It's easy to take photographs underwater; taking good photographs is harder but it still isn't rocket science. Even "cheap point and shoot” compact cameras are capable of taking good shots within their limitations. The more expensive/bigger the cameras are the fewer the limitations. Of course this is a big generalisation but it broadly holds true, especially when added to a large budget, but the basic skills are the same regardless of the size of the camera and all over the world, people are taking award winning shots with relatively inexpensive compact camera setups. Most people who take cameras underwater periodically get good or even great shots, the problem is that they rarely understand what they did differently on that occasion to the poor or mediocre results that they usually get. In consequence they keep clicking away underwater in the hope that a few of their shots will be good enough.
Rules are there to be broken; but you have to understand what the rules are before you can break them successfully so if you would like to take more good shots and fewer poor ones then here are a few of my rules/tips to get you started.
I have assumed most of the terms I use are understood, but if you aren't sure then please feel free to contact me and ask questions. Please note, these are my rules and ideas and they work for me, most of them have evolved out of learning the hard way and from investing a lot of money in equipment that I don't want to have to replace unnecessarily. As your diving/underwater photography progresses I'm sure you will develop your own set :)
Set your camera up in a clean dry area before you get to the dive site or onto the boat. Wind, waves, dust and other people can all contribute to a kinked O ring seal that will cause a flood and ruin your camera. I almost never open my camera again after setting it up until the end of the day when I've finished diving.
Enter the water carefully. Wherever possible I get someone to hand me my camera once I'm in the water, or I clip it off to the boat hanging in the water and collect it once I'm in and safe. If that isn't possible then I try to protect the camera by raising it up as I enter with a giant stride so that the camera's impact with the water is as gentle as possible. I also keep lens caps in place until I'm ready to descend.
Always get yourself sorted before checking the camera. Far too often I see people jump into the water and as they bobble back to the surface their heads are in the water checking the camera for leaks. A leak can ruin your day but a kit problem that sees you unable to control your buoyancy can ruin much more. So get yourself buoyant and stable, fins on and safe before worrying about the camera.
Negative, positive or neutral? This is always a matter of personal preference but I like my camera to be slightly negative, however, the important word there is “slightly”. Whilst I always have my camera secured to a D ring on the left side of my chest, if I let go of my camera I don't want it floating up in front of my face or behind my head but I do want it only slightly negatively weighted so that holding it isn't going to give me wrist strain by the end of the dive.
RAW or JPEG, white balance or post processing? The more advanced cameras generally offer a choice of formats and if so I always choose RAW and sort out white balance on the computer afterwards, this gives me one less task underwater to worry about. If the camera I'm using doesn't have a RAW option then I white balance every time I ascend or descend more than a couple of metres or move from a well lit to a darker area or vice versa.
Choose your subject and stick with it, if you find a cooperative cuttlefish for example, why just take a couple of quick snaps and move on? Take your time, approach it slowly and gently and keep taking photographs until you are confident that you've got the best shot you can air, buddy and safe diving conditions allowing.
Remember your buddy. It's easy to get so wrapped up in taking photographs that you forget/neglect your buddy so plan the dive accordingly. I've found the best way is for two photographers to dive together and share the load, while one is taking photographs the other can be observing, modelling, keeping an eye on the photographer's fin tips and even lifting them off any innocent coral, looking for other subjects in the immediate area, acting as safety diver etc. then they swap roles.
Be aware of the environment. Whether you are taking photographs of reefs, wrecks, fish or macro subjects, they look best if they are as you found them, knocking coral off, kicking up the vis, disturbing an animal to get the perfect shot is not only unforgivable but it's self defeating, for example many fish like to sit close to the bottom facing into the current, so getting a close up shot including the eyes generally involves being upstream of them. Any sand or debris that you kick up through careless fin positioning or poor buoyancy control will drift down to the fish and ruin your shot. So if you can't get the shot without doing some damage move on, there will always be other chances.
Control your buoyancy. A good diver doesn't need to lie on the bottom or reef to get the shot, be prepared to invert, hang upside down and shoot from that angle, it's easy to turn the photograph back the right way once it's on the computer but you need good dive skills to achieve this.
Shoot upwards, getting below the subject and shooting upwards is key to getting good shots of most subjects, off the top of my head I can only think of a couple of subjects that look best shot from above but in the main, whether you are photographing a wreck, a fish or a nudibranch being below the subject works best.
Think about what you want your photograph to say, are you trying to show a fish in it's natural habitat, create a piece of art for your wall or illustrate the natural colours of something for an article? In other words tell the story!
Get the background right. Always think about the composition of your shot and this starts with getting the background right. The best shot in the world of a well camouflaged scorpion fish will just be a blurred mess if you have failed to separate the fish from it's background unless you intended the shot to demonstrate how well some fish hide themselves.
If you would like help with your underwater photography then please contact me. I could write pages on each of the points above and many more besides. I'm happy to offer my thoughts on equipment and problems just drop me a line through the contact page here.