Underwater Photography for First Time U/W Shooters

 Karim Iliya taking some underwater video of humpbacks on a heat run in Tonga. 

Karim Iliya taking some underwater video of humpbacks on a heat run in Tonga. 

 

Underwater photography, in a professional sense, is thrilling. Before going to Tonga this past September, I had never used a proper underwater housing before and had really no idea how to shoot professionally underneath the sea.

What I can say, after about a week and a half of all day every day underwater shoots with the whales, is that I'm hooked. Much like aerial photography, underwater photography allows us to explore worlds that our normal eyes and bodies cannot, which is why I find it so intriguing. 

So am I a U/W photographer and videographer now? Hardly, but I know my way around the essentials and am happy to pass on some pointers before I get back in the water myself to continue to learn and grow within this exciting world of visual documentation of ocean life. 

 
 A baby humpback opens up its fins near the surface. 

A baby humpback opens up its fins near the surface. 

 

First step first, get your housings and lenses right. Yes, U/W housings are expensive, especially the ones with vacuum pressure seals, and yes, you will also need a decent dome on the housing to be able to take photos. Those underwater bag housings just don't cut it. So in the end you're either going to end up biting the bullet and buying a proper housing or renting one for some expensive day rate. The entry point to proper U/W shoots is the housing-- which in most cases is more expensive than the camera bodies themselves. For this last shoot I was using a Canon 5D Mark iii. Nauticam, while expensive, makes some of the most reliable U/W housings out there and they also fit the housings with domes/ports depending on which lenses you're shooting with. 

Two, lenses. For the most part, U/W photography is a wide angle experience. Depending on the type of marine life you will be focusing on and how close you are going to be getting to it will largely determine how wide you're going to want to shoot. Anything between 8mm and 40mm is generally considered a safe range.

For the humpback shoots, I was shooting between 16mm and 35mm. It's important to keep in mind visibility-- you don't need a major zoom lens under water since visibility will hardly go that far to begin with. Wide angle lenses are best and many housings do not allow for lens adjustments once the camera is locked inside, so in many cases you can assume you're using a fixed lens. 

If you are looking to shoot up close shots of corals, small fish, etc, you will likely want a macro lens with a macro port. This was not the type of shooting I was doing in Tonga, so I won't comment further on it. 

 
 Two adult humpbacks competing for mating rights. 

Two adult humpbacks competing for mating rights. 

 

Camera settings depend on conditions: weather, cloud cover, and visibility, as well as desired depth of field. In general, with the humpbacks, I was shooting in aperture priority, with an aperture of between f/7.1 and f/11, with a film speed between 320 and 600 iso, never dipping below 1/250th of a second shudder speed. 

Why such a high dept of field? Well, a few reasons, but mostly because whales are large creatures and we're photographing them at different angles normally at a very close distance, therefore having a large depth of field works really well and because they are near the surface, there's plenty of light to make up for the small aperture hole on the lens. I just bumped the iso up a little bit when I was concerned the shots would be too slow due to cloud cover, allowing for me to take shots with a bit of a faster shudder speed. Cloud cover is ideas for many reasons, as it disperses light more evenly across the surface of the water and does not result in watered patterns reflected on the whales. 

Many things happen at the same time when photographing whales: my adrenaline was through the roof, I was trying to swim, hold a camera with clunky housing, fix my mask and snorkel, get my fingers on the proper buttons, focus, aim, and shoot. Removing as many variables before you jump in the water is extremely helpful, as you just don't have time to get everything readjusted and right once you're face to face with a pod of whales. 

First, get your settings right as best you can before jumping in-- look at the conditions and lighting. Set your aperture, focal length, film speed, etc before getting into the water. Then once in, concentrate more on focus, aim and shooting. On some housings, buttons and dials work backwards, meaning you will need to spend some time getting them right. You definitely do not want to be fumbling around to make slight setting adjustments using small knobs and dials in the water. 

 
 Adult humpbacks torpedo into the water in a gigantic heat run.

Adult humpbacks torpedo into the water in a gigantic heat run.

 

Second, know if you are taking photographs or video before you enter the water, as your settings will be different. The luxury of switching between with ease is complicated significantly when changing settings is cumbersome. 

Third, check your screen from time to time to see if you are shooting a little "over" or "under" your subject. With U/W photography, looking through the viewfinder with a mask tends to warp angles and reality a little bit and can easily cause you to be consistently shooting over or under a subject without knowing it. Checking your screen from time to time will help you make manual adjustments to the way you are shooting. Especially for subjects moving towards you, using an autofocus mode like ai servo is useful so you do not have to constantly hold down your af button. 

U/W photography is thrilling and will certainly take practice, but damn, is it fun and can open you up to a whole new world.