We often get asked for advice on buying underwater cameras and tips on getting great underwater photos. We are not vaguely experts ourselves but there are some handy tricks to remember when snapping a shot underwater. This article focuses on simple tips for basic users using compact digital cameras with built in flash...nothing complicated :)
Choosing your camera
This is a million dollar question - there are so many compact underwater cameras on the market that it is difficult to say what and when. However, a few bits of advice. Firstly, do you want an underwater camera that has a separate underwater housing or a compact that comes fully waterproof already? What are the benefits of each? Well, as a general rule, some of the compact underwater cameras that are fully waterproof (don't need a separate housing) are a lot more affordable and easy to maintain. If you're just using it in a few meters of water a few times a month to snap critters for fun or ID purposes, then a self contained compact waterproof is generally fine. Some of these, like the Canon D30 are actually excellent little cameras. They also tend to be small and easy to carry or get into tricky crevices for those close up shots of a nudibranch or something. However, if you choose an external housing, the benefits are generally around the ability to take these to a lot deeper depths, you have a wider selection of cameras to choose from and as a result, a better choice for good quality. But these also mean extra maintenance, they are a bit more bulky and not so easy to carry around ....and of course, more that can go wrong. We also find that some underwater housings make it tricky to access all your camera's functions (not all buttons are easily accessible) ....so a steeper learning curve. But for beginners, many of the simple, self contained underwater cameras are pretty nifty, affordable and a good start. The biggest downside is that the moment you start, you'll want something better, so best to do your homework, shop around and ask yourself a few questions.
A few questions you need to think about
- Which model to choose? First thing, use Google, just Google "review underwater xxxx (your camera model)" ....and you're sure to get a pile of reviews which will guide you all the pros and cons and guide you in the right direction.
- Does the camera have a flash? A built in flash, although not as good as external strobes or similar means of lighting that more expensive models use, a flash underwater, especially for the little things is essential
- Does it have a good macro function .....trust me, you need a macro function for a lot of the cool things you find when snorkeling. A macro function, in simple terms, allows you to focus on objects that are very close.
- Do you have access to change settings such as ISO, shutter speed, aperture, white balance? These may sound complicated if it's the first time you've heard these terms, but they are quite simple to understand when you start experimenting. All essential for underwater - you don't want something so simple that it only has an auto function.
- What will you want to actually do with this camera? Is it strictly for underwater / snorkeling or do you need versatility? Will you also need to use the camera for deeper tasks such as Scuba Diving or limited to more shallow / 1-3m deep use?
Packing your camera .....we always recommend packing your camera in an air conditioned room. Even if you have a compact without a housing, putting in your battery and memory card under a blasting air conditioner WILL make a big difference in reducing your risk of fogging on the lens. This is a curse when you're snorkeling, especially using the flash, the camera body heats up, the water is cooler and especially in humid KZN, this causes all the humid air that was caught in your camera to condense ....and, well, that's normally the end of your morning.
- Always double check that everything is nicely sealed, no little hairs caught in the seals or compartments left open by accident
- Get yourself some silicon based grease to put on your seals, this will ensure your seals don't get worn ....and leak ....and then you need a new camera
- Fiddle around with your settings on land, so you know exactly how your camera works .... so when you're in the water, you're ready to rumble.
- Batteries full? Memory card empty and good to go?
- Is your lens clean?
- Spend time learning where the following six basic important functions are on your camera...just six useful functions to known for beginners, it's worth the time figuring out (Switch macro on and off, switch flash to manual on and off, change shutter speed, change aperture, change shooting mode to single or continuous / burst mode and change metering to spot metering or average / evaluative metering)
- Remember to gently wipe your lens with your finger all the time when you're underwater. Little bubbles from waves, splashing etc... constantly collect on the front of your lens and after hours of taking photos, you'll find they all have white speckles everywhere. Regularly check your lens for bubbles sitting on the outside, you'll be glad you did.
Photographing Moving vs Still Objects
Ok, so you're off with your new camera and want to photograph a fish for example. A few important bits of information, you always loose light underwater, so need a faster than usual shutter speed to get a nice sharp picture of a fast moving fish. Any shutter speed under say 1/300 seconds will give you some motion blur. You ideally want a shutter speed closer to 1/1000 seconds. So how can you increase your shutter speed when the light is just plain poor? Firstly, you can increase your ISO (this is best described as the speed at which your photo is exposed) ....the higher the ISO, the less light you need for the equivalent exposure. BUT as your ISO goes over 800 or so...so does the quality of your images start to drop. So experiment, underwater, I tend to just put my ISO on 400 or so and leave it there. On very bright sunny days or if I am using flash, I may drop it back to a normal 100 ISO. BUT you will need to experiment, take several shots using different ISO settings, this is the best way to learn what works for you. You can also reduce your aperture (this is that F value on your screen) settings to as low as they can go - normally an F2 or around there is as low as most compact digitals will go. Final little tip here, to get sharp images of moving objects, most cameras have a "Shooting Mode" setting, "Single Shot" mode will take one photo every time you press the button, "Continuous Mode" (sometimes called "burst mode") will take as many shots as your camera can, as long as you keep the button down. In single shot mode, you have one chance of getting your shot, in continuous mode, you could take 10, 20, 30 shots in a few seconds ....and one of them is bound to be nice and sharp. When in doubt, take as many photos as you can, one of them will come our right.
On the other hand, if the object you want to photograph is sitting very still and inevitably, these photos need close up work / macro. You'll want to ensure you have a decent aperture setting (F5 and above) this makes sure that the entire object you're photographing is in focus (this is the downside of a low aperture setting) ....with a F2 for example, you may get one side of a big cowrie shell nice and sharply focused and the other side will be blurry. The higher your F / aperture value, the lower your shutter speed will be so rest your arms or camera on something to help get that nice steady shot. Of course, make sure you put your macro function on. For close up work or small detailed critters like nudibranchs, a flash really helps too.
At the end of the day, taking all the jargon above out of it, it's all about experimenting, take several shots of the same thing using as many different approaches as possible.
Using Flash Underwater
The flash on most compact cameras is not very powerful, so first thing, don't bother using flash unless the object you are photographing is very close to you (less than 50-100cm) your flash wont work beyond that. We also find that almost all compact, built in flashes wash everything out with too much white light underwater. The solution, get a diffuser, this is a simple white screen that goes in front of your flash to soften the light. You do not get diffusers for the smaller more compact underwater cameras, but an easy solution is simply to paint the flash area with white tippex or put a strip of masking tape across it, this works a treat, simple and effective. For good quality underwater shots using your flash, don't even bother unless you have a diffuser or white cover of some sort for your flash. Your photos will improve 100 fold by just doing this.
Also remember that a flash will light up anything floating in the water between you and your subject, resulting in white speckles all over your images. Which brings us to the next tip, get close.
There is no short cut and no tricks to solve this problem, but the further something is from you in the water, the more difficult it is to get a decent photo. This can be tricky, especially when photographing people and friends in the water, if they are too close, you will not fit them in the frame, if they are too far, the quality will just be dead poor. Always try get as close as possible to your subject as you can. Sometimes for fish and other critters that don't listen to instructions, just sit and wait, nine times out of ten, if you are still and quiet, that fish that keeps darting away when you get within a few meters will come right up close to you ....if you are still and patient. Patience is key here.
Try Different Angles
Spend time taking photos from different angles. Sometimes when snorkeling it is tempting to just take photos "downwards" ....this results in fairly boring photos. Get eye level or lower than your subject and try get open water as a background, this just makes for much better photos than rocks or other background items which distract from your photo. Sometimes changing the angle also results in totally different natural light on the subject, perhaps a lucky ray of sun shining in the water or similar. Taking photos from a low angle just seems to work a whole lot better than higher / looking down angles.
Try Different Light Metering Ssettings
Your camera will normally have three options for light metering - Spot, Evaluative, or Centre Weighted Average. This is one of my favourite settings. This setting basically tells your camera "how and where to measure the light available" - for example, if you're taking a photograph of a pure white looking fish and the background is quite dark and your camera is set to "evaluative or average" your camera doesn't really notice the white fish as much as it notices the darker general background....the result, your white fish will be over exposed and horrible. However, on spot metering, if the white fish is in the center, the camera will measure the "white section" and disregard the darker background ....resulting in a much better exposure of the "white" - conversely, if you want a photo of something big that take up most the frame and multicolored (like a person in a swimming costume or underwater scenery) you would want your metering to be set to "average or evaluative" - this will ensure that the general overall light is taken into account and give you a good well balanced result. This is especially important for close up work and macro photos.
The Bottom Line
Experiment,, experiment, experiment. If you just leave your camera on "auto" ....you're not going to get great photos. Spend time fiddling, trying new things, take the same photos from different angles, different ISO settings, different metering, you will quickly learn what works best for you in various circumstances.
We would love to hear some of your tips and tricks, comment below if you have any pearls of wisdom :)