Underwater Photography Tips and Techniques

There is really only one perfect exposure to any photo: the one that looks good to your eyes. However, your camera’s light meter plays a big role in helping you get a starting point for your image.

underwater photo

“The Depths of Despair” captured by Ji Yeon So

The fact is that cameras have not changed much in 20 years. Still, an exposed image is the one that combines the correct amount of light that hits your film (or digital sensor) based on your current ISO. You can have a wide variety of f-stops and shutter speed combinations, but only one of those combinations will create an exposed image.

Using one f-stop or shutter speed over another changes either depth of field or freezes the action. So, if I say that my photo is exposed at f/8 using 1/125 of a second with ISO 100, it is basically the same as saying that my photo would be exposed at all these combinations in one stop increments:

  • f/2.8 at 1/1000
  • f/4 at 1/500
  • f/5.6 at 1/250
  • f/8 at 1/125
  • f/11 at 1/60
  • f/16 at 1/30
  • f/22 at 1/15

This brings up the question: “What’s the difference between shooting the photo using f/22 or f/2.8?” The answer is depth of field.

The bigger the number, the more depth of field you’re going to get in your photo, but at the same time, you’re compromising speed. Although the number is larger and you get more depth of field, your lens is actually closing and letting less light in. This requires a longer exposure or longer shutter speed. Using the examples above, we can see the difference between f/2.8 with 1/1000 of a second and at f/22 where we have only have 1/15 of second.

When should you use one setting over the other? It depends of what you’re trying to achieve in your photo and how fast your subject is moving. All of the combinations above will give you a properly exposed photo, but if you’re shooting a fast moving fish and you choose f/22, then most likely you’re going to end up with a blurry fish. Consequently, if you’re shooting a fast moving fish and choose f/2.8, then you’re going to have virtually no depth of field. This would require your focus to be very accurate, because if you narrowly miss your target, it will be blurry—not because you didn’t freeze the action, but because your depth of field is very narrow.

Your distance to your subject will play a huge role in depth of field as well. If you’re very close to your subject (as you should be underwater), it will have a big effect on depth of field compared to if you’re further away. As a rule of thumb, if your lens is focusing to infinity when you’re targeting a subject, you really don’t need to worry about depth of field. Pick the sharpest f-stop for the lens that you’re using (every lens has one, read your lens reviews and specs as they are all different) and if you have enough light, then shoot on that aperture.

taking photos underwater

“Turtle on Rangiroa, Tahiti” captured by Snooker

If you’re close to the subject (e.g., underwater), then you need to make compromises:

  • More depth of field needed: go with a higher f-stop
  • Less depth of field needed: go with a lower f-stop
  • Fast moving fish: go with a lower f-stop (faster shutter speed)
  • Slow moving fish or stationary objects: go with a bigger f-stop (slower shutter speed).
  • If you’re using strobes (as most of us do underwater), then you have more options since you can adjust their intensity to meet your lighting needs. In this case, we’re making another compromise: the faster your shutter speed, the less ambient light you’re letting into your photos. Remember that only one exposure is correct and still remains correct, even if you’re using strobes.

For example:

Imagine I’m diving at 40 feet. I measure the green water and it gives me f/8 at 1/125 of a second. I would start by shooting at that, and then:

  • If I wanted more depth of field, I would leave the shutter speed at 1/125 and change my f-stop to f/11 or f/16 and compensate for the lack of light with my strobes by increasing the power until my subject is well lit.
  • If I wanted less depth of field, I would leave the shutter speed at 1/125 of a second and change my f-stop to f/5.6 or f/4 and reduce the power of the strobes.
  • If I’m happy with the depth of field but would like more ambient light (lighter background), then I would leave my selected f-stop and decrease my shutter speed until I get the ambient light I wanted.
  • If I’m happy with the depth of field but I would like a darker background, then I would increase my shutter speed and increase the maximum flash sync speed of the camera (check your camera’s manual). My Nikon D300s has a flash sync speed of 1/320 of a second.
fish underwater

“Fish” captured by Lawrence

Lastly, keep in mind that if you’re shooting with strobes, you’re going to be limited by your strobe’s sync speed. So even if I wanted to select f/2.8 and 1/1000 of a second, I couldn’t since my flash is not fast enough to light the frame for me. The reality is that when we’re underwater, we always deal with loss of light starting at very shallow depths, so this last point is not really a problem in 99.99% of the cases.

About the Author:
My name is Will Ferrero and I’m a land photographer that recently transitioned to the underwater world. I got my first Nikon FE when I was 10 years old and I fell in love with photography every since. I’m an active PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer and my wife, Maisa, is a PADI divemaster. We both enjoy teaching Open Water classes in Nanaimo. Although we have been in the water over 1,500 times, we’ve recently ventured in the underwater photography world. We’re hoping to apply all our land photography experience to the underwater world.

Underwater photography in the Pacific Northwest comes with some challenges. We not only have to deal with the liquid medium, but we also have to deal with a lot of more gear to be able to dive this temperate waters. Drysuits, heavy equipment, lots of weight, and thick gloves are some of the extra challenges we need to deal with in our waters. In addition, darker, more nutrient-rich water creates interesting lighting challenges. These waters are the most rich waters in the world. Life diversity is hard to describe.

About the Author:
This article was written by Will Ferrero from underwaterphoto.baires.ca. All the thoughts and views in this article are my personal opinion, so please take them as is. Now… let’s go take some photos.

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One response to “Underwater Photography Tips and Techniques”

  1. Raja Bakhshi says:

    Shouldn’t there be a f stop 11 between 8 and 16 in a 1 stop increment?
    ■f/2.8 at 1/1000th
    ■f/4 at 1/500th
    ■f/5.6 at 1/250th
    ■f/8 at 1/125th
    ■f/16 at 1/60th should be f/11 at 1/60th
    ■f/22 at 1/30th should be f/16 at 1/30th


    I could be wrong, all these numbers are confusing at times. Great article though.

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