These underwater photography tips for beginners can help you quickly improve your underwater photos. A great underwater camera and editing skills will help, but there are many easy and cheap things you can do to take better underwater photos before investing time and money.
I know the feeling when you had an incredible dive or snorkelling experience and want 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. It makes you want to invest in the best underwater camera for scuba diving and snorkelling, but a great underwater camera is not the only thing that will improve your underwater photo quality. I hope my underwater photography tips for beginners will help you improve your underwater pics.
So, what are the tricks to avoid disappointing underwater photos when you’re just a beginner?
I am not a professional photographer, but these underwater photography tips for beginners can do miracles for your personal photo album. The equipment I use – although not cheap – should be affordable for anyone who can afford diving. Check out my eight underwater photography tips to improve your shots straight away!
1. Choose the best underwater camera for scuba diving and snorkelling
Most people take underwater shots with the famous GoPro*. But is it the best underwater camera for beginners?
The GoPro is, of course, a great camera, and I love the large variety of accessories that can come with it. As beginners are often looking for a simple and easy camera to use, it does deserve mention when we’re looking for the best underwater camera for scuba diving. If you just want to record memories, it can do an amazing job with the right accessories and the tips below. But if you wish to work a bit on your photography skills or are interested in macro, the GoPro will not be the best underwater camera for you.
A red filter on your GoPro* can help put 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 using a red filter, we mount the GoPro on a telescoping stick*. The ones that can extend can be good for filming 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 a GoPro and its accessories are expensive. If you just want memories, a less sophisticated sports camera could be enough. We don’t all need the amazing quality of GoPro images. 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 videos on a giant screen, the resolution will matter to you as well.
GoPro photos used to turn out bad. With older models, I recommend filming with the GoPro and extracting pictures from your movie after your dive or snorkelling session. I always had better results this way. But the quality of the photo has improved a lot in the newer models.
For me, the best underwater camera for scuba diving for beginners 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 scuba divers and snorkelers. For me, it is way better than any GoPros or other cameras 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 100 feet/30 meters without a case. Most cameras are limited to 50 feet/15 meters (like the competitor Olympus Tough TG-6) or even 30 feet/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 50 feet/15 meters limit wasn’t good enough. Other cameras must be put in a waterproof box (sometimes as expensive as the camera itself), which is more effort (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 explains the huge difference in 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).
I haven’t tried many competitors’ models of similar underwater cameras. But none of them could go down to 100 feet/30 meters deep without a case, which is what motivated my choice to elect the Nikon AW-300 as the best underwater camera for scuba diving.
I also tried the Olympus TG-6*. I love how versatile it is as you can change the lens* and equip it with many accessories. However, you cannot go deeper than 50 feet/15 metres with it, which makes it only suitable for snorkelling and shallow dives. If you want to go deeper, you will have to put it in an underwater housing*, which makes it a lot bulkier (not my preference).
If you don’t mind the bulkier aspect, the Olympus TG-6* is an excellent point-and-shoot for macro and has a few underwater modes that make it really easy to take good pics when scuba diving.
SeaLife Micro 2.0
There’s another model that caught my attention but that I haven’t tried yet: the SeaLife Micro3.0*. It’s not the best underwater camera for scuba diving if you want to do macro as it is a fish-eye lens (you will need to add a close-up lens*), but it has many interesting advantages:
- It can go down to up to 200 feet/60 metres without a case
- It’s permanently sealed, which reduces a lot the risks of leaks (waterproof USB charging and internal memory)
- The big buttons seem ideal for underwater photography with gloves
- It has three underwater colour correction mode
2. The most important underwater photography tip for begginers: you need light underwater
More than the camera you use, the light will make a huge difference in the quality of your underwater photos. Even with the best underwater camera for scuba diving, the photo cannot be good if there is no light.
My first tip: don’t use your built-in flash
Unless your flash is made for underwater photography, do not use it. 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. Otherwise, you may get better results if you find a way to build something on top of your flash to diffuse the 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 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 subject (like this jellyfish above). On the contrary, you’d want the sun rays to hit from the side some other subject. If the sun is behind you, be careful not to block the light with your body.
If you’re scuba diving, I suggest investing in an underwater torch.
Not only will it provide light to give colours to your photos, but it is also good equipment to use for safety, for checking out cool things hiding in the rocks and, of course, for night dives/cave dives/wreck dives. And this triple use makes a lot of sense to me. Plus, it’s not as bulky as having an additional underwater flash. However, some will have difficulty (or even find it ridiculous) aiming with the torch on one hand and with the camera on the other. I’m not going to pretend it’s the easiest configuration, and it obviously isn’t adapted to complex dive situations. But I don’t like taking photographs when the dive is challenging anyway. And I also have a buddy who’s as crazy as me, and we often work together to find the best angles with our lights!
If you don’t mind spending more money on your underwater photography equipment, you can connect an underwater flash to the Nikon W300. Not only would it be easier to control, it could even help capture the shiest creatures: some may hide when lit with a torch, but may be surprised by a sudden flash!
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 with the light
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.
Responsible travel tip: Use common sense when you use your light. Would you like someone lighting your face while you’re sleeping? Neither does the turtle!
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 watching our best underwater camera sink into the deep blue. But attaching your material can also help take better photos.
- The torch can be fixed on the side, and we can change the direction
- You can take selfies by building a tripod or 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 zooming 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 (or alternatively your hand if you have pale skin or fins if they’re white). Go into your underwater camera’s function menu to find the White Balance (or AWD). Aim to the sand or the slate (or your hand), 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 underwater photography. I almost never do it and prefer to edit my photos after the dive.
The best underwater cameras for scuba diving 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. It’s a function available on the Nikon W300* as well, but I don’t find the results amazing, to be honest. The Olympus TG-6* is a bit better, but still not amazing.
Also, 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 underwater photos after your dive
Editing underwater photos may not be the funniest part of the process, but it can improve the results and remove the blue colour from your underwater shots. 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. Don’t give up if you cannot find a white object in the photo that works for the automatic white balance. 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 and the colour restoration of the Dive+ app. In just one click.
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 even with the best underwater camera for scuba diving, you’ll always have better results not counting on the technology 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 better light and visibility. Be also careful about 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. There’s 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 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 (never on coral!) to help with your balance. If you choose one with a T-shape, you could even use it to place your camera on top so it’s more stable.
Responsible travel tip: Photographers must be particularly careful of their surroundings to avoid doing any damage – especially when diving on a reef. When you are focused on your camera, you can quickly lose a sense of how close you are to the coral surrounding you. Hence, avoid making sudden movements. If you end up touching the reef, don’t panic. Avoid using your fins as kicking could cause a lot more damage. Breath in to go up a little, slowly. Or gently push yourself with one finger if there is a rock or something not fragile you can use.
7. Powerbank or battery kits
There is no point in having the best camera for scuba diving and snorkelling and great accessories if you cannot use your underwater camera because you don’t have enough battery.
With my Nikon, 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, 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 the most frustrating message my underwater camera can ever show me. And you may face this issue even with the best cameras. When scuba diving or snorkelling, I shoot the same object and film multiple times, sometimes when nothing happens. And I don’t have time to delete unwanted captures on the go. So I need space. 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 with the underwater camera.
Once you’re back home, don’t just transfer your pics to your computer if you don’t want to lose all your hard work and souvenirs. I always back up my photos on an external disk. Or two. But if you’re really serious about your photo, there’s no better solution for photographers than an online backup.