Underwater Photography 101

Lying beneath the water’s surface is a world of opportunity that photographers are only just beginning to explore. The images produced by submerged cameras appeal to sports photojournalists and fine artists alike, who can experiment with suspending subjects in gravity defying poses and positions. With the right set of tools, techniques, and creative ideas, underwater photography can be utilized by anyone. Tim Tadder explains some of the fundamentals of the process:

Here are a few tips to keep in mind before taking the plunge yourself:

  • When photographing in a swimming pool, position yourself at the deep end of the pool and shoot toward the shallow waters. The sloping floor that comes with a change in depth creates a natural reflector, creating an excellent fill that is sure to bathe every inch of your subject in even light.
  • Protect yourself from the sun. When you’re in the water for hours on end, you make yourself especially vulnerable to UV rays. It’s easy enough to prevent sunburn by wearing clothing that covers your skin, creating a barrier between yourself and the sun. Avoid sunscreen—the lotion can give off oils that affect the clarity of the water. But be aware that human subjects underwater also put themselves at risk of being burned and may not be able to take the same precautions as the person behind the camera.
  • Take note of where the shadows and highlights fall above the surface. Shadows create a darker, more contrasty background when shooting up toward the surface, while sunny spots may give a lighter feel and risk the possibility of becoming blown out. While it’s not incredibly apparent, the conditions happening above the water can greatly affect the mood and feel of a photograph taken underwater
  • Be aware of your subject’s body. When starting to shoot underwater, it’s easy to become fixated on your own balance and buoyancy. Because of this, many photographers don’t pay as close attention to their composition and surroundings as they normally would. Make sure that your models aren’t being blocked from the camera’s view by movements such as the stroke of an arm or a sweep of long, floating hair.

underwater portrait

  • Play with shutter speed to highlight or eliminate motion. On land, we generally focus solely on the movements of the subject. However, through splashes, bubbles and ripples, the environment surrounding an underwater subject is often in motion as well. Decide whether capturing that movement would be beneficial or detrimental to the story being told through the photograph. Frozen elements can create surreal, gravity defying effects, while dynamic images in motion can be powerful and exciting. Including a stationary element in the foreground or background of the composition can further emphasize any movement taking place within the photograph.
  • When making adjustments to a camera with housing that doesn’t give the photographer access to setting knobs, be sure to either completely dry off or have an assistant on land make the necessary changes. Otherwise, you may risk fogging up the inside of the camera housing, which ultimately impedes overall visibility.

swimming pool action shot

Above all else, the most effective way to master the medium is through practice. Getting the hang of taking pictures in an environment without air and clear views is no easy feat. Nevertheless, the results are well worth the effort. While figuring out balance and breathing takes a little bit of time to master, these tips are sure to provide the head start necessary to take great pictures underwater right away.

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