You had an awesome dive or snorkelling experience and wanted to share it with your friends and family. But they are not in awe: the images you have from it are nowhere as good as what you saw. Your underwater photos are blue or green and all the beautiful colours are gone.
So, what are the tricks to avoid disappointing underwater photos for amateurs?
I am not a professional photographer at all, but these tips can do miracles for your personal photo album. The equipment I use – although not cheap – should be affordable for anyone who can afford diving.
1. Choose your underwater camera
Most people take underwater shots with the famous GoPro.
It’s, of course, a great camera and I love the large variety of accessories that can come with it. For diving, the red filter* can help putting back some colours when it becomes all blue. If you want to film your entire dive without worrying too much about it, a head-mount* will do the job (just try not to move your head too quickly). When we use a red filter, we have the GoPro mounted on a telescoping stick*. The ones that can extend can be good to film the shy underwater animals.
Another accessory that would be on my list if I was using the GoPro a lot is the GoPro Dome Port*. I love the results of snorkelling photos that are half underwater, and it’s nearly impossible to get without this accessory.
But GoPros and GoPros accessories are expensive. If you just want memories, a less sophisticated sports camera could be enough. Until recently, we were using the G-Eye and were quite satisfied with the results considering the price difference with the GoPro. The quality was slightly better on the GoPro, but the other camera was good enough for our needs. However, if you’re a big fan of slow motions, you’ll want to check the frames per second (fps) capability of the camera not to be disappointed. If you plan to project your photos or video on a huge screen, the resolution will matter to you as well.
Taken with a red filter* on a GoPro (and no extra equipment) when diving with manta rays on Stradbroke Island, Australia
Taken with a lesser-known brand of action camera (G-Eye) while snorkelling in New Caledonia (Lifou)
For me, the best camera for amateurs to take underwater photos is this compact point-and-shoot camera from Nikon*.
I find the Nikon W300* (which is the new version of the Nikon AW130 that I owned as well) perfect for divers. For me, it is way better than any GoPros for a few reasons:
– A macro mode: I love seeing big species underwater, but I’m also fascinated by small ones. If they’re less impressive by their size, their shapes and colours make them the most intriguing things on the planet. The Nikon W300 has a macro mode (among other modes). GoPros are nowhere as versatile and struggle when we try to capture a close up of a small object. If you want to capture a small object from close with a GoPro, you’ll need a waterproof case, a lens adaptor and a macro lens.
– No case needed – up to 30m deep: Well, that one may cut both ways actually. The Nikon W300 is the only waterproof camera I found that goes down to 30 meters without a case. Most cameras are limited to 15 meters (like the competitor Olympus Tough TG-5) or even 10 meters for the GoPro (with no case), which is enough for snorkelling of course or if you limit the depth of your dives. As an Advanced Diver, I want to record what I see during my deepest dives, so the 15m limit wasn’t good enough. Other cameras must be put in a waterproof box (sometimes as expensive as the camera itself), which is more efforts (more equipment – sometimes bulky-, more cleaning, anti-fog inserts needed…).
Why did I write that not needing a case can cut both ways? Well, it’s obvious when you forget a case on your camera before jumping in the water. It’s a lot less obvious when you haven’t taken the right precautions to close properly your Nikon W300. There’s a warning when you start the camera, but… it can be too late.
– Battery: I rarely run out of battery with this camera. A double dive with the GoPro is a lot more challenging battery-wise. I don’t use both cameras the same way (I mostly film with the GoPro), which probably explain the huge difference in the battery life. In the end, the Nikon works way better for me.
– Buttons: Is it just me or having only a few buttons on the GoPro is confusing? I like being one push away from the function I’m looking for, so I feel using the Nikon W300 makes my life a lot easier. But I know some people prefer fewer buttons.
– Optical zoom: I rarely use the 5x optical zoom underwater as it often does not produce great results. But in very clear waters (like in New Caledonia), I’ve used it, and it was good to have. It’s also good to have it for other outdoor adventures.
– Panorama: I don’t use this mode underwater (should I try?!), but that’s a function I like when I use the camera in other situations.
– Underwater mode: It will not dramatically change the photo, but it does help to add a touch of red back into the pictures. And it’s easy to turn off if there is enough light or if you’re lighting the object with a torch.
– Screen: I take better photos with the Nikon W300 than with the GoPro because I can see what I’m aiming for – as our old GoPro does not have a screen! Of course, you can add a screen to an old GoPro or choose a model that comes with it. But it sometimes means having another case that can fit the screen. And it also means draining the battery. We’d better buy a newer model…! Plus, I like to be able to check out my photos on the camera, just after the dive (not on a tiny GoPro screen).
2. You need light underwater
More than the camera you use, the light will make a huge difference in the quality of your underwater photos.
My first tip: don’t use your built-in flash, unless it is made for underwater photography. I’ve never managed to take a good photo with the flash on my camera (even with the underwater mode), so that’s why I suggest using another source of light.
My second tip: be careful when to use the red filter. It does make the shots a bit less bright, and it is not always needed. I never use it for snorkelling for example as there is usually enough of the red colour near the surface.
When you’re snorkelling, consider the direction of the sun. For some objects, it can be better to have the sun almost in front of you, behind the object (like this jellyfish on the right). On the contrary, you’d want the sun rays to hit from the side for some other objects. If the sun is behind you, be careful not to block the light with your body.
If you are after a cheap solution, you may want to try LED lights* for your camera or GoPro. I haven’t tried this myself, so if you have, I would love to hear about your experience. Please leave a comment below!
A few more tips: Light the objects from the side, I often have better results this way. Be mindful of where your light creates shadows. And don’t always leave your light on: if you’re filming something that’s far away, it won’t light it, but it may light particles in the water instead.
3. Attach your material
I’m not going to detail why it’s financially a good idea to attach your material; I think it is easy to imagine the despair we feel when our equipment sinks into the deep blue. But attaching your material can also help take better photos.
We’ve been using this special arm/pod from Intova* with our video cameras, and we are very satisfied with it:
- The torch can be fixed on the side, and we can change the direction
- You can take selfies by building a tripod of fixing it to something else
- You only need one hand while using it
4. Start with a long shot
Animals are hard to photograph as they keep moving. It’s always a good idea to take a long shot and then try your luck with a closer shot. If you miss the closer shot and your camera has a good resolution, you may be able to get a satisfying result by cropping and digitally zoom into the long shot. It may not be the best quality for those who want their photos to be printed in a magazine, but if you’re just after memories it’s often good enough!
5. Set or edit the white balance
Set the white balance on your camera underwater
To bring back the colours and avoid the blue/green tone, some cameras allow you to edit the white balance while you are underwater. When you’re down there, find white sand or use a white slate. Go into your camera’s function menu to find the White Balance (or AWD). Aim to the sand or the slate, so it fills your frame, and play with your white balance until you are satisfied with the colours. Note that you’ll need to redo this as your depth changes. This is tricky for beginners and extremely time-consuming for those who aren’t that much into photography. I never do it and prefer to edit my photos after the dive.
Some diving cameras have an automatic depth colour correction. The results I’ve seen are not always perfect, but still very good for no effort. The fellow diver who showed that to me owned a Paralenz Dive Camera. However, it becomes over-exposed when you use a flashlight, so keep that in mind if a fellow diver is showing you something using a torch.
Edit your photos after your dive
Editing photos may not be the funniest part of the process, but it can improve the results and remove the blue colour from your photos. You don’t need to be an expert at all with editing software for this. You can even do it with an app on your phone.
The idea is to indicate what in the photo should be white (instead of blue or grey or green). It will automatically adjust the rest of the colours for more vibrant results. If you’re not lucky enough to have a white object in the photo that works for the automatic white balance, don’t give up. You can still play with the colours by manually changing the temperature and the tint.
Look at this before / after comparison. The white balance was done using the automatic function of the SnapSeed iPhone app (middle photo) and the colour restauration of the Dive+ app (right photo). In just one click.
Photo of a seal on Montague Island (Australia).
And when you add even more editing (I played with the level of darkness/brightness and the level of details – still using the Snapseed app), it sometimes does wonders:
Of course, more advanced editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop would produce better results, but it’s too much effort when you only need good memories.
6. Work on your buoyancy control
The good news is that the newest cameras have technologies to diminish the blur caused by camera shake or subject movement. But you’ll always have better results not counting on this too much and reducing your movement yourself. During your dives, remember to take time to work on improving your buoyancy control. It will also help you better approach the objects you want to shoot: close up shots often give better results as you can get a better light and visibility. Be also careful of how you place your dive equipment as it impacts your buoyancy. For example, it’s better to have your weights well distributed on each side of your body.
I usually work on improving my buoyancy control during a boring safety stop or when the group is waiting for someone to come down – as we aren’t all lucky to equalise easily! One exercise that helped me for some shots is to be able to approach my target upside down: head first, feet up towards the surface. This way, I can focus on taking the photo: no risk of damaging corals and no reduced visibility by touching the ground. Touching the bottom will move particles, and you’ll have to wait for them to settle down to get a good visibility again. Upside-down does not work for all shots, though.
Another trick is to carry a metal stick*. You can place the tip of the stick in the sand or on a rock (not on coral!) to help with your balance.
7. Powerbank or battery kits
With my Nikon W130, I never ran out of battery before running out of air. But most of the time, I could charge it in full before the dives (I wouldn’t try opening the waterproof precautions while on the diving boat).
If you’re planning a trip where access to electricity might be challenging, it could be a good idea to bring extra battery kits. Another option is to recharge your batteries using power banks*.
8. A big memory card (or multiple ones)
“No space left on the memory card” is just the most annoying message my camera can ever show me. When underwater, I should multiple times and film sometimes when nothing happens, but I don’t have time to delete unwanted captures on the go. I opted for a couple of 32gb memory cards*.
Why not a 64gb*? The saving for a bigger one is ridiculous (the price was almost double), and I find having two memory cards reduce the risk of losing all the photos if an accident happens.
Do you take photos of films underwater? Share your tips in the comments below!
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