Take a Journey to Another Photographic World – Underwater Photography Part I

Life can be full of exciting journeys when we seek them out, or vice versa.  My latest journey began when I purchased an underwater housing and strobes for my digital SLR late last year.  After completing Summer Intensive and Advanced Intensive training at Rocky Mountain School of Photography during the fall of 2009, I returned home to Florida eager to bring my camera along on my underwater adventures.  Having seen some truly amazing sights since I first put on a mask and snorkel at the age of 5, I thought that the underwater world would provide a wealth of photographic opportunities provided I did my part.  Fortunately, this hunch has been more accurate than I could ever have imagined.

Since I began working with my camera underwater, I have had close encounters with some interesting creatures, both large and small.  I have also had opportunities to make images of underwater seascapes that continue to engage my senses. What excites me most about underwater photography is that it allows one to display images from a world that is unfamiliar to many people.  In this series of articles I will attempt to provide some basic tools, so you may begin your own underwater journey.

Comfort in the water and training for the conditions in which one intends to shoot are two prerequisite skills to possess before attempting any underwater photography. Comfort in the water can be an elusive skill.  However, scuba certification (or more advanced training like closed circuit re-breather technology) is now widely available, so it is relatively easy to obtain a training certification level to meet virtually any need.  Several of the most well-known certification organizations in the U.S. include the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (www.padi.com), National Association of Underwater Instructors (www.naui.org) and the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (www.iantd.com). However, don’t forget that snorkeling requires no certification and is a perfectly acceptable way to begin your underwater adventures.  I have had many successful underwater shoots while using only mask, snorkel and fins.  Provided you have a body of water nearby (Note:  swimming pools certainly qualify) sufficient comfort in the water and the appropriate training to suit your needs, there is little reason not to explore the world of underwater photography.

Before we cover more specifics about gear and techniques, I would like to address some concepts that are unique to underwater photography.  One striking difference from terrestrial photography is how sunlight is affected by water.  Water is almost 800 times denser than air.  Water density strongly affects the colors of light that are present at varying depths.  Warmer colors are quickly absorbed so that little or no red, orange or yellow hues are present at depths of greater than 30 feet.  The most prominent colors at depths of more than 30 feet are green and blue.  This color filtering can result in monochromatic photos that lack punch.  On the other hand, it can also be used creatively once understood.  Additionally, there may be low or no ambient light at relatively shallow depths depending on local water clarity.  As such, artificial light is regularly used in underwater photography to add color and to assist with exposure.  In addition to the color and level of ambient light, one must also consider the presence of particulate matter in the water.  Especially turbid or murky water often results in illuminated particles in photos also known as “backscatter.”  Therefore, it becomes very important to know under which conditions you should attempt any particular shot as well as proper strobe positioning to minimize backscatter.

Underwater photography also tends to involve more “moving parts” than other photographic disciplines.  Addressing the typical complexities of terrestrial photography remains crucial.  However, the additional gear required for the particular type of dive (snorkeling all the way to deep technical diving) can add a significant amount of variables to the photographic equation.  Also, the movement of both the subject and photographer in the water must also be considered.  All of the variables can quickly occupy your underwater time, thereby shortening the time available to react to each given scene.  As such, an ability to pre-visualize a photograph before entering the water can often save valuable underwater time.

Due to space constraints, I must now conclude this article.  The next article in the series will cover specific issues regarding underwater photography gear from the beginner to more advanced user.  It will also address the two most common types of underwater photography (close focus wide-angle and macro photography) as well as issues common to each.  I hope this article has sparked an interest to begin your own journey into underwater photography.  Until next time, take care.

There are many scuba certification programs available and exclusion from this list does not indicate a program is unreliable or disreputable.  The author strongly recommends you perform your own research before attending any scuba training courses.

4 thoughts on “Take a Journey to Another Photographic World – Underwater Photography Part I

Profile photo of Mel Mann


I see you converted that circular school picture to B&W – turned out really nice. Amazing how removing the color really focused my eye on the subject.

Susan Wolfe

Jimmy, I’m a real fan of your underwater work. While I’m not at home in the water like you are and likely will never attempt that kind of work, I appreciate your images and your ability to talk about what it takes to produce them successfully.

Kate Cooper

Hey Jimmy, maybe RMSP will put on a summer workshop for you to teach, now wouldn’t that be something.

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