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Top 10 tips for great Underwater Photography

Our resident underwater photographer Fiona Ayerst ‘enlightens’ us on her best 10 tips to begin to master underwater photography.

It’s that time of year when I start thinking about planning for my annual underwater photography courses running in Durban and Mozambique. Shooting underwater is not as easy as shooting on land and requires extra thinking – so does preparation for the popular courses. I have been a professional underwater photographer for nearly nine years and I still learn new techniques every time I research and teach. That’s one of the things I love about my job. 

So, enough about me – Here’s my biggest secret and my absolute top tip before you go underwater. Take the time to read the manual and to use the camera as often as you can on land. Try to use the camera (on land) whilst it’s in your underwater housing so that you get used to where all the buttons and dials are and so that you can also ensure everything is working correctly before you hit the water.

Here are another 9 tips ascending in the order that I reckon is most important.

1) Get Close; Get Closer 

A common complaint when starting out is the dull blue-ish or grey-ish hue of images. You get a clearer, sharper, and more colourful image if you reduce the water column between your port and the subject.

2) Use Artificial Lighting

Water absorbs light and sucks colour- so, to avoid those dull grey-blue hues use underwater lights (strobe light is preferable to torch light) to restore colour and avoid grain

3) Go Manual

When using an artificial light source it is best to work in manual settings. The camera is built to work on land and not in water. It will not understand what settings to apply to cater for the external lighting, even if you are using aperture or shutter priority.

4) Maintain Your Equipment

Make sure your O-rings are clean and greased. One strand of hair can cause a flood. Rinse and dry all ports after every dive. Never let salt water dry on your equipment. Water and electronics don’t like each other at all.

5) Respect and Know the Environment

You must have excellent buoyancy skills. Keep all of your gear streamlined so as to minimise the potential of a gauge damaging the reef. Never touch marine life. You may not realise the damage inflicted from even minor touching. Be patient and let your images be the reward from your interactions. Learn how the animals behave and anticipate what they will do next to get that the shot at “the top of the action”.

6) Shoot Up

The reef is usually under you when you dive, but images of the tops of fish and coral are usually messy. Shooting up creates separation between the foreground subject and the background of your images

7) Focus On The Eyes and Keep Yourself Focused

This one is a bit of a cheat as it is actually two tips but, in essence, always think about focus. Keep the eye of the subject sharp. Especially if working in macro mode, place the focus bracket so it aligns with the subject’s eye, pull your shutter trigger halfway to focus in on the eye and then recompose using rules of composition. When you have your photograph composed how you want it, push down completely on the shutter. Always carefully view the environment for the next photo opportunity.
Patience is paramount.

8) Shoot, Review, Adjust, Rinse, Repeat

Use your LCD to review your images as you shoot to make sure your subject is well exposed, nicely composed and you are happy with the outcome. Review every image. Zoom in on some of the images to ensure sharp focus. Adjust and shoot again. Always clean your equipment really well with fresh cool water after every dive.

9) Secondary Equipment

Ensure all your diving equipment is maintained in great working order with annual servicing. It is after all- your lifeline. At the very least you will need a mask and snorkel. After that -fins will help. These days many photographers shoot while free-diving so you don’t 100% HAVE to have a SCUBA license but if you want to shoot natural history shots then SCUBA is the way to go.

Fiona in her favorite place in the world. Underwater surrounded by sharks.

Fiona is an award winning professional underwater photographer and owner of Africa Media. Her work is published and portrayed throughout the world in numerous magazines, blogs and sites. 

These tips are a great starting point to your underwater photography career. If, however, you want to take your underwater photography to the next level whilst exploring the underwater paradise of Southern Africa, take a look at our Underwater photography training internship that Fiona and her team are offering this year between May and October – View program info