Tech tips – Underwater photography basics 101

Recently I really started taking more pictures and even videos of all my fabulous marine friends I encounter when I am scuba diving.  I have had some questions from readers and have had more than one question myself.  Shots I thought would be brilliant, turn up fuzzy.  As I have questions, my mind becomes a whirling dervish until I devour the facts to where it makes sense.  As you an see, the word addiction applies to me and diving.

I have a DC1200 I got in January.  I got a great deal on it from my friends at Gold Coast Scuba as the new DC1400 just was released.  I figured it would be a good starter camera.  It is a 12 megapixel with a large 3″ LCD screen for viewing.  Features are a 25x zoom and auto focus to 4″.  It has a rechargeable battery and continuous video with audio.

This camera also has nice big buttons, fast shutter response time and can go to depths of 200 feet.  I had a wideangle lens that I lost in a tough shore dive exit and I have not purchased any extra strobes…YET.

First, take a few dives to get used to your new equipment.  Make sure you are comfortable with your buoyancy.  Personally I can tell you this took me about 3 dives to get accustomed to pushing buttons, focusing and staying where I needed to be.  I had to trial and error the carrying of the camera.

So, if you are just starting out with a new camera or just haven’t quite figured out what to do with the one you have, I hope these little things I learned along the way will help you.

  1. Water absorbs colors such as red, orange, and yellow. This is why your underwater photos will look blue if you don’t use a flash or strobe. The deeper you are, the more color is absorbed.  Remember your open water, I think chapter 11.  I tried a red filter a few dives ago and I thought it sucked.
  2. Compact cameras come with internal flashes that can be used to add colors to your photos.  I need to set mine to always be on.  I forget half the time.
  3. Many divers purchase an external strobe/flash as a way to add color.  I have not…YET.
  4. Water reduces contrast, color and sharpness, which is why underwater photos should be taken within 1 meter of the camera, preferably much closer. You need to get very close to your subject.  Again trial and error for me.  I have had to learn to slow down, breathe and wait for the moment.
  5. Take more pictures than you need.  I find this is great as one or two turns up out of focus or my fish friend has disappeared before the camera caught the shot.

Below you will find some common terms I find myself using now.  I am boring my husband to death most times longer than five minutes but he is being a good sport and hanging in there.  He did appreciate the last video.

  • Strobe or Flash – a source of full-spectrum light vital to underwater photographers. This can be built into the camera, or supplied as an external light.
  • Underwater Housing – also known as an underwater casing, this allows you to take a camera underwater and operate the camera. Housings can cost anywhere from $100 to $5,000.  Mine was included when I purchased my DC1200 underwater camera.
  • O-ring – a rubber ring that creates a waterproof seal. Underwater housings and strobes will have several o-rings making them waterproof.  I have a large one around casing.  I also have a special brush to keep it clean (another future article)
  • Macro lens – a lens attached to either the camera or underwater housing, that allows an underwater photographer to get very close to small subjects
  • Wide-angle lens– a lens attached to either the camera or underwater housing, that allows a very close approach to large subjects. Without a wide-angle lens, underwater photographs of large subjects have poor color and contrast.
  • Manual White balance – also known as Custom white balance, a setting on most cameras that will give your photos more natural colors when not using a flash
  • Backscatter – specks, spots or blotches that appear in your underwater photos due to strobe light reflecting off particles, sand or plankton in the water.
  • Shooting macro – dedicating a dive moving slowly, looking for small subjects, often with a macro lens.  This would be small reef shrimp, nudibranchs, seahorses and Christmas tree worms.  I am just getting into this.  I have been on the hunt for seahorses and juvie Octupi
  • Shooting wide-angle – dedicating a dive to photographing large subjects, often with a wide-angle lens. I was still working on this before I lost the lens.
  • Ambient light – also known as natural light, this is light from the sun. Underwater photographs are often a mix of ambient light and strobe light.  This makes the pictures sometime look greenish as the sun is picking up the algae in water.
  • White balance – a setting on cameras telling the camera processor how to interpret pixel values it records when taking a photograph
  • TTL – technology that automatically sets the power of your strobe/flash to the correct value
  • Fiber Optic cable – a simple cable that can transmit light that will synchronize the firing of your strobe or flash with your camera.
  • Shooting manual  – a phrase that implies you are either setting the camera aperture and shutter speed values yourself, or setting your strobe power yourself.

So, I hope this helps for the future.  I will refer back to this if you get lost.

More Underwater Photography Basics


  • Using a flash or strobe in underwater photography is very important. It will helpto bring out colors you don’t see with the naked eye. Put your camera in forced-flash mode when taking close-up photos. Buying an external strobe is the best way to improve your underwater photos.
  • If using an internal flash, don’t be surprised if your photos have backscatter in them. Look at my first few pictures from a couple months ago. Lots of backscatter. At first you might think it’s dust or dirt on your lens. This is due to particles in the water.
  • Try getting low and shooting at eye level with your subject. Don’t just photograph them from above. Again, work on your buoyancy and be patient.
  • Get your buoyancy and diving skills down before taking a camera underwater. Duh! But you still need to work on it when you add the camera. When I spotted the nurse shark and realized by dive buddy wasn’t as close as I wanted them, I freaked a little and lost grasp on where I was and stopped concentrating on my buoyancy.
  • Use auto white-balance when using a flash/strobe, and customize the white balance or underwater mode when not using a flash. I am still working on this.
  • Learn how to use manual mode or aperture priority mode if your camera offers it, so you control the balance between the natural light and the light from your flash

Most importantly, have fun. It isn’t a job. I try to remember I am a diver first and a photographer second.

About daniellesdives

diving enthusiast
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1 Response to Tech tips – Underwater photography basics 101

  1. Some good tips Danielle. Shoot me an email at if we can use it for a Tutorial (giving you full credit).

    Thanks, Tom

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