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For the budding underwater photographer in all of us

Guest Post by @TravelJody 

When Jody told me she knew a thing or two about underwater photography, I was so excited she wanted to share her tips. I`m sure you`ll nod your head a few times reading this article and thinking `yes that has happened to me before`. Well now she`ll tell you how to fix it. Enjoy the read!

There is nothing worse than returning from your well-earned vacation and finding that all the underwater shots you took are blue, out of focus and nowhere near the photographic masterpiece you were sure you had, sound familiar?  Hopefully this article can mean it never happens again!

Bright colours with white balance adjustmentThis shot was taken in natural late afternoon light with just an automatic underwater mode!


There are three types of set up for shooting underwater;

  1. The disposable camera
  2. The waterproof camera
  3. Digital camera in a specialized underwater housing

Camera in HousingMy current set up is a Canon compact camera with a Canon housing, depth rated to 40m

The disposable cameras are not something I could ever use or recommend, there is no room for error and you never know what you have captured until some times after your trip.

A waterproof camera or camera in a specialized housing are my weapons of choice, rather than go into lots of technical details about the settings and possible shortfalls of each, here is a quick summary of each.

Waterproof – Have seals keeping battery/SD card compartments dry, usually cheaper to purchase than a specialized housing set up and many have underwater color modes to help with white balance issues.

Camera & Housing – Can be a costly investment but this set up can usually be added to with lenses and strobes as your underwater photography skills increase.  Takes more in-depth knowledge to use effectively.


My shots are always really blue and washed out, with very little color, why is that?

Washed out shot - no wbWithout adjustment or light, everything appears very blue.

Ah, this is the amazing light absorption power of water at work!  This effect is due to the high density of water compared to air and different colors simply ‘disappear’ as you go deeper.

There are a number of different ways to help reduce this most common cause of disappointment in underwater photography;

  • Use a camera that has some sort of white balance compensation.

Many of the newer waterproof cameras have specified white balance modes for underwater photography (Canon included, my Panasonic actually has two modes).  These modes instruct the camera to adjust the color spectrum to compensate for the absorption of light.

If your camera doesn’t have an underwater mode then it’s likely you can manually adjust the white balance once in the water.  This normally means using a white slate, or even just your hand, to tell the camera that what it is photographing is white, it can then adjust the color spectrum accordingly.

I usually use a manual white balance for diving, changing it every few meters depth change due to the more profound changes to the way the camera sees color at depth.  For snorkeling I tend to use a prescribed underwater mode for ease of use.

  • Use light – artificial and natural

The most effective way to restore the correct color balance is to use light.  Serious underwater photographers will often carry external strobes for this very reason.  For snorkeling however, it’s not particularly practical!

Lion Fish - taken with flashI spotted this lion fish hiding in a black rock crevice.  By extending my arm and using the internal flash I was able to get enough light for a clear picture.

Almost every camera has an inbuilt flash and it can be used underwater but there are some problems with doing so.  An internal flash is not particularly powerful and will only make a reasonable difference to your shot if you were incredibly close to your subject.  Particles in the water may also reflect the light back to the camera sensor, resulting in little red dots in the photo – backscatter.  Both of these issues can be reduced by being as close as possible, and safe, to the item you want to capture, easier said than done!

BackscatterCan you see the little red speckles?  This is sand particles reflecting the light in the water back to the camera.

A free and fairly reliable form of light actually comes from above your head!  The Sun can make a lot of difference to your shots, either washing them out completely or providing a lovely ambient light, the key is a bit of trial and error but a wise choice would be to keep the sun behind you as much as possible to reduce glare.  Do keep in mind that you don’t want to use flash if you have altered the white balance or your shots will be incredibly pink.


The fish are too fast, all my shots are blurry or out of focus!

I feel your pain, this was the thing that bothered me the most on my first attempt at snorkeling and taking pictures.  Fortunately, there are some easy tips to help get those little blighters in the shot!

  • Consider using a burst mode

I think every camera I have every come across seems to have this feature and a very useful one it can be.  I’ve seen variations from a three shot burst, to five, to the camera will keep shooting until you release the shutter.  The latter is probably a little overkill but a three shot burst can help if you are finding that you tend to just capture the front end of a fish.  Just keep in mind that your memory card will fill quicker doing this.

  • Does your camera have an auto focus?

Many either don’t know how to use this or what it really means.  In essence, when pressing the shutter half way, the camera will focus on the subject and stay focused until you press the button the whole way down.  This is great if the subject is a fish that’s darting around in front of you, simply focus on him and follow him until he stops for a moment, job done.

  • Shoot film instead!

There are some days where you just feel like it’s not coming together, or maybe there is so much around you it would be impossible to pick one subject, then this is the time to switch to video.  This is where many waterproof cameras excel over standard cameras in housings, they often have one touch record buttons and shoot in amazing high definition.  It’s actually really easy to take stills from video now and means you have much more to work with, don’t be afraid to give it a whirl next time you go snorkeling.  You might want to check in advance whether your camera has a white balance mode that works underwater too, this will help the colors be truer to life.


Other hints, tips and tricks?

  • Extend your arms!

It might sound strange but it’s natural to keep your arms close to your chest when snorkeling, extending them out can help you get much closer to your subject!

  • Use an editing program

It might sounds like cheating but it’s impossible to get great shots all of the time.  There are many free editing programs out there that can adjust the colors, sharpen things up and crop out blurry parts.  Half hour learning the program may just save an entire batch of shots.

Clown Trigger pre Edit

I was really happy with this picture, the shot was focused, clear and with reasonable color but I ran it through a one button editor fix and ended up with this:

Clown Trigger post Edit

  • Knowledge is power

The first thing to keep in mind is that a camera can only be as good as the operator, knowing the features of your equipment, and how to navigate the menus will be the first step in improving your underwater photos. 


Hopefully this will get you started and give you some points to think about next time you are in the water, if you want to get further into the technical side of underwater photography there are some great books out there that explain how changing the aperture, ISO and shutter speed can impact on your shots.

Most of all, have fun and stay safe whilst snorkeling, and don’t forget to send me your shots!

More on this Guest Writer

Jody Chalmers is a travel addict who loves to snorkel and eat. Follow her adventures at TravelJody.com or find her on Twitter aka @Travel Jody.

Have you tried underwater photography before?


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4 Responses to “For the budding underwater photographer in all of us”

  1. James August 13, 2013 2:18 pm #


    Last year, I forgot to take my waterproof didital camera with me when snorkelling in Malaysia. We bought a disposable and got some reasonably alright snaps developed but was wondering if there is anything i can do to get them to be better as some are blurry and very blue.

  2. Jessica August 17, 2013 8:56 pm #

    Fantastic article. Thanks for the tips.

    • Isabelle August 17, 2013 11:08 pm #

      Thanks Jessica, Jody did a great job!


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