4 Tips to Photographing in a Watery World

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

We all know how stunning underwater photography looks, but the camera work behind getting the right shots can be pretty intense and a lot of work if you aren't prepared. Michele Westmorland, photographer and director of the new documentary Headhunt Revisited: With Brush, Canvas and Camera, a film about artist and adventurer Caroline Mytinger and the power of art to span oceans and decades, takes us through four very important tips for photographing in a watery world. 

1. Health and Safety at Depth

This may sound basic, but you must become a good diver first. Although I’ve been scuba diving for decades, I’m reminded that the environment and safety come at the top of the list before anything else. Ask yourself, how are my buoyancy skills? This is probably the number one problem I see with most divers wanting to shoot images. Good grief, it gets embarrassing: fins kicking up silt, elbows and legs bashing into the reef, hands with a death grip hold on coral. This is not pretty and it is certainly not acceptable. Practice your buoyancy skills BEFORE picking up the camera.

Once you have your camera in the water with you, find a place to see what additional weight issues you will have and adjust. You can give up one dive to make sure you are balancing and moving through the water without causing damage to the reef. It will also make you much more productive and confident when you do start collecting content – whether video or stills.

If you have the place and opportunity, think about practicing in a pool setting. Learning all the functions of your camera, getting used to looking at your camera screen through a mask and directing your strobes will be immensely helpful to you when you finally get to a location where it is important to also pay attention to your dive surroundings. Not only do you need to be comfortable with your camera system, you also need to know your dive equipment. The years have brought great technology to the field but remember to check your dive computer. It’s easy to be so engrossed in the marine life, that your air and depth can take a back seat and possibly put you at risk.

There is also a little thing call ethics. In the past, it was common to move a creature to a different location for a better background. It was common to see images of a puffer fish all blown up as a defense mechanism, but we know that all too often, it did that because the diver agitated the poor animal so much that it didn’t have any choice but to respond.

Another big one was to take an image of someone holding on to the dorsal fin of a large pelagic animal or “riding” a manta. Today, you will not find many images published in periodicals endorsing this kind of harassment. Know the behavior of the animal — then get your content and be confident you have little harm to this magical world beneath the surface.

2. Get as Close to your Subject as Possible

The most common complaint from new underwater photographers is that their images always seem to have a dull cyan-grayish hue over them. The beautiful colors found on tropical coral reefs do not show up in their photos. This common problem has an equally common cause and solution. Because water absorbs light, we must limit the amount of water between the camera and the subject in order to produce a clearer, sharper and more colorful image.

And so, the number one rule in underwater photography is to get close. Or, as the underwater photographer mantra goes, “get as close as you think you need to get, and then get closer!”  Repeat this saying over and over again, write it on your camera, or do whatever you have to do make sure this is ingrained in your mind.

Additionally, there are countless infinitesimal particles floating in the water column that will likely go unnoticed until reviewing your images. These particles, referred to as “backscatter,” are the bane of many underwater photographers, as they can easily ruin shots. Minimizing the amount of water between your camera and your subject will also minimize the amount of backscatter in your images.

3. Use a Strobe or Lights

As previously mentioned, water absorbs light much differently than air. Because water is 800 times denser it absorbs light much faster. Specific frequencies of ambient light get absorbed at different depths, from the longest wavelength to shortest. Remember the mnemonic ROYGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) from high school chemistry?

Underwater, red nearly disappears at around 5 meters, followed by orange at 10 meters, yellow at 20 meters, green at 30 meters and eventually even blue at 60 meters. In other words, there are not many colors left at deeper depths.

Our eyes are very sophisticated so they can adjust and compensate to the ocean and still perceive colors at these depths that our cameras cannot. That’s why so many underwater images look blue and lack color contrast. The best solution is to add artificial lighting by using underwater strobes. Strobes, basically underwater flashguns, emit daylight-balanced light that will bring back color, create contrast, accentuate textures, and retain details that were lost from the water’s absorption of natural sunlight. After purchasing a camera and housing, strobes are arguably the best investment you can make to improve your underwater photography.

4. Go Manual with the Right Lenses

Beginning your underwater photography foray in “auto mode” is not a problem, but eventually, you will want to start using manual controls. While “auto” or “program” works fine on land, they were designed for shooting in air, not water. Additionally, if you are using an external strobe, you will want to manually control your exposure, as your camera won’t be able to automatically balance the natural light in the scene with the additional light from the strobe.

Unlike topside photography, not all lenses are best suited for underwater use. Deciding which lenses are most useful actually goes back to rule number two — the need to get close. Because you are forced to be in close proximity to your subject, you will need to use lenses with close minimum focus distances. This is why underwater photography is usually categorized into either macro or wide-angle, as the lenses that work best for shooting close are macro or extreme wide lenses. Midrange zooms tend to have minimum focus distances that are too far for underwater photography, so you can leave that kit lens on land.

My number one place to scuba dive and photograph healthy reef systems is Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. It all began in the early 1990s and I was hooked on the very first trip. Some 34 trips later, I not only appreciate the diversity of the marine life, but I learned much about the diversity of the people. Melanesia is a magical place with rich stories to tell and if it weren’t for my passion for diving and many return trips, I would have never had the chance to tell a fascinating story in my documentary film, Headhunt Revisited: With Brush, Canvas and Camera. Released just last year, it taught me more about the community and increased my understanding of the connection of the ocean world that surrounds these island nations and the people who are dependent upon a healthy environment.

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About the Author

Michele Westmorland
Michele Westmorland
Michele Westmorland is a photographer and director of the new documentary Headhunt Revisited: With Brush, Canvas and Camera, a film about artist and adventurer Caroline Mytinger and the power of art to span oceans and decades. In 1926, Caroline set out on a four-year adventure to the “Land of Headhunters” in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to paint Melanesia’s inhabitants. Eighty years later, her work inspired Michele to retrace her journey with Papua New Guinean painter Jeffry Feeger to meet the contemporary counterparts of Caroline’s paintings. Headhunt Revisited connects these artists in a story that is personal and universal, illustrating how art transcends time, genre and geography, continuing to inspire new generations of artists and non-artists alike about the importance of documenting culture and tradition. When not working on the film, Michele leads photographic expeditions to Melanesia through her company Westmorland Images.

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