Over the past few months our new photographers polished their buoyancy control skills. They put together underwater photo kits and learned how to take care of your underwater photo gear. Plus, you’ve practiced using their new cameras so operation became second nature. Batteries are charged, storage cards are formatted; there are spares of each in the camera case. O-rings passed final inspection and are lightly coated in silicone grease. Now our new photographers are ready to get in the water and go hunting with their cameras! Let’s cover some underwater photography tips.
BAD News: Dive Boats and Dive Buddies Don’t always Love Underwater Photographers
First the bad news: Few divers like to be an underwater photographer’s dive buddy. Since a photographer can burn a tank of air while attempting to get a single good photo of a jaw fish, buddies tend to get bored hanging out in one spot. Underwater Photography Tips: Find a new, patient dive buddy or better yet, a fellow photographer.
Secondly, underwater photographers are not always smiled upon by dive-boat crews for the same reason buddies can be difficult to find. Good photographers take time looking for interesting subjects and that does not mesh with some dive operators’ philosophy of ‘head ‘em up, move ‘em out and get to the next dive site A.S.A.P’.
Underwater Photography Tips: Before signing on with a dive operator, confirm the boat accommodates underwater photo gear and the crew is accustomed to photographers on board. Operators happy to accommodate photographers generally are helpful with information on what subjects may be found at each dive site thus giving the photographers a heads-up on what to expect. A photographer-friendly boat crew is especially important to photographers using interchangeable lenses since the crew can advise on what to expect below and for what lens the site is best suited.
Underwater Photography Tips
Practice, patience, observation skills, and a foundation of photography basics is a good place to start. How often do we see photos of a tail headed into the margin of a photo or worse yet, no fish at all! Far too often, and it is generally because the photographer did not take the time to observe the fishes’ movements. Rather than waste battery power and card space on an ‘empty’ photo, be still, and observe. A school of fish gathered under a ledge does have a pattern and by watching for a few minutes the photographer will see the pattern and better know where to aim.
Underwater Photography Tips – Perspective:
There are many explanations of perspective; however, in photography the most applicable has to do with producing a photo that not only shows the main subject’s relationship to surrounding objects but also gives it the correct size and shape as well as dimension. Probably the most common mistake all camera users make is shooting down on a subject. Unless we are shooting the deck of a sunken ship, look at the subject from several angles. A profile or head-on shot taken from the fishes’ level is much more interesting than the fishes’ backs. Generally, all perspective is lost when shooting down because the subject ends up looking like a pancake with no dimension and no perspective of size, shape, or relationship.
Underwater Photography Tips – #3 Rule of Thirds:
Another mistake most camera owners make is violating the Rule of Thirds by habitually placing the subject directly in the center of the frame; doing so not only affects perspective as defined above but it also makes for a much less interesting photo. Hundreds of years ago the great European masters recognized that the human mind is much more readily pulled into a painting when the Rule of Thirds is followed and the subject is not directly in the center of the canvas but rather slightly off to one side leaving the background to enhance the story and provide perspective (see accompanying photos).
Since photography is much like painting, good photographers subscribe to the Rule of Thirds. Some of the newer cameras have a Rule of Thirds feature wherein grid lines can be set to appear on the viewfinder/screen. This rule is actually quite simple to apply with or without the automated grid feature.
Underwater Photography Tips: When composing a photo, imagine the frame is divided into nine equal boxes, three up and three across, created by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Place the horizon (such as the top of the reef or the division between light and dark water) close to the top or bottom of the horizontal grid lines. If we place the horizon in the center of the frame, our mind’s eye perceives the photo as being cut in half.
Underwater Photography Tips: As for the main subject, place it not in the direct center of the nine-square grid but rather offset along one of the two vertical grid lines. Framing the subject in this manner gives more depth and dimension to the photo, and as with poor horizontal composition, poor vertical composition also gives the photo a ‘cut-in-half’ look.
Now, go shoot some photos! Don’t get distracted; remember to check depth, bottom time, and air. If possible, take a dive trip organized for photographers. It’s a fantastic learning opportunity and sitting around in the evenings with one’s favorite libation while viewing the day’s photos is great fun.
Don’t Miss the Rest of the How to Shoot Underwater Photography Series
Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.