If you are reading this as a beginner photographer, I hope this shortens the time to get your bearings underwater.
I wish I could tell you the hardest part of underwater photography is conquering a particular photography skill. Or becoming a better diver. Or learning how to hold your breath longer. But sadly, even when you master all of that, you still have to deal with a much sneaking factor. That is your own excitement. Sounds like an impossible challenge to overcome, but if you stick around until the end of this story, I will cover a few photography tips to help with this issue.
I found out how much excitement plays a role in the good quality of wildlife photos the first time I found myself underwater in the middle of a large colony of sea lions. Just me (a beginner photographer in photography school at the time); The highest energy marine species of California; And my camera. It was the most epic moment of my career so far. I had the right underwater photography equipment and I even had the best underwater strobes I could get then. Two of them! I was READY. Dancing with these puppies of the sea, all excited to see a human and curious about the flashy lights, I took photos until I had air in my tank. I got back to the boat with such confidence and hope. I couldn’t wait to get home, rinse my underwater housing, get my camera out, and plugged my SD card into my computer just to find…Disappointment. ALL my photos were at best overexposed and blurred. Some were even out of focus! And there is nothing wrong with being creative with techniques, when intentional (I will cover this in a different blog), but it took diving with these animals over and over to get my emotions in check and finally get the photos I wanted.
The photos I saved from my first dive.
The photographs I created after I got used to the animals.
Fast forward a few years. I now had more experience. I dealt with a number of issues in pool photoshoots and graduated from photography school. I thought nothing could stop me so imagine my surprise when I found myself back at square one, the moment I encountered a new species. Sharks. Little did I know this animal would later become my sole companion in my day-to-day life at work in deep blue water. But at the time, my once-in-a-lifetime moment with the sharks produced less than decent photos for a beginner photographer, let alone a professional underwater photographer.
That's when I realized, being an experienced photographer or even a professional photographer helps in theory, but in the field, your settings and game plan need to be solid before you even get in the water. And even then your photos are still ruled by timing and body position.
So what are those settings and game plan? It varies depending on what subject you are anticipating to photograph. If you are photographing little things, and visibility is less than ideal, choose your lens accordingly (macro vs wide) or be prepared to deal with it in post. If you are shooting wide remember every species has its own behavior. Sharks in Hawaii act very differently than sea lions in California or Orcas in Norway; even similar species will demand different camera settings depending on where you are. For example, stumbling upon a whale in Hawaii is very different from being prepared to photograph whales in Tahiti.
So as a good rule of thumb: 1. set your camera at f8 (when possible), 2. keep your shutter speed as fast as possible, and 3. don’t let your ISO go too high (which for me is ISO 1000).
4. Consider scuba vs Freediving. Depending on the species, sometimes it's easier to sit at the bottom on one tank of air. Some other times you are better off snorkeling.
This will take practice and a lot of mistakes so for those of you that want to learn how to deal with this in the field I set up workshops and mentoring programs to teach you these skills in the most controlled way possible starting with shark photography in Hawaii and out in the wild experiencing a week-long photo expedition in the Bahamas. And don't get me wrong. I still get very excited but, as a photographer, little tricks and tips helped me manage those fleeting and exciting once-in-a-lifetime moments that often only last seconds and I hope this blog post will help you too.