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Underwater photography tips

Great photos make for great holiday memories, but there are some places where taking snaps isn’t all that easy- under the sea for example. However, it’s not as difficult as many people assume and it’s well worth giving underwater photography a try. There are certainly plenty of things to see and shoot in the seas around Belize so finding a fantastic subject won’t be a problem.

First off, you don’t need to buy a whole new camera if you want take great pictures while diving, snorkeling, or swimming. Nor do you have to switch to a disposable film camera. These days most popular digital compact cameras can be slotted into a clear plastic underwater housing. The right housing will allow you to zoom normally and use most other functions (including the flash) while keeping your everyday camera safe and dry. A good housing for a digital compact costs about $100, but it’s well worth investing in quality.

Before sealing your camera up in a housing, make sure the batteries are fresh and the memory card has plenty of free space. You can’t change the batteries while diving!

If you need to buy a new camera anyway, it’s usually best to buy a kit containing a camera that can be used on the surface or under it, a housing, and maybe other accessories like an external flash. The Nikon L24 kit is a good starting point and a complete kit will cost about $380. If you want to invest a little more, try the Olympus TG-610 or TG-810 ($560-$660, great cameras underwater and above it). Those who really want to take stunning underwater photo might buy something like the Sea & Sea Underwater DX-2G, which is sold as a professional package with a camera, external strobe, a full set of fittings and cables, and a heavy-duty case to keep everything safe from harm while out on the water. The whole bundle costs about $2480.

When you’ve got your new camera it’s time to get to know it. Always practice on the surface first. Take a few pictures with the waterproof housing in place to make sure you’re comfortable with the functions. This is always a good idea even for experienced underwater photographers, because if there are any problems with the camera or the housing it’s better to find out before jumping in the water.

Blue shot
Photos taken underwater often look too blue when
taken from a distance

Unless the water is really clear and bright, close up macro shots are likely to come out better than wide ones. Shoot through a lot of water and colors will tend to wash out or look very blue, so shallower shots have much better color than deep shots. Small particles suspended in the sea can also bounce light back towards the camera lens. This “backscatter” effect can make photos come out grainy and spotted especially if you’re shooting with a flash, so avoid the flash if you can. The color balance can sometimes be corrected with Photoshop or a similar set of tools but backscatter is hard to edit out.

No flash used
Sometimes daylight is all you need

Professionals know to use the minimum level of artificial light. It’s often better to turn off the flash altogether, otherwise reflections off bright, shiny silver fish or even white sand can cause ‘hotspots’ or burn patches in the image. Some camera housing systems allow for the use of an external flash or strobe, which can be very handy. Try playing with lighting angles to capture the texture of corals and sponges.

 

Lighting angles
Lighting angles make all the difference here

When using an external flash, try pointing it a little away from the subject rather than directly on it. This will reduce backscatter and make the lighting seem more natural. It’s also good to try positioning the flash away from the camera a little instead of keeping it close in. The professionals usually use two strobes, both positioned on the edge of the subject.

 

snorkel belize
Don't be afraid to include human subjects

Remember, great underwater photography isn’t just about strange and wonderful wildlife. What your loved ones most want to see in a picture is you, having the time of your life underwater. Other divers or swimmers can make great subjects and don’t be afraid to hand your camera to someone else so you can be in the pictures too!

 

Underwater video is also a great way to remember your trip. JVC make some excellent underwater video cameras- take a look at the GZ-HM550 for example. If shooting video is a priority you’ll almost certainly need a special light source as well. Again, it’s easiest to buy everything you need as a package. In this case, you’ll need a camera, housing, external light and a positioning arm to keep it steady. A diffuser for the light will come in handy in poor conditions but these are not always included with the set (which retails from about $2000).

Because movement is sometimes a little awkward underwater it’s also worth finding a video camera with image stabilization. Take care how the strobe is positioned when you take video footage underwater- getting the angles right is even more important than it is when taking stills.

Daylight balance (making the lighting look natural) can also be a problem when shooting a video, especially in good conditions and close to the surface on a sunny day. A video light with a color temperature of about 5000K will simulate sunlight reasonably well. When conditions are not so great, the color temperature isn’t as important and any good video light will help bring out bright colors.

Jess Spate loves diving and photography, and both together. She works for a camping gear store and travels whenever possible.

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