the time I’m using only one for fill light. Of course, it depends on the shoot.

I typically dive with two strobes attached by Ultralight arms and almost always travel with a spare. It’s more costly having spares, but with the amount of money spent on gear and travel being an underwater photographer, it’s far better to have it and not need it than the other way around.

Underwater strobes can be triggered in a couple of ways. You can hardwire them or trigger them through fiber optic cables. I hardwire my strobes because historically this has been more reliable, but advances in technology have leveled the playing field to some degree. Until recently, the only way to trigger a strobe through fiber optic cables was by way of a camera’s pop-up flash; the flash fires, light travels through fiber optics and light is received by an optical slave sensor on the strobe. A better system that’s widely available today allows a hot-shoe connector to fit on the camera, and as the shutter is hit, the hot-shoe connector makes a tiny flash of light that travels through the fiber optics. This technology has also paved the way for the use of TTL with fiber optic triggers. Be sure to ask your retailer when shopping if such technology is available to you with the camera and housing you’re interested in.

Jason Bradley
West Indian manatees are gentle and curious marine mammals that frequent the waters of Crystal River, Fla., during the winter months. Crystal River has several areas with natural freshwater springs that are much warmer than the surrounding ocean waters, and thus provide a warm refuge for the manatee. This young male just woke from a nap and surfaced to catch some air before going back down for a little more rest. This image was taken with a Nikon D2X, a Nikon 16mm Fisheye lens, an Aquatica underwater housing and two Sea&Sea YS-300 underwater strobes.

Focus Lights

In addition to strobes, many underwater photographers bring a continuous light source, or hot light, for illuminating low-light situations—referred to as a focus light. These hot lights can assist a camera’s auto focus in seeing subjects and locking in on them. Of course, if one is shooting at night or dusk, then a focus light is a must.

I dive with the Sola 800 made by Light and Motion. It’s a very bright light that can have a broad, evenly lit beam for use with video, a spotlight or a red light. Red lights instead of LEDs with typical color temperatures are used to light up small critters and invertebrates while shooting macro because many of these animals lack the ability to see red light. Thus, red lights don’t spook the wildlife. There are, of course, many focus lights available on the market. The Sola is just one of dozens of available options, but is my choice for sure.

Keeping Things Dry

Camera housings do open and close, and are equipped with many levers and buttons, allowing a photographer access to a camera’s features, and each entry point is sealed with an o-ring. To keep housings dry, maintenance should be performed routinely. Buttons and levers are generally inaccessible to the average user, so once a year, or depending how often the gear is used and how well it’s maintained, a housing should be sent in for an annual service. You can send your housing directly to the manufacturer, or Backscatter also offers servicing for almost all housing sold today—and for ones discontinued.

In addition to annual servicing, the o-rings that seal your housing’s main compartment, along with o-rings for your strobes and cords, should be cleaned and greased before and after each shoot. The tricky part to remember with o-rings and grease is that you need to stick with the grease the manufacturer has provided you. To say this another way, you may have a housing from one manufacturer, a lens port from another, and strobes from yet another, and all of them use different kinds of o-rings made from different materials. In these cases, just using one manufacturer’s o-ring grease for all your o-rings could have a negative effect on your o-ring and cause a flood. Again, stick to what the manufacturer offers.

Also in my tool kit is an invaluable tool that tests the integrity of my housing seal. Backscatter has its own proprietary vacuum-sealing pump that comes equipped with a pressure gauge and a housing leak alarm system. It works by using the pump to create negative pressure inside the housing. The negative pressure turns on a leak alarm light to green. From then on, throughout your shoot and thereafter, if any pressure escapes—whether water enters the housing or not—the alarm will turn yellow. If a lot of pressure escapes, or if water enters the housing, the light turns a flashing red.

The vacuum pump isn’t available for all housings, so if this tool is of interest to you, ask before you buy.

Keeping Things Dry

Of course if you’re not eager to take your gear into the water, you can experiment with waterproof cameras like those from Olympus, Ricoh and others to see if you like capturing images underwater. If you do, it’s a good sign that you’re ready to jump in.

Jason Bradley is a nature and underwater photographer based in Monterey, California, who runs the Bradley Photographic Workshops. You can see more of Bradley’s work, as well as find out about his nature workshops at bradleyphotographic.com. You can find him on Instagram @bradleyphotographic.

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