The Secrets of Underwater Photography

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First, a warning: like scuba diving itself, underwater photography can be seriously addictive. Once you get the hang of it you may find, as I did, that getting good underwater pictures becomes the main reason you dive. Plus, if you are not careful, you could end up spending more money on your camera than on your diving equipment.

But it is worth it because, even more so than on land, good underwater pictures can capture rare, even unique moments. There is nothing more rewarding than showing off that great shot of a beautiful (or rare or weird) underwater creature to your friends and fellow divers – and the results can be achieved without breaking the bank.


Getting started is easier and cheaper than many assume. There is no point in investing large sums of money in expensive equipment at the beginning. Perfectly acceptable, and sometimes very good, results can be achieved using a relatively inexpensive compact digital camera and its built-in flash.

But what camera should you buy? Sorry to disappoint, but I am not going to recommend individual models; there are simply too many good ones out there these days, from the likes of Canon, Olympus, Sony, and Panasonic. However, here are some general tips to guide those looking to invest in some equipment:

Start with a digital compact. e great for an perienced, serious underwater photographer, but the underwater casings that come with them are expensive – and bulky. Even those who already own a al SLR for land otography should start below the surface with a compact. I self still use one.

Make sure the intended camera has a matching underwater case purchased from the same manufacturer.

These are often available at reasonable cost,while branded cases like Ikelite cost a lot more.Make sure the case comes with a diffuser (a white translucent filter) to go over the flash.

Make sure the camera has adjustable white balance settings, including “underwater” or “custom” settings, or both (see later for why this is important).

Ask dive centres and other divers what cameras they use or can recommend, and check out relevant websites to research and read reviews before purchasing.



Successful underwater photography requires good diving skills – most notably, buoyancy control. It is best not to start snapping until you have quite a few dives under your belt and feel confident in the water, otherwise you will end up with mediocre pictures and messy diving skills, and you may well destroy a few bits of coral in the process. Once you are ready, start simple and easy, and work gradually upwards. Two things in particular are important here: location, and choice of subjects.

Firstly, location. Do not start your photography career at the most exciting locations or dive sites, which are also often the most demanding. Look instead for places that are relatively shallow, relatively current-free, and ideally have flat, sandy bottoms. In Malaysia, this makes the choice easy.

There are lots of suitable dive sites off the East coast islands of Perhentian, Redang and Tioman, all of which have plenty to photograph. Tenggol, the other main East coast island, is a bit more difficult; leave it, as well as the undoubted delights of Sipadan and other sites off Sabah, until a bit later on when you are more experienced. You will enjoy them more when more confident, and will also get more out of your dives.

Secondly, choose simple subjects at first. Let me stress that “simple” does not mean boring; it means subjects that do not move, or move only very slowly. You will find a wide choice of these at most dive sites, and they include coral, sponges, anemones (and the clownfish that inhabit them), nudibranchs, sea cucumbers and urchins, plus a range of static fishes like Moray eels, scorpionfishes and so on. Bigger things like sharks and mantas are very difficult to get close to, while many of the attractive, smaller reef fish annoyingly dart away just as you point your camera at them.

I am not suggesting that you ignore that whale shark or school of Bumphead parrotfish as they majestically swim by. By all means try your hand at occasional bigger and faster subjects, but if you initially focus your attention on easier subjects and use these to master your camera and hone your techniques, you will not only get better pictures, you will also improve your chances of getting good shots of more difficult subjects later on.


There are many good books available on underwater photography, but all of them contain the following, basic but essential tips. Follow them and you will be well on your way. What many people learn in the PADI Open Water course, but soon forget, is how light works underwater. Essentially, when natural light enters water, the water rapidly absorbs the various colours one by one. Red is the first to go, virtually disappearing in the first five metres. It is followed by orange, yellow and, much later (deeper down), by green and blue. This is the reason why many underwater photographs lack colour, and look bluish and washed out.

To avoid or at least minimise this problem, you need to take two linked actions:

Get your camera settings right. Switch your flash on (forced flash), even in bright daylight, and adjust your camera’s white balance to compensate for some of the missing red: use “underwater” if it has this setting, or “custom” if not. Set your ISO to a low level -ISO100 is about right – to ensure that your flash fires brightly and illuminates the subject, which is what you want.

Get very close to your subject. The further away you are, the more colour gets filtered out by the water column, and the less light from your flash reaches the subject. Together, these lead to those colourless, bluish photos. Very close means very close; one metre (three feet) is already far too far away! Aim to be six inches or less from your subject, using the macro facility on your camera if necessary. If you are unsure how close to get, follow the best piece of advice I have ever been given: “Get very close. Then get closer still. Then, get even closer.”

Finally, the other key element is picture composition. As with topside photographs, a subject looks better when it stands out against a clear, contrasting background. The sea offers an ideal such background: clear blue water. The only problem is that divers mostly find themselves looking down on subjects sitting on or swimming in front of coral or the seabed. In order to achieve those magical blue-water shots, you need to swim down and shoot upwards.


This is often easier said than done, and it can be impossible when, for example, the seabed is completely covered with coral (and you should never ever rest your fins or body on coral or other living things), or when the subject stubbornly refuses to come out from its hidey-hole. In such cases, you need to accept that you will not get the perfect shot. But don’t be disheartened; if you keep an eye out for the right micro-locations, you will eventually be rewarded.

An ideal location is a clear, sandy bottom dotted with one or more coral bommies. Descend slowly to the sand (to avoid kicking it up), point your camera upwards to the top or side of the bommy, and click away against the beautiful blue background. Another, similar, technique for the more confident is to hover mid-water by a rock or coral bommie, or hold yourself in place with one carefully placed finger, and wait for the right marine life to swim across the top in front of your lens.

If you practise these simple techniques, your underwater shots will get better and better. Enjoy, and get hooked!


To contact the author with questions or comments, email Gordon at [email protected].


This article was written by Gordon Reid for Senses of Malaysia.
Source: Senses of Malaysia Sept-Oct 2012

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