A LAND MAMMAL, IT MAY SEEM OUTRAGEOUS TO PLUNGE AN ELECTRONIC DEVICE INTO THE OCEAN.
And even more outrageous to hold your breath for minutes on end, hoping to capture a magical encounter with a sea creature large enough to swallow you whole. But have you ever floated, weightlessly, 15 metres below the ocean’s surface while the lullabies of a humpback whale reverberate through your body? It’s incredible.
Underwater photography, while extremely challenging and unnecessarily scary, is a craft that pretty much anyone can master with a small amount of practice and the help of an underwater masterclass or two.
The only prerequisites—an underwater camera, the ability to swim, and of course, a keen sense of adventure. Here’s my breakdown of what you need to know to deep dive anywhere:
FIRST UP, THERE ARE THE RULES
Before we get into the fun stuff, we’ve got to address safety. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the photographic moment and forget you’re actually in a dynamic and potentially life-threatening environment. Trust me, I’ve been there. This is the checklist I shoot by:
Always swim and shoot with a buddy, and make a dive plan.
Work within the weakest buddy's swim and dive ability.
Check the local weather and water conditions before jumping in.
Wear proper snorkelling or diving gear.
Avoid holding your breath for too long, and always use proper breathing techniques.
Check local regulations and obtain necessary permits for taking photos in protected areas.
Pack a first aid kit and brush up on emergency care techniques.
Stay hydrated. Heavy breathing expels more H2O than you think.
Never touch or provoke marine life. You are there as an observer and nothing more.
SECOND, INVEST IN THE RIGHT GEAR
If you’re like me, you absolutely froth gear. Camera gear, sports gear, tech gear; there’s always something bigger and better than last year’s release. But in good news for our wallets, you don’t actually need much to get started in underwater photography. Here’s what you need:
This list will be determined by your skillset (ie. if you’re a scuba diver or a free diver) but these are the basics:
You’ll need a good exposure suit, matched to your water conditions—this could range from boardies in the summer to a cheap secondhand wetty in open ocean; a mask and snorkel is a must, any mask will do so long as it’s fitted to your face. When choosing a snorkel, avoid any with a closing valve at the top—go for a simple rubber J-Tube instead.
You don’t have to break the bank when making a camera purchase, but keep in mind that investing in quality equipment can significantly improve your photos.
When buying, consider whether you want a compact, mirrorless or DSLR for your underwater photography. Each type has its pros and cons, so research is always a good idea.
My top recommendation to all new underwater photographers is the Olympus TG-6. This little point-and-shoot requires no additional housing, down to 15 metres, with the option to purchase a proprietary housing (45 metres). It shoots RAW, is highly expandable with strobes and lenses, features an optical wide-to-tele zoom, films in 4K, and best of all, doubles as a rugged everyday travel, point-and-shoot camera.
For those wanting to push their skills, my go-to camera set-up is the Olympus E-M1 Mark II inside the Olympus PT-EP14 Housing + M.Zuiko 7-14mm f2.8 PRO lens.
All my images have been shot using this relatively compact and affordable solution.
At the end of the day, look for a camera that has manual controls, a fast burst rate, the ability to shoot in RAW and great autofocus. When it comes to lenses, the wider the better.
This is what keeps your camera safe and dry in the deep. Some housings are only rated for shallow water, while others are rated for lower depths.
Always check the depth rate. While you might be tempted to opt for a cheap clear plastic case over your smartphone, just know you are flirting with danger. That being said, I did shoot the image (to the right / below) with my smartphone.
Consider the controls on the housing and make sure they’re easy to use. Some housings have levers that your thumb operates for ‘back-button focusing’ and another for the shutter. These are just so much more ergonomic. Big tick from me.
THIRDLY, KNOW YOUR SETTINGS
For a beginner underwater photographer, the following camera settings are a good place to start.
Start with the ‘Underwater’ scene mode if your camera has one or try shooting in ‘Aperture Priority’ (A or Av) mode, which will allow you to control the depth of field.
Set the aperture to a moderate value, such as f/8 to f/11, to ensure a good balance of sharpness and background blur. Using a wide-angle lens combined with a narrow aperture means even if you miss focus, there's a good chance your shot will still be sharp.
Aim for a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second or faster to capture the motion of slow-swimming fish. 1/500s> for underwater models or slower animals like turtles. 1/1000s> for animals like seals, whales and other fast-moving creatures.
While a low ISO minimises noise, setting it low means your shutter speed can drop too far, and you'll end up with a blurry shot. It's 100% better to have a noisy sharp image that can be de-noised in post-production. I recommend starting with an ISO 800 and boosting up to ISO 3200 when the sun dips behind a cloud or you dive a little deeper than the surface. Set your camera to Auto ISO with these parameters, and you'll be sweet!
Always shoot in RAW to maximise dynamic range and colour. It's a no-brainer. However, if you must shoot in JPG, set the white balance to ‘Underwater’ or ‘Custom’ if your camera has these options, or manually adjust it until the colours look natural.
I typically use Continuous AF with back-button focusing turned on. Because you and your subject cannot remain motionless, you'll need to manually position the camera to keep the subject in the focus box. This way, the camera does the heavy lifting. I recommend a centred cross-type or 9-box autofocus pattern. (See below)
Centred cross-type focus pattern
9-box auto-focus pattern
Like any new skill, the only way to get better is to be in the water and practise your craft. The more confident you are in the water, the more relaxed you’ll be with your camera. This, in turn, will lead to
...the bestest, most epic underwater shots of them all.
‘RIO DE LAS VUELTAS’
Santiago Gonzalez Redondo's drone shot of the the river 'Rio de las Vueltas' in Patagonia's El Chalten is beautifully surrealist. The striking colours, the interesting textures—the landscape looks, quite literally, otherworldly. If we were told this was Mars, we'd believe it.
Congratulations to Santiago Gonzalez Redondo for winning our Frame Your View competition. Santiago has scored an OM System camera for entering this incredible shot.
THINK YOU'VE GOT A WINNER?
Send us your best travel photos for a chance to win an OM-5 + 14-150mm Kit, valued at AU$2,339, plus have your image featured in the July/August issue of get lost! This stylish, compact, interchangeable lens camera is perfect for travel. explore.omsystem.com
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