Imagine coming face to face with a school of tropical fish and capturing an image of them just as they turn their flat bodies 90 degrees, showing you all their bright, beautiful colors. Or snapping a shot of a shy octopus just as it jets away in a cloud of ink. You can do all of that and more with underwater photography.

Even if you’re a beginner, you can learn to take photos underwater. But it does take more than just a waterproof camera to capture sharp, high-quality images.

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What Is Underwater Photography?

This art form is a type of nature photography that is done under the surface of a body of water. While there is often a focus on underwater flora and fauna, you’ll also see the format used for commercial and editorial purposes (for example, underwater modeling or portraits).

Person holding massive camera with red lights while scuba diving next to large coral with fish.
A photographer explores the ocean with an underwater setup.

Methods and equipment for underwater photography vary depending on how deep you’re going and the specific aquatic environment you’ll be exploring. Many professional photographers scuba dive in order to get the perfect shot, but swimming, snorkeling, or shooting from the surface are some more accessible options for beginners.

Types of Underwater Photography

There are many different types of underwater environments—and many different types of underwater photography. Which one you decide to pursue will largely come down to what you have access to in terms of location and equipment, though experience and individual preferences certainly play a role, too.

Underwater Ocean Photography

There are about 240,000 known marine species living in the ocean, and a wide variety of underwater ecosystems just waiting to be explored. Ocean photography is all about getting up close and personal with this amazing biodiversity, training your camera on the animals, plants, and habitats that call the ocean home.

As is true with many types of nature photography, underwater ocean photography tends to have a strong conservation focus. Beyond showcasing the wonder beneath the water, ocean photographers also help bring awareness to the delicate balance of life on our planet and remind viewers what’s at stake when we talk about the importance of ocean protection and preservation.

Bright colored fish swimming around brightly colored coral.
There are many types of fish in the sea, including potentially hundreds of thousands that have yet to be captured on camera.

Underwater Macro Photography

Macro photography, or close-up photography, is just as impressive underwater as it is on land. And because many bodies of water are teeming with life, getting a stunning shot with underwater macro photography just comes down to getting your lighting and angles right—plus being in the right place at the right time.

Wide-Format Underwater Photography

The sheer number of diverse plants and animals in the water means that any shot you take is likely to have something going on. Wide-angle underwater photography is a way to display this varied environment, showing a slice of life under the water that may center around structures like coral reefs or kelp forests. Or, it may simply serve to show the expansiveness of a place that so few people get to immerse themselves in.

Underwater Wildlife Photography

Animal-loving photographers will find no shortage of subjects underwater. And while the ocean is a prime location for wildlife photography, lakes, rivers, ponds, and swamps are just as worthy of wildlife exploration.

Sea turtle with yellow fish under water
Clearly, this sea turtle has been practicing their poses.

Commercial and Editorial Underwater Photography

Underwater photoshoots for fashion and other commercial or editorial purposes require skilled underwater photographers with a knack for shooting in wet environments. This type of photography is generally less nature-focused and more about how the water impacts the look and feel of the subject. As such, shoots may take place in a pool instead of a natural body of water.

Day Underwater Photography vs. Night Underwater Photography

Just as golden hour is an ideal time for taking photos on land, the underwater world has its own times when the light is just right for shooting. This tends to be between noon to 2pm, when the sun is at its peak in the sky and more rays are able to travel through the water and into your lens.

For this reason, day underwater photography is an easier place to start than night underwater photography. However, the latter isn’t impossible. You’ll just have to adjust your strategy depending on when you head out, bringing in extra artificial light for any period when the sun isn’t going to be bright enough to serve your needs.

Essential Underwater Photography Equipment

The key items you’ll need for an underwater photoshoot are a suitable camera, lenses, and an artificial lighting setup. You’ll also need to be equipped with scuba gear, a snorkel, or a submersible, though what you’ll need will vary based on the specifics of your skills and project.

So, what should you be looking for in underwater photography equipment? Here are the basics.

Choosing a Camera for Underwater Photography

The best camera for underwater photography is a full-frame digital or mirrorless camera that offers manual control of your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO and—just as importantly—is intended for use in the water. Be sure to pay attention to the depth that a camera is able to travel to, since some underwater cameras aren’t designed to withstand the pressure as you head further down.

If you have a sufficient camera and don’t want to buy a new one, look into underwater camera housing options. Specialty housings can be used with most types of cameras, including phone cameras, and they’re meant to protect your camera better than the waterproof camera bags you can buy at tourist gift shops. They can also extend the depth range on a traditional underwater camera.

Underwater Camera Lenses

Unless you’re shooting macro photography underwater (in which case you’ll need a macro lens), a standard wide-angle lens around 24mm should be sufficient. This will ensure you capture as much light as possible for the frame and are able to take advantage of your camera’s full-frame capabilities.

Underwater Lighting

Light is variable and can be quite hard to come by under the water, but you’re better off bringing in additional lighting than opting for a low-light camera. That’s because the features that optimize a camera for low-light conditions can also muddy up your images underwater, resulting in blurry photos that don’t have that professional quality you’re looking to achieve.  

To remove any guesswork, buy an underwater lighting kit, which will have everything you need without having to buy each piece separately.

Lighting, Composition, Camera Settings, and More

Fundamentals of DSLR Photography

How to Take Underwater Photos

Having the right equipment is essential for shooting underwater, and so is having the right techniques and settings.

On full manual mode, set your camera to base ISO and turn on automatic flash. You’ll probably need to adjust aperture and exposure to the conditions you’re in, but start with an aperture value of f/8.0 and a fast shutter speed and then tweak from there. To make it easier, play around with your settings in a dim room instead of trying to adjust underwater. Then, check the settings again when you’re on location to ensure they’re where you want them.

There’s a lot going on in the water, even beyond what you can see with the naked eye. For that reason, the closer you can get to your subjects, the better. Try to shoot within two or three feet of your focal point for best results, and always aim for physical proximity as opposed to shortening the distance with a zoom lens.  

Some photography techniques—such as long exposure or time lapse—will require that you change up your approach. Always do your research and take some practice shots ahead of time so that you can spend more time shooting and less time fiddling with your camera settings. The same goes for figuring out your lighting set-up and how you’ll want to utilize your kit.

Photo of snorkler but half of it is edited and half is not
You can adjust things like brightness when you’re editing, but you’ll still need to nail your technique to get a good shot. (Photograph by Skillshare student Althea Jaskha.)

Underwater Photography Tips for Beginners

The best way to get good at underwater photography is to practice, though it also helps to pick up a few pointers before you start. Here are some beginner-friendly tips to get you going.

Check the Weather

A clear, sunny day with still water is an optimal time to go under with your camera. That isn’t to say that you can’t do shoots in other conditions, but it will necessitate more advanced techniques.

In addition to considering how the weather will play out with your images, consider safety too. Avoid storms and choppy waters, even if you feel confident in your swimming abilities.

Pay Attention to Composition

Composition always matters, even when you’re underwater. You might not have a direct structure to anchor your frame, but you should always have a focal point and a well-balanced layout. Also pay close attention to movement and light in the shot, both of which will greatly impact your image.

Use a Power Strobe

An underwater strobe light helps sharpen colors underwater and offset the darkening effects of a fast shutter speed. It can also serve to freeze underwater movement and sharpen surrounding details, both of which will result in a better shot.

Practice Stationary Shooting

Unlike on land, you won’t have a tripod to steady your camera with. It’ll be up to you to lock in your frame and keep the camera from shaking, and that takes practice. Work on controlling your breathing and your hands, as well as naturally managing your buoyancy in the water.

Start Shallow

Before you head into the depths, bring your camera along on a beach day and get comfortable shooting in shallow waters. There are a lot of basic techniques that you’ll be able to practice, which you can expand upon as you get more advanced in your skills.

Bring People Into the Shot

You can use human subjects to add context to your images and tell a different type of story. If you already have an interest in portrait photography or other people-focused projects, bring your work into the water and see how you can mix things up.

New to Photography?

Fundamentals of DSLR Photography

Written by:

Laura Mueller