How To Take Underwater Photos That Are Actually Good?

Photographer shooting an underwater scene in Cozumel, Mexico

We live in the age of GoPro.

GoPro cameras have taken over the world and honestly, they deserve it. GoPro has managed to create the ultimate tool for capturing adventures on film and more importantly, they make you feel like a hero.

Even if you’re taking selfies of your dog.

Unfortunately, GoPro has become the go-to camera for any type of underwater photography. I know that because every time someone asks me what I do, I say that “I sell underwater cameras”. Their next reaction would always be “Oh! GoPros?”.

Always.

What most people don’t know, is that a GoPro as a camera, while great for capturing adventures on land or in the air, is far less than ideal for shooting underwater. Basically, the main reason people shoot underwater with it is because it comes with an underwater housing. Granted, it’s also quite small which is nice and easy to travel with.

The underwater environment is a harsh one, and very difficult on cameras. Colors fade away as you go deeper, light starts dimming and everything becomes a big bluish blur.

Peekaboo! The Arrow Crab is one of the wonderful critters you can find hiding among coral reefs.

To battle those conditions you mainly need two things:

  1. A large sensor, with great low light capabilities.
  2. An underwater strobe.
I cannot stress this enough — a strobe is the reason awesome underwater photos are awesome!

Why is a strobe so important?

Photography is all about capturing light (Photo — light, Graph — draw). If the light is simply not there, it would be pretty hard to capture it.

Colors disappear as you go deeper. Starting with Red, followed by Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and eventually Violet. They literally disappear, i.e. the wave lengths don’t reach you and get dissolved into the water. Nothing can bring them back. Nothing except new light being introduced from a different source other than the sun.

An underwater strobe does exactly that — introduces new fresh light from a closer source and shines it on the subject, bringing back the true beautiful colors of the coral or marine life in front of your lens.

A Pipefish chilling next to soft coral in the Red Sea

In order to trigger an underwater strobe, you need to have a flash on the camera, which can trigger the strobe optically, or a hot-shoe, which can trigger strobes electronically. A GoPro lacks both of these.

A strobe isn’t the only way to produce light underwater. Constant LED lights, AKA video lights, are also available and those don’t require any type of sync or triggering, since they are continuous lights, therefore can be used with a GoPro as well.

Shooting with a video light is by far better than shooting with no light at all, but most video lights in the market produce about 1/10 of the power an entry level strobe produces, making them much less effective.

Another alternative is to use filters. Red filters artificially add Reds to your image, which can be effective at certain depths (5–10m is ideal), but still don’t produce natural colors, since they don’t really bring back the colors, just offset the existing ones towards Red, which can produce funky results if not used at the ideal depth.

The beautiful reefs of Bonaire

Another important aspect of underwater photography is to actually learn photography. Many divers take a camera underwater and expect it to take photos for them. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how photography works.

Even when shooting photos above water, if you would like your photos to stand out, instead of simply looking like snapshots, you need to learn about shutter speed, aperture, composition and other basic photography terms. This is no different underwater. If anything, the difficult lighting conditions underwater require deeper understanding of photography in order to set up your gear to overcome the challenges you face while scuba diving.

To summarize, if your goal is simply to get some souvenirs from your scuba diving adventures, then by all means use a GoPro. But if you would like to take good underwater photos which you can be proud of, do yourself a favor and get an actual camera. And a strobe while you’re at it.

Dive safe, mind your fins and love the ocean! :)

RM