Deep Snaps: Tips for Taking Better Underwater Photos

26 June 2009 By Louisa Beckett
Photo © Robert Holland

Few people have better opportunities to take great underwater photos than yachties. Whether it’s tropical fish feeding on reefs in the Caribbean, ancient wrecks submerged in the Mediterranean or simply a crewmate hanging on an anchor line, your job frequently presents you with “photo ops” that others can only dream about.

That is, if you remember to bring an underwater camera along.

“There have never been so many cameras on the market as there are now – and that includes underwater cameras,” says professional photographer Robert Holland, whose images have graced the covers of many yachting magazines and who also shoots for numerous boat manufacturers. But, he quickly adds, “The most important camera is the one you’ve got with you. For most people, that means a compact camera.”

There are two kinds of equipment you can use to take pictures underwater – a camera that is completely submersible, and a traditional camera you lock inside a waterproof housing. Buying a separate camera that you can also use on land, along with an underwater housing, may be more cost-effective, but it also can be bulkier in the water.

Holland recommends beginning underwater photographers start with a compact waterproof “point and shoot.” “You can literally grab it and jump over the side,” he says. Many of these small underwater cameras also include video. “In one little package you can takes stills or video – that’s a versatile tool,” he says.

Anyone shopping for an underwater camera should read the specifications carefully. “There is ‘waterproof’ versus ‘water-resistant’ and ‘splash-proof’,” Holland says. “Those are very different things.” If you are planning to snorkel with your camera, you should be sure the camera is rated as waterproof down to at least 10 meters.

“You lose 25 percent of your viewing area because of the refraction of light underwater,” he says. Therefore, he also recommends buying a camera with the widest angle lens possible.

Here are a few tips from Robert Holland, who is also a certified diving instructor, on shooting better underwater photos:

Get as close to your subject as possible in order to reduce the amount of distortion caused by the water in between.

Try to find a “low volume” dive mask that won’t get in the way of the camera’s viewfinder. “You want to get one’s that’s a real face-hugger,” he says.

Unless the water is “super clear,” don’t use the flash, because the light will illuminate particles in the water which will appear in the photo – an effect called “backscatter.”

If you’re using a compact underwater camera, he recommends using the “shutter priority” setting. A speed of 200 ISO works well near the surface; try 400 ISO when you dive deeper.

The full color spectrum is only available in the first few feet below the surface – if you are after pretty shots of tropical fish, take them there. “After 30 feet or so, red is gone from the color spectrum,” Holland says. He quotes the mnemonic device “Roy G. Biv”, which tells the order in which different hues in the visible spectrum disappear as you descend: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.

As you get deeper, experiment with shooting upward at subjects above you, creating a “silhouette” effect.

If you’rere a scuba diver and want to shoot deeper images, consider purchasing an underwater camera housing and attachable light or strobe. There are also filters you can buy that add colors back into the shot.

The better a diver you are, the better your “neutral buoyancy” – your ability to control your depth with your breathing rather than your limbs – and the better your underwater photos will be.

Chances are, once you start shooting underwater, you’ll soon be hooked. “If you are good at it and you really like it, you can consider investing in more equipment,” Holland says. Check out for a look at his portfolio.

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