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Related FAQs: Underwater Photography, Underwater Photography 2, Above-water Photography, Digital Photography, Aquatic Videography

Related Articles: Beginning UW Photo/Video-graphy by Bob Fenner Above Water Photography, Reviews on: Norbert Wu's How to Photograph Underwater, Helix Camera (and books)

/The Conscientious Reef Aquarist

Underwater Photography:

How To Take Worthwhile Pictures Underwater

By Bob Fenner

Melanopus Clown, H. crispa anemone, Fiji

What reasons do you have for making photographs? I'll bet you if we were canines, Playdog Magazine would come with blank pages with smells smeared on them. Humans are visually orienting organisms and social animals, enjoying sharing pleasurable experiences. As such we also derive a great deal of enjoyment from reflecting on our past adventures through pictures. Lastly, like going fishing, photography can be a principal form of gambling; you never know what you're going to get.

The topic of taking good aquarium photographs has been covered extensively (see Havelin, 1991), and is far easier (but less exciting) than taking the plunge with camera and film. Making images that are of worth underwater is part science, a dollop of technique, and the rest, luck. Like all folks who have endeavored so long (and expensively) to become proficient as an underwater wildlife photographer I have my own ideas about how to "go about it". Here are my thoughts and feeling on the topic of how you can avoid at least my mistakes in making worthwhile underwater images.

Elements of Underwater Photography:

Hmmm, just how many things go into taking a good picture? Let's list the principal components and expand on these with examples and first-hand advice

Good Specimens.

The Setting; Contrast. Interest, Story-Telling & Less

Technical Aspects:

Camera Gear

Film Choices

Exposure: Light/lighting, Focus, Shutter Speed

Technique: Know Your Quarry, Get Close, Have Patience


Good Specimens

As with human photography, what sense does it make to start with less than ideal subjects? Take a look in the wild; as with above water there are no end of examples of genetically gimpy and damaged specimens. Torn fins, missing legs, "crew cut" tangs, "scalloped headed" basses. Fishes with infectious diseases and parasites… even ones that are simply off or less than perfectly colored should be avoided. Learn what good-better-best specimens look like and seek out the last. This is where we have a huge advantage over non-aquarists. We've observed aquatic life very closely for hundreds/thousands of hours!

(Ex.s: Photo 1 & 2 are two 4-eye butterflyfishes, Chaetodon capistratus in the Bahamas. Note the sore on the side of the first and the notched "forehead" of the second; both disqualify these are worthy photographic subjects. Likewise here in the wild, an Ocean Surgeon, #3, Acanthurus bahianus, here is showing the ill-effects of Hurricane Georges; hopefully it will fully recover.)

The Setting: 3 Plus Ideas, One Negative

Let's start here with the subject of contrast; the difference or resolution of the intended photographic subject(s) against their background. In general what we're talking about here is being able to distinguish what you're trying to show by light/darkness or color contrast. I have taken many fine photos (well-posed, focused, of good specimens) that fail to "stand out" from their surroundings (Ex. Photo #4, is there a trigger there? Yes, a Black Durgeon, Melichthys niger, disappearing against the deep blue… how much better to have had a lighter, solid backdrop). A few cautions here. To watch your lighting, your f-stops <lowering settings to allow more light concomitantly lessens depth of field, effectively darkening the background> and setting opportunities that highlight your subjects.

On a related note, good settings are ones of interest. Even if you really only want to show off the featured specimen, attention must be paid to what it's shot against, if only as a further consideration besides contrast. (Ex. Photo 5, a handsome Sergeant Major Damsel, Abudefduf saxatilis; but what's it doing? I can make it out for what it is, but the surrounding space is a zero) Better settings of interesting color, texture, and context add enormously to an image; ultimately they help…

Tell a story of the subject's behavior, habitat, and/or the living environment. Think about this, or better still take a gander at the photos employed in this magazine. Aren't the pictures you're most taken with those embodying the lifestyle of their subjects? They "tell a story" about the individuals relationships, biological and physical. (Ex. Photo 17 is a beautiful juvenile Atlantic Rock Beauty, Holacanthus tricolor, depicting motion and a great deal of it's world. Note the profusion of tropical West Atlantic sponges, and the gorgeous blue tunicates).

A bane of underwater photographers having to do with the setting is unclear water. Due to the physical nature of water and light, it's difficult enough to collect and reflect enough to produce decent images, having more "gunk" biological or otherwise suspended in the water column serves just to make your job that much more difficult. On such days/nights, very close-up work and macro are the "order of the day", to cut back to a minimum the amount of floating and back-reflected material. (Example Photo 10, What are all those star like objects? They're bits of reflected light obscuring the image of a French Angel, Pomacanthus paru. Thus not only diminishing the sharpness of focus, but fooling the TTL (though the lens) electronics metering the strobe lighting into thinking enough light has been allowed into the camera per the settings and making the intended image too dark

Technical Aspects of Underwater Photography:

Camera Gear. Here you have two basic choices, inexpensive point and shoot varieties,

and much more costly Single Lens Reflex camera bodies. The former requires that you estimate distance and exposure and result in a high percentage of out of focus, out of frame, and small-in-frame shots. With SLR's "what you see" through the viewfinder is "what you get", and these cameras typically have other features (in-camera light meters, ability to change shutter speed, program modes…) that are of tremendous use. If you already own a modern SLR, a body to contain it (aka a "housing") is probably available to safely take it underwater for use. Decidedly, better gear is better. Though it will not make up for less time in the water, personal diving and photographic experience, a good, housed SLR camera with an assortment of lenses and strobe(s) is preferable to any point and shoot set-up.

Lens choices could/would take up a few articles themselves. As with above water imaging, an assortment of lenses is called for, depending on your range of subjects and their settings. For many underwater photographers, the "big three" "workhorse lenses" come down to something like a 60mm and 105mm for small to medium organisms (still getting as close as you can get), and a choice in a wide angle lens (for myself a 20-35mm zoom) for larger animals, landscapes.

Film choices, in reality come down to three basic considerations: speed (ISO, formerly ASA), "color", and cost. Lower ISO's are less grainy, so produce the best resolution (sharpest focus) and richest color saturation, but higher ISO's are faster at taking up light and thus require less auxiliary or ambient light. I utilize ISO 50 and 100 films for close-up and macro work (the majority of underwater photography), and ISO 200 and 400 film in a strobe-less point and shoot Nikonos V that I carry along in my BC pocket for opportune large animal, landscape and human shots w/o flash.

By color-bias of the film, I'm referring to it's propensity to weight more heavily in the blue, red, both or neither (i.e. balanced) ranges of spectral presentation. Due to warm end spectra light extinction coefficient (reds, oranges and yellows being filtered out in the first few inches of water), folks tend toward warm-biased films; me too. My preference the last few years Fuji's Sensia, Velvia and Provia, though I gladly shoot Kodak and Agfa's products as well.

The last issue, price is important to me only because I go through so many rolls. Small batches of film I buy from local color labs (professional photo service centers), larger quantities ("bricks") I get mail-order… and don't worry about "aging" or possible thermal aberration in transit, as long as the film is non-gray market. Are "pro" films better than consumer qualities? Are they worth their extra expense? Yes, figuring in some factors such as what you will do with the images (i.e. try to sell them?), and how good local photographic conditions turn out to be. Murky water will not be made any better with better film.

Exposure: Focus, Shutter Speed, F-Stop: 

Putting these three together is the stuff of real photographs versus ruined film. Let's see if we can make the process of properly exposing film as simple as possible. Ahem. Cameras, lenses and auxiliary light sources with their chosen film are designed to record images in focus within certain specific spatial configurations (height, width, depth of field), and degree of (hopefully) desired blurriness. These characteristics are achieved through the interlinked settings of focus, shutter speed and, F-stop (aka aperture). Very inexpensive point and shoot cameras have fixed focus, one shutter speed and non-adjustable aperture, but more complex cameras have all three to fool with. Take the time to become thoroughly familiar with these concepts, especially should you find yourself in the market for lenses.


Entails the capacity for a lens to sharply convey an image within a defined space. Lenses have different focal lengths and affinities for close-up, far away, and magnifying effects. In short, one lens will not do all types of light focusing jobs, and in wildlife photography there are not many takers for less than crystal sharp images. Of a certainty your images should be crisply sharp in focus.

Shutter speed

Is how long the camera lens stays open per a frame-exposure. To stop action, yet allow enough light to enter the camera to make an image this ranges generally between 1/60 of a second on the long side, to 125, 250th of a second to "freeze" fast moving organisms on the short. Nikonos cameras, the long-standing standard in 35mm point and shoot cameras utilize 1/90th of a second on automatic, flash and default setting should battery power wane. I mainly shoot 100th or 125th of a second (with TTL) with my housed Nikons (which will "match" TTL capability with strobe-flash up to 250th) for most "fish" photography, but many of my friends allow more time (down to about 1/60th) in conjunction with low ISO films.

F-stop, or aperture:

Is a description of how "fast" the opening of the lens allows light into the camera. This is a tremendously confusing aspect of photography for many, as the lower f-stop numbers (called higher f-stops) actually define larger openings (apertures), with each "stopped-down" aperture (higher f-stop number) allowing half as much light as the previous (typical f-stop scale: f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22). Put another way, higher f-stop numbers indicate smaller aperture, or openings of the lens, incrementally half as much light as the previous whole f-stop number. If this throws you, take a look at your camera lens while re-setting f-stop, and remember this really simple relationship between exposure time, film ISO, and f-stop: Exposure time works inversely with ISO and f-stop in the following fashion. Per the photographic setting, halving the exposure time requires lowering one f-stop setting or utilizing the next higher increment in ISO film rating. Example: 1/60th of a second at f/5.6 at a given ISO 50 might call for changing to 125th of a second as the specimen is swimming away… Switching to 125th of a second (about half the time) calls for doubling the "speed" of incoming light or aperture to a f-stop of f/4. Alternatively, knowing that you're going to be shooting in lower light conditions, but wanting for other reasons to stick with faster exposure times and not-fast enough lenses (ones with low f-stop numbers) you might find yourself utilizing a higher ISO number film.

Even though this is a brief discussion, a general statement ought to be made concerning the relationship between f-stop and depth of field. Closing the lens down to its smallest aperture (let's say f/22) results in the greatest depth of field (largest "width" of in-focus area), and the largest aperture (let's say f/2.8) the narrowest, or most shallow depth of field. You can see that, just as in other aspects of life, the photographer must make compromises given the availability of light, subjects, lens and film type in their setting of f-stop and exposure times. For these reasons, even in the age of electronic compensation and automatic settings, many/most photographers choose to "bracket" (shoot above and below the presumed "proper") f-stop settings to assure images of proper/desired exposure. (Example pix #s 14-16, the "saltwater piranha" of the tropical west Atlantic, the Queen Triggerfish, Balistes vetula. 14 is about half a stop underexposed (too dark), 15's a good full stop overexposed, and 16 as Goldilocks of the Three Bears might say, "Just right").

Lastly, a comment concerning f-stops, available or (flash) reflected light. Obviously, the closer you are to your photographic subject, the more light is available, and a lower (higher number) f-stop is called for. Here I'll add to Dr. Allen's practical guideline by stating a commonsense "rule of thumb" calculation a person can use in relation to a film's stated "Guide Number". Broadly, dividing the Guide Number of the film by the f-stop gives an indication of distance from a subject in inches. For a Guide Number of 22, shooting at about 3-4 feet, you would choose a setting of f/5.6, f/8 for 24-32 inches, f/11 for 14-18 inches and so on. Confusing? Not really, but there is "no substitute for practice" and bracketing.

Underwater Photographic Technique:

Yours or a practiced knowledge of you subject? Yes to both. Holding your breath (even on scuba), controlling your buoyancy and three-dimensional orientation en toto; keeping yourself from bumping into the environment and damaging you, your camera gear or the aquatic habitat, are obviously of value.

Having the patience and knowledge to wait for opportune shots is what most distinguishes the amateur "picture taker" and photographer. You are way ahead of the game by virtue of your background with ornamental aquatics. Chances are you're already familiar with much of the anticipated behavior of your quarry from keeping the same or similar organisms in captivity. You know about "establishing your presence" (and therefore lack of negative reaction) with your photographic subjects by "hanging around" and not striking the physical environment. Get Close: This motto should be inscribed in your face mask as well as your mind. Perhaps the biggest shortfall technique-wise of underwater photographers lies here. You really must get as close as possible to your subjects for light limitation reasons as well as to optimize your exposures aesthetically. Within the limitations of your gear (camera, auxiliary lighting, film type) we are talking a maximum of about six feet (two meters) and the minimal focal distance allowable. For practical considerations, you should do what you can to have the subject fill a good half to two-thirds of the frame; easier to do via looking through an SLR camera and a skill to be acquired through practice and discipline with "point and shoots". (Ex. Photo 8. How much better this image of a juvenile Gray Angel, Pomacanthus paru, been had yours truly exercised the patience to close in a bit on the subject? In this case, showing the surrounding environment is too costly at the expense of lost resolution of the intended subject).

Light/lighting control:  

This is no doubt the second most common failing of earnest underwater photographers. Either through specialty ("underwater" red-shifted) or higher ASA films, auxiliary lighting (flash) or near-surface shooting, and to a lesser degree faster lenses, electronic light compensation, and post-shooting manipulation, your images can turn out "too dark". Modern developing techniques can adjust for an amazing amount of mistake here (up to three full f-stops for some slide film), but for sharpness and color richness, you want your originals to be as light-balanced as possible. Once again… GET CLOSE as possible with whatever set-up you're working with. If you don't have a source of artificial lighting and you'd like some color in your images, shoot as shallow as possible (with subjects out and about with natural light overhead). I don't like lens filters for reasons other than their inherent light-loss characteristics, but you may well want to experiment with "warmer" or underwater designated films in an attempt to enhance your shooting if you don't have adequate person-made strobe/flash. If your pictures continue to be "too dark" talk with your camera gear, film outlet, read bound works or browse the internet for solutions. And remember, "practice makes perfect"; you may quote me. (Example Photos. #11. Here is a shallow water (about ten feet) image of a Squirrelfish, Holocentrus rufus, taken w/o flash (but with a warm, though slow film, Velvia 50). #7, is the same species but at much greater depth (@100 feet), with flash and the same film. #9 that Squirrelfish species again at night with the same gear, film and settings (f-5.6, 125th second exposure at approximately 30 inches from the subject, with a 60mm Macro lens), demonstrating the benefits of not relying on ambient lighting. All the professional underwater photographers I'm familiar with utilize powerful underwater strobes to provide adequate lighting).

Selling Your Photos:

As stated at the beginning, people endeavor to make worthwhile photographs for all sorts of reasons; one is for the money. All photographers dream of selling their work. It's a joy to see your images in print, and not an impossible fantasy in the least. I advise studying up on what your desired market is looking for by perusing samples and contacting their editorial offices for submission guidelines. If it's for the pet-fish, diving or lay natural history magazine markets, do consider writing a story to go along with your images, rather than sending the pictures alone, and always generate a cover letter detailing your background and your suggestions for utilizing the image-work.

Film Selection

For the magazine and book worlds as well as the Internet the film media of choice is 35mm slide film. The size issue is one of big enough for useful resolution versus the expense for medium to larger format cameras, film, processing. Slides vs. prints? Here it's a matter of handling and storage… slides travel and age more gracefully, and are thus the industry standard. You say you like prints to put on your wall and to distribute to friends? No problem; you can have good prints made from slides (or make them inexpensively enough on your computer with a slide scanner and printer), or shoot both slides and film.

Orientation Format: 

Think about the shape of a photo image; it's rectangular, not square. You can hold your camera "like regular" and take "landscape" format pictures (wider than tall), or turn the camera on it's side and take "portrait" images (taller than wide). Both types of images have their place, and though, to some degree images can be "cropped" post-production, cover images, for instance, are almost always shot in portrait format. I realize that many subjects are long and narrow and rare to encounter in a "vertical" orientation, but you should try to make images as both landscapes and portraits. (Example Photo #6, an adult Gray Angel, Pomacanthus arcuatus, in a traditional landscape pose. These sorts of "plate-shaped" fishes are tough to make good portrait images of.).


Anyone can learn to and take worthwhile underwater photographs; and they should. The memories and joys of sharing pictures of your sub-aqua experiences add only minimally to the cost and effort of actually getting to the sites (sights?). I have seen so-called "throwaway", one-use underwater cameras with film retail for less than ten dollars. These are capable of making passable to good images in shallow (snorkel depth) settings. Housings for regular "throw away" cameras can be had in the hundred to two hundred dollar range. The next step up are the handful of dedicated underwater point and shoots cameras (e.g. Nikonos, Motomarine). For more serious folks, especially those who already have the investment in and experience with a good SLR camera, I strongly suggest you "surf" the Internet, inputting your camera's manufacturer name, as well as the terms "underwater photography". You will find a wealth of information and assistance there regarding housing possibilities.

Further Reading:


Allen, Gerald R. Photographing butterfly and angelfishes in the sea, p. 332. In:

Butterfly and Angelfishes of the World, v. 2. Aquarium Systems, OH. 352pp.

Havelin, Michael F.1991. Aquarium photography. AFM 5/91.

Herwig, Ellis. 1982. The Handbook of Color Photography. Amphoto Books, NY

Kodak, 1983. Take Better Pictures. Time-Life Books, U.S. & Canada.

Schulke, Flip. 1978. Underwater Photography for Everyone. Prentice-Hall, NJ.

Upton, Barbara & John. 1971. Photography, 2d ed. Little, Brown and Co., Boston.

Wu, Norbert.1994. How To Photograph Underwater. Stackpole Books, PA.

Wu, Norbert.1997. How To Photograph: Selling Nature Photographs. Stackpole Books, PA.

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