5 Quick Tips For How To Take A Better Underwater Photograph

This week’s podcast covered some basic tips that are geared towards new underwater photographers regardless of the subject matter that they are shooting.  Make sure to have a listen (episode can be found at the bottom of this page) and we will show some examples of each principle that was mentioned in the podcast here.  It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but some things that we both found useful when we first started taking photos under water


1 – If You Think You’re Close Enough, Get Closer

We could spend an hour just on the scientific and psychological reasons for the problem that always arrives when taking photos underwater.  You always think you are close to the subject, but by the time you review the shot, it’s looks smaller and farther away that you imagined.  Also, your expensive strobes do a much better job of painting color back into the scene when your subject is as close as possible.

This famous dive site in Misool is known for mantas.  Even though we are asked to stay close to the reef to avoid scaring the manta’s away, you can get an idea of this rule with these 2 photos.  The first snap I took of an incoming manta felt like this giant was just a few feet away.  However, this photo makes him look relatively small:

But, when i waited a bit longer for the manta to come closer, I was able to fill more of the frame with him, which made for a much more interesting photo:

2 – Dial In Your Camera Settings Before You Start Your Dive (and take a test shot)

Before you get in the water, you should make sure your camera is on, functioning properly and set up to a good setting based on the weather, the time of day and what you hope to shoot.  This way, if you get lucky and you happen to jump in right as a school of eagle rays happen to be passing by, your settings will already be dialed in and you won’t have to futz with anything before you take your first shot.  By dialing in your settings, and taking a test shot you also ensure that your strobes happen to be on and functioning properly, your camera has batteries in it, and you didn’t accidentally leave your lens cap on while trapped in the housing!

3 – Go Slow, Be Patient

When taking photos of sealife underwater, it pays to take things really slow.  It’s easy to get excited when you find a good subject, and your instict will be to swim to it as fast as possible.  But, often times, you should do the opposite.  Here’s an example.  While on a dive in Palau, a beautiful turtle was spotted in the distance cruising along a wall.  Instead of rushing toward it, i actually swam back away from it to distance myself from other divers and then tried to stay as still as possible.


By slowing down and waiting for him to come to me, i was able to get a better composed shot with an animal that was more relaxed as he swam by:

4 – Shoot Up!

There are many reasons why the ‘shoot up’ mantra works.  Dalton mentions several reasons in the podcast episode below.  But the 2 big benefits are that i usually makes your subject appear larger / more majestic, and you also usually get a nice clean beautiful background.  This anemone in Palau is actually quite small.  But by positioning myself below it and shooting up, it looks big and beautiful:

5 – The Background Is As Important As The Foreground.

Here are two similar shots taken moments after each other.  In the first shot, I was simply excited that this octopus allowed me to get relatively close to it.  But notice how it kind of gets lost in the the sea of coral?  The background ends up being slightly distracting even though the subject is pretty:

I zoomed out ever so slightly to re-compose the scene so that the reef doesn’t consume the entire background.  A third is occupied by a nice blue water column with some other reef life in the background.  This gives the main subject a much better sense of place than in the first photo:


3 Bonus Tips Not Mentioned in the Podcast

  • Always shoot RAW – If your camera has the ability to shoot RAW instead of JPEG, make sure to choose it.
  • Take a second to review – Its easy to get wrapped up in composition and forget that you have the luxury of instant results.  If wildlife permits, remember to take a second to review your first couple shots to ensure your settings are correct and strobes are properly placed.  Then go back to shooting.
  • Looks for a secondary point of interest – Even beautiful subjects can make less than stellar shots on their own.  Especially when shooting wide angle, your shot will stand out if your subject is complimented by having a secondary point of interest that helps lead the subject through the frame.  (This is often why you see dive magazines with divers ‘shining their light’ on the main subject.  The diver is the secondary point that makes the photo more interesting)


Know When To Break The Rules

Although the rules are good to have in mind, there will be times when the rules should be broken.  Sometimes, the rules will conflict with each other.  So don’t be a slave to all of the rules all of the time.  Just have them in mind as a good starting point.


Tell Us Your Favorite Tips

I’m sure you have lots of great tips that you would impart on a new underwater photographer. Let’s hear your words of wisdom, and hopefully we will share it on a follow up podcast in the near future!  Email us at feedback@theaquaticlifepodcast.com, or write it in the comments below.

Listen To The Podcast On This Topic

If you haven’t heard our conversations on this topic, have a listen to Episode 003: