10 Common Underwater Photography Mistakes Beginners Make


Ready to try snapping photos under the sea? Great, now you have an underwater camera with housing, let’s get in the water! But wait a minute, make sure you are comfortable with your diving skills and buoyancy. Using a camera can be distracting, so improving your buoyancy control could make a huge difference in underwater photography; you can slowly glide in and arouse creatures’ curiosity rather than spook them.

Or you’ve already gotten the hang of exposing underwater images, but your composition seems bland. Well, don’t be embarrassed, we have all been there. That’s why we’ll guide you to much better pictures from your dives. Here are a few problems that underwater photographers encounter.

No Prominent Subject


This is common in a wide-angle landscape photo. You want to include everything in the frame but end up with no strong foreground subject. The reef image has a lot going on but lacks a subject or focal point to direct the eye. Don’t feel bad for taking shots like this, just try to think about finding a distinct subject for your foreground.

Blurred Images


Capturing moving subjects underwater is not as easy as on land. The best thing to do is pick a strobe and stick with it. If you’re shooting without a strobe, make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to freeze a subject that swims. That usually means higher than 1/70th of a second. If you find yourself having trouble getting complete focus, try increasing the depth of field with higher apertures (f/11 and higher). If you know the camera modes well, you can also lock manual focus and move the camera until the eyes are in the focus plane.

Cluttered Photos

This is another common mistake that many novice photographers make. They often focus on the subject and forget to keep an eye on the background as well. A good close-up shot of a turtle may be ruined by a half-deteriorated beer bottle nearby or another fish’s tail swimming through the frame.

Choose backgrounds that are going to show your subject most clearly. A lot of coral is too detailed and colorful to serve as a background, so look for simple clear backdrops if you can’t get these marine creatures against the blue.

Backscatter Everywhere


Sometimes having debris in your images is unavoidable. Capturing underwater scenes with a flash or light highlighting the tiny particles will result in backscatter. Most causes of backscatter come from improper strobe placement. Moving your strobes further out, away from behind the lens will greatly reduce backscatter.

Another tip to avoid backscatter is to get in as close as possible to your subject. This allows you to lessen the distance and debris that is captured.

Lack of Sharpness

If the fish is not sharp, it will not be a good photo. If your underwater photos don’t look sharp, check to see which shutter speed was used, it needs to be 1/30th for still objects, 1/60th for slow moving objects, and 1/125th or faster for faster moving fish. Find the eyes of the subject and use them as your focal point. You may be surprised that can get away with a blurry tail as long as the face and eyes are in sharp focus.

Too Far Away

“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” said Robert Capa, the world-famous war photographer. This also applies to underwater photography. There’s a good reason for that: you need to shoot through a minimum amount of water. Water absorbs light, if you shoot from a large distance your subject will be dark and blurry. Approach your subject from a small distance. You’ll have to do this by being relaxed and learning how not to scare creatures away by letting them get used to you, breathing calmly, and approaching with your camera already up.

Loss of Color


What looks vibrant above water doesn’t anymore when you’re under the sea. Water acts like a filter upon colors, absorbing and distorting most warm shades, and giving them a monochromatic bluish hue. The deeper you dive, the more colors are filtered out. First you lose reds, then oranges, then yellows. For diving photographers, it’s highly recommended to carry a white slate with you so that you can adjust the white balance at various depths. Don’t forget to adjust white balance as you ascend. You’ll need to correct for the return of colors that were lost at depth.

Getting up-close-and-personal and strobing the lights will solve the problem. A fisheye lens or a good filter offer some other quick fixes.

Always Look Down


The majority of people start taking photos underwater by swimming over subjects and taking photos from above. However, shooting upwards will not only help to separate the subject from the background, but produce dramatic shots. So, practice getting below a subject, or shoot at least at eye level, if possible.

Shooting Fish Butt


Never attempt to chase your subject —let the fish swim into the frame. Try to get a photo of a fish facing you. If possible, make eye contact between the subject and the camera, which will make the photo more vivid.

Bullseye-ing the Subject

Remember that when you take a picture of something, it’s not a target to be bullseyed. Sometimes it looks good to place the main subject in the center, sometimes it looks even better to follow the “rule of thirds.” That is, framing your subject at one of the intersections below.

Understand Your Subject


Underwater photography, like wildlife photography, relies heavily on the photographer’s knowledge of the subjects. It’s fine if you don’t know anything about the marine creatures ahead of you, but those who know and understand the behavior of what lies ahead of their lens are way more likely to capture better shots than those who have no clue about their subjects.

If you want to make a splash with your underwater photography skills, these are the things to note. Moreover, underwater photography requires patience, calmness, and a long period of training.

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Elena Wu, Senior Editor