People are always asking us how they can get better underwater shots. So I would like to take some time to cover some points on this subject that should help you out. Please keep in mind I am not a professional photographer but have learned what works for me over the past ten years.
There are a lot of ways you can complicate photography which is why I love the term KISS or Keep It Simple Stupid when it comes to underwater images mainly because I think there is a lot to see out there that I would like to have a pleasing shot of and only a short time to capture it. I also believe that anyone can get a shot they would be proud to show off with even the most basic of cameras. The things I will cover will apply to both video and stills to some degree or another.
I could go on for days about equipment but as I stated before KISS and remember its not a matter of if you flood your camera but when you do. Much depends on how much you are willing to spend and how much gear you are willing to pack so with those things in mind let me tell you. I really love the new small relatively inexpensive and very capable camera setups out there today. We sell everything from $26 point and shoot film cameras to $5000 setups it really just depends on what types of images our customers are wanting. Another thing I like to tell folks is that you can’t shoot a better shot than your equipment will allow which basically means don’t buy the $20 camera if you want whale shark footage.
If you are more interested in setting up your shots and tweaking your f-stops and shutter speeds then that’s cool and there are plenty of resources out there that will help you do that. I shoot with simple cameras in automatic mode and for the most part the only settings I mess with are lighting angles and light power output. Some items that will help with your shots are as such.
This is Money well spent in my book, this simple device can add to your shots exponentially. This works by adding reds back into your picture that you loose more and more the deeper you go. The only time I wouldn’t use this is maybe at ten feet on a clear sunny day and even then its better to have a little extra color that you can take down a bit in editing. Some of the new cameras even have an underwater mode that does this for you and works very well.
This is one of those items that a lot of folks have a hard time spending the extra coin on as they are usually as much or even more than the camera itself, however once you do you will know why they are worth it. This device is generally called a slave strobe as it will use your cameras flash to activate it. They will have a fiber optic cable that goes from your camera to the strobe and the instant your flash fires it also sets off the strobe. The biggest benefit is that you will add significantly more light to your shot to really make the colors pop as well as it will usually be aimed at your subject at an angle to help eliminate light reflecting off the particulate in the water that would with a normal camera flash give you white dots in your shot known as backscatter.
A lot of cameras have an option for at least a wide angle lens which I would highly recommend to increase your shooting perspective. I will admit I am a bit partial to the wide angle shots I suppose because that’s what tickles my fancy so to speak. Some will even do a macro lens that will let you shoot some of the cool little critters but takes a bit more getting used to shooting. If you find yourself shooting a lot off little stuff make sure you turn on the close up setting on your camera to help with focusing and don’t forget to turn it off again when done. The SLR housings will let you choose which lens port you want depending on what size of lens you want to shoot with.
The Gopro camera that we sell focuses well with a dome lens on it out of the water but will not work very well under and is why you would want to get one of our flat port housings to let that camera focus from edge to edge with no blurring.
All to many times I hear people say “I am not going to take my camera this dive so I can get used to my gear”. If you think about it this makes no sense as your camera is part of your gear and if you want to get the best shots possible it will not happen with your camera sitting in the hotel room and I promise the dives you don’t take it on will be the ones with the coolest stuff to shoot. This can also change your weighting to some degree so then when you do decide to take it with you your bouyancy may be off. Nobody says you have to shoot with it but it’s better to have the option.
“The best camera I have ever used is the one I had when i needed one!”
Just by changing the angle at which you shoot can take a subject that is kinda cool and make it look amazing just by capturing it better in its environment. This does take a bit of practice to get the hang of but is not terribly complicated. I like to think about it this way: Subject, Foreground, Background. The shot should to some degree tell a story to the viewer. If a shot has these elements I generally enjoy it much more than just something somewhere at some depth.
Do not shoot down on the reef! In almost all instances your subject will be lost in the shot and you will have virtually no depth of field.
Subject – What is it you are taking a shot of? This should be easily recognizable at first glance to anyone.
Foreground – This is the area around the subject. maybe the place it calls home.
Background – This is to give your shot some depth of field or some sort of scale and even helps to tell the story of where this may be.
As you approach your shot you should be processing multiple things before you get there. I’m not talking about deep thinking here just a quick thought. Think about what you are shooting. How best can I approach to not disturb this critter or the environment around it. Is it big or little? What angle may work best to capture this critter? What lighting might work best on this? How close should I or can I be? Then once you have gone over this set your camera up at a good starting point before you get there so as to be ready to go when you get there and only have to make minor adjustments when in position and not be fumbling around and either scaring it away or stirring up the sand or generally ruining the shot for the guy behind you or worse case pissing the critter off and getting bit.
Shooting at an upward angle or horizontal with the reef will generally help your depth of field greatly. This can put some blue water or distant reef in the background. you can even enhance this by trying to capture your buddy in the background as well to help give a sense of scale and presence.
Shoot smaller things within arms reach and larger things within the focusable distance and strobe reach of your setup. Do not Zoom your camera this will only make things shakier and less lit by your light. You need to actually move closer to your subject so as to appropriately fill the frame with them and light them well.
Close ups or macro are fun to do also and you can apply most of these same principles with just some slight modifications. Don’t be afraid to move in close to your subject and have them fill the frame just remember to not invade their space to much. Try to keep a bit of depth in your shots even when close.
Shoot a few angles and settings of the same subject to give yourself a better chance of getting just the right combination to really make that shot great.
When shooting video try to get a smooth steady shot of a subject doing something for at least 10 seconds and not longer than 30 seconds unless it is something really cool as you can always cut back a bit when editing. All to often the clips you shoot will be shorter than you thought, so as soon as you think you have gone long enough (Go longer) it will surprise you.
Try to keep as smooth as possible because hopefully someone will be watching it and you really don’t want to make them motion sick. Remember that every movement you do while recording can transfer to your camera. This means fin kicks, head turns, camera adjustments can all show in your video to some degree or another. That is one benefit to a larger more well balanced camera is that it is generally more stable in the water. Some of the smoothest video I have ever shot was with a camera that weighed about 15lbs but that is absurd to pack around the word.
Look I know some of the diehards out there think you should be able to get the perfect shot without any post editing but gimme a break! Shooting underwater is a complex juggling act of variables that are mostly out of your control so I say edit all you need and show off your best work. People do not want to sort through dozens of your so-so shots to see a couple of cool things.
Get some sort of half decent editing software and let it help you out without getting crazy with it. A little color correcting here and contrast fix there and you should be set. Then put together your top handful of shots and put them together in a short and sweet sideshow or video set to some nice appropriate music keeping in mind that people lose interest in about 10-15 min.
We spend a lot of time and money to get to these fantastic places with our cool gear so to not be able to use it because you do not have a good oring or set of batteries that work is both disappointing and really unacceptable. Pack some extras. I take an extra oring for everything that takes one and they all fit in one small Ziploc bag. The same goes for batteries, Memory cards, and maybe even a charger. I even take no less than three types of cameras (not all underwater) on my trips. That way I can more than likely fix the issues that may arise on the island in the middle of nowhere and get the shot rather than having packed my gear half way around the world for nothing. Take good care of your orings and they will take care of you.
Check your batteries before you go to make sure they hold a charge as they do have a relatively short life span depending on use. I also recommend getting the highest Mili-amp battery you can find such as 2400 or more on double or triple A’s.
Avoid the dreaded rinse tanks! I have seen way more problems come from these things than they help. Just rinse your camera off in your room upon returning each day to dissolve the salt buildup around buttons and such. These tanks will just get chemicals in them from some schmuck putting there oily hands in or even defog solution that can get all over your lenses and even may deteriorate your actual housing (yes this can happen). They allow all the expensive cameras to bounce around on each other like little wrecking balls breaking parts and even opening each other up. All that care and maintenance on 200 dives just to have it get unlatched in the rinse bin. What a shame! Ask the boat crew to not put your camera in the tank upon safely handing it up the ladder but to set it on a safe camera only table or area that it will not fall off of or get sat on.
Pack smartly! This will really depend on how much stuff you have to pack and how much you trust the baggage handlers. I personally pack all my camera gear into a carry on size bag and keep it with me.
These things should help to improve your good shot to not so good shot ratio and give you something you are proud to show off. So get out and shoot shoot shoot!
Feel free to come by and show us what you have and if you would like any pointers don’t hesitate to ask.