Underwater Digital Photography: Beginner’s Guide

Written by Mihajlo Filipovic

Photograph the exotic world of underwater using these recommended digital camera settings and proven snorkeling techniques.

Ready to experience the exciting and exotic world of underwater photography?! If so, these important camera tips and snorkeling techniques will help you take impressive underwater photos.

Shy Queen angel fish

Before entering the water

Before going into any water, get information about the kind of life to expect to know whether or not it is dangerous to you. If known dangers lurk, don’t approach.

Double-check the closures on the camera or underwater casing. If the casing is transparent, look for the continuous black line of the o-ring pressing all along the hatch. If the line is broken, maybe there is some other obstacle between the groove and the ring, or the ring is ungreased: that’s where water comes in! See the o-ring maintenance procedure and be sure everything has been done properly.

Keep your equipment out of the sun when it’s not in the water! A hot camera cools promptly in the water, causing the trapped humidity to condense. This can create an optical obstruction, possibly also an electrical problem. All the accessories should be kept in the shade as well.

Let’s say you are already familiar with the snorkeling gear. You routinely use spit instead of commercial de-fogging solution to rub the inside of the faceplate. You remember to remove hair strands from under the mask rim. You carry the snorkel on the left side of your mask since the breathing regulator will be looping in over your right shoulder. Your fins fit exactly, and you move in the water soundlessly.

You may have invested in a diving knife with a short, strong blade and large non-slipping handle. Carry it on the inside of your right calf, accessible to either hand.

A knife can be  useful for cutting yourself free from some weed, nets or ropes. If even the camera snags in some tight place, you can cut away the strap and get to the surface. Don’t consider the knife as a weapon. It is almost useless unless one KNOWS very much about underwater combat.

Make sure your camera battery is fully charged. Take a spare, fully charged  for every diving or snorkeling swim. Make sure your memory card has enough space for what’s planned and have an extra memory card too.

Choosing underwater locations

Saint Andrews State Park Jetty

Choose underwater locations by looking at the coastline. Steep sides will signal the same slope continuing underwater.

Rough, wave-hewn littoral (on or near the shore, especially between high and low tide marks) open against prevalent winter winds will almost certainly guarantee lots of rocks and boulders on the bottom, and that’s where the water animals hide, hunt and hover.

The same rule applies for seas, lakes, or rivers, diversified only in the sense of they type of water life one expects to find in a chosen body of water.

Flat coast will mean shallows. Pretty sand beaches are usually crowded with bathers, and there you can only expect to see those species that can’t quickly get away. The exceptions will be at both ends of the beach, where terrain changes. These are good places to look for sand-inhabiting life, as there are less feet to trample them. The less people, the more underwater life and cleaner waters.

Choosing the best time for your photo swim

Golden Hour Sunrise

In snorkeling photography one relies a lot on the sunlight. Usually the best hours for photographing underwater will be two hours after sunrise and two hours before sundown.

Later on, and especially if your target is fish, you may wish to try the exact sunrise hour. This is when day browsers and night hunters change place. In this magic hour the waters teem with fish as daylight species leave their hiding places and night-roaming species return from the hunt.

Entering the water

Entering the shallows, let your camera sink to the bottom if there are no waves to tumble it around. Let it cool off while you put on the fins and prep your mask. With fins on, you may find it easier to wade in backwards, but only if the terrain is familiar. Cool yourself too, before putting on the mask. Relax and float.

Once in the water, move slowly and try not to create any noise. Observe all around you. Study animal behavior.

Chances are, you’ll soon spot something worth shooting! Learn how the underwater life reacts to your presence and don’t rush it. There will be plenty of opportunities. In all aspects of this fascinating photo experience, try never to hurry! Bide your time, and behave water-like.

You’ll soon learn which species let you get close, and which ones don’t. Many animals won’t mind if you approach as slowly as the water carries you in. As you prepare for the shot, make no sudden moves. Close in, shoot and move the camera away in the same, water-like rhythm.

Basic underwater camera settings and techniques

I’ve personally found few situations that would require special settings.

I recommend using Auto mode. When you learn what kind of reaction to expect from the variety of water life you meet and feel more comfortable under water, you may want to adjust settings.

To maintain color, contrast and sharpness, take photos within three-four feet of a subject. The closer, the better. It is good when the object is at right angles (vertically and horizontally) to the line of sight, in order to be uniformly lighted.

Focus will also be faster when a subject is close, when there is contrast in the scene and, of course, when the lighting is good. Photograph at the eye-level of the subject and focus on the eyes. For some shots you will need to pre-focus by half-pressing the shutter release button.

There is not much chance for long exposures since the water moves at all times. Short exposure times are usually  the best. Select the lowest ISO possible to help ensure noise-free photos.

Using a flash underwater

The use of flash underwater is tricky. It may be compared to use in the fog or in dense smoke. The problem is in the visibility which depends of the percentage off suspended particles. To avoid their reflections the best way is to use remote unit as a main light source, from an angle between 45 and 90 degrees to the line connecting the camera to the subject. The built-in camera flash is then used only to trigger the remote unit.

However when close to a subject, using the built-in camera flash can enhance the color and help minimize the blue color cast. Set the camera to Forced Flash, not Auto Flash.

Underwater Macro photography

The water about your arm’s length deep is your best layer for underwater macro photography. Set your camera to Macro mode and set White Balance to Daylight (or Underwater Scene Mode). This depth still contains the whole light spectra. Greater depths filter out colors, but in the shallows the sunlight is complete.

When using macro mode, use the widest angle because you can focus more closely on the subject. No zoom can replace proximity, excepting the cases where tele-compression is an intended effect of the long lens. Using wide angle encompasses big objects from small distances, which reduces the quantity of suspended matter between camera and the object.

Your underwater attitude

An important thing to remember is never to think of your photographic objects as catches or food! It will be transmitted by means still not understood, but it will surely keep water life at a distance. Send thoughts of admiration and warmth, and you won’t believe how well it will be recognised. And never, absolutely never hurt any living being underwater!

Believe it or not, such an attitude will reward you with astounding views, unbelievable contacts  – and rewarding photos. Be forewarned, once you enter the underwater space, expect to be hooked for life!

For in-depth information, visit the Underwater Photography Guide and the Dive Photo Guide websites.

Photos and text by Mihajlo Filipovic, except as indicated below.

Shy Queen Anglefish by laszlo-photo
St Andrews State Park Jetty by Gregory Moine
Golden Hour Sunrise by G. Bjork

About the author

Mihajlo Filipovic

Fil worked in informatics running a computing centre and as a pro photographer for the Croatian Water Management (ambiental and tech photography, and photo editor for the company magazine). Fil has been a diver-photographer for about 40 years, amateur most of the time and pro for several months on an assignment in hydrogeology.

Now retired, Fil lives with his wife, a painter and photographer, at Lake Ohrid, in Macedonia.


  • Thanks, Kevin.
    It’s not too difficult, it only needs adapting to the new and very restricting optical medium.
    Any camera that has a flat-glass port in front of the lens will “see” the ambient the same way you see it. Since your mask also has a flat port (uncorrected for water), the apparent distances will be the same for you and the camera. So just focus the way you see.
    It’s different with dedicated u/w lenses which have their ports corrected (e.g. utilised as the part of the lens system). Some of those will require focussing at the proper distance (=as measured), which means further than the apparent distance that you see. It means, if your object seems to be 3′ away, you’ll have to focus at a measured 4′, etc.
    As to the monitor brightness, I wouldn’t worry. The human eye is very adaptible and in most cases the standard brightness will be sufficient. Also, as u/w shooting distances depend upon various other factors, your themes will rarely be further than 6′. If you use a strobe within that distance, that will be the longest possible optimum shot anyway, because of the “blue barrier”, etc.
    The most important thing when one begins in u/w photography is paying attention to what one does, making as many shots of a single scene, to be able to analyse the results later, noting the success and failures for the next session. It will soon become as normal as our usual dry-land photographing.

  • It is very difficult to capture underwater pictures. You need to focus on various factors and follow certain techniques to capture good pictures. Many important tips are provided here, I would like to add some more. Always increase the brightness of your camera as there is very less light when you go deeper in the water. Use good quality goggles so that you can clearly focus your subject.