Scuba Diving Photography Tips

by Rick Carlson:

The amazing thing about diving is that we get to see things most people go their whole lives without seeing… and they don’t even know they’re missing it! It’s no surprise that diving and photography can go hand in hand. Why not capture a bit of that world and bring it back to theirs?

Let’s say you have a new underwater camera system. Where do you start? Here are a few things to think about when trying your new equipment. But remember, photography is an art, like anything creative it will take time, practice, care, and patience (because you’ll experience lots of frustration). This skill will grow with you and may become a major part of your life.  Have fun with it. Your enjoyment will give you the fuel to learn more, practice more, and never stop.

Framing your subject

Whether it’s a wreck or a nudibranch, framing is key to any good shot. A mistake many new photographers and videographers make is always placing their subject in the exact center of their working space. Sometimes this works. (Let’s face it, there really is no right or wrong to “art.”) But, more often than not, constantly centering your subject doesn’t work. Why? Because it’s too perfect.

As humans, it’s hard for us to intentionally make something imperfect, even though that’s what we are used to seeing in nature. Nevertheless, there is an approach to composition that has proven to be very pleasing to the eye because of its use of negative space and its natural look and feel. This composition technique, known as the Rule of Thirds, does a good job at combating the tendency to make things overly perfect.

photo tips

Here is how it works:

  • Imagine you have a grid lying across your display. This grid is evenly divided into thirds, vertically and horizontally.
  • By placing important details of your photo at the intersections of this grid, you will see that you have created negative space around your subject that makes the image appear less planned out and more appealing to viewers — almost as if they were there seeing it firsthand.

Keep in mind the distance to the subject as well. Remember that light has a harder time getting from the camera to the subject with water in between. This can cause a loss of color and focus. Better to get close, get low, and shoot upward.


We teach divers to always have backups. This applies to underwater imaging as well. A common mistake is not shooting enough photos or video.

Some photographers will spend ten minutes or more framing their subject, checking the light and waiting for the perfect time to snap a picture. With one click, they’re done — but they’re really not. That one, single photo may turn out to be the best thing since sliced bread, but odds are it won’t.

If you only capture a single image or a few seconds of footage, you stand a good chance of catching reflections, dust, sand, or other particles floating around. You may also have moved at the last second and now can’t tell that blurry octopus apart from the rock it was on.

Your goal isn’t to snap 100 pictures or shoot 100 minutes of video without paying attention but to be aware that every second could be an opportunity. While you are waiting for the stars to align, be looking at the camera, seeing what could have potential. If you think it might be interesting, capture it. Don’t let a good shot slip away because you are too worried of it being perfect.

Remember to breathe and be comfortable

Like a sniper, you are on a mission. When not using a tripod, this can be difficult. Lining up your shot can be one of the hardest challenges you face, next to finding the desired subject.

This all ties into your level of comfort as a diver and your surroundings. Let’s be honest, the less you move the better. Even something as simple as breathing can harm a photo on dry land. Now imagine you’re under water, where breathing affects buoyancy.

You already have to take into account the effect of surge and current. A diver who can’t hold still will have a heck of a time getting near his subject, let alone trying to frame the right shot.

You can improve this with time and experience. Getting out and diving, fine tuning your trim, and practicing your other skills is the only way to improve. Remember: sight your target, slow your breathing, stabilize yourself, aim and shoot.

Always shoot in highest quality

photo tips for divers

Most of today’s cameras offer the option to save photos in RAW format, or a combination of RAW and JPEG. If you have this option, use it. Doing so is vital; we can’t stress this enough.

So, what does it mean to shoot in RAW? When you take a photo and the camera saves it as a JPEG or other compressed format, much of the data that is captured by the image sensor is discarded in an effort to reduce file size. That could be important if you had an unusually small SD card, or if you were posting an image on a website. It is not, however, the way to ensure the best image quality.

When shooting in RAW format, every bit of data your image sensor captures is saved to your SD card or other storage media. Nothing is lost. This affords you maximum flexibility when processing that image later.

Depending on the software you have available, you may be able to:

  • Adjust color temperature or accentuate reds, greens, or blues
  • Lighten or darken overall exposure, or just highlights, shadows, or mid-tones
  • Increase or decrease contrast
  • Increase or decrease saturation
  • Increase or soften sharpness and clarity

Using programs such as Adobe Photoshop, and by shooting and saving in RAW, you can do the most amazing things with seemingly hopeless images.


Last, but most certainly not least, comes the topic of lighting. Keep in mind, that as you descend, you will lose color, starting with red, orange, then yellow, etc.

When close to the surface, and within the right distance to your subject, it may not be necessary to use a light source since you will still have a lot of ambient light, given the right time of day. Shooting from below up towards your subject can even give an interesting appearance of shadowing, and a beautiful effect known as “God Rays”.

When not close to the surface, using a strobe or video light can help overcome color loss and is something few serious underwater photographers and videographers do without. Be aware, however, that even the most powerful of strobes and video lights are of little value outside of arm’s reach.

This is why you need to learn how to white balance your camera, helping to ensure the best possible color regardless of distance to subject. If your camera system does not offer this ability, the alternative is to use add-on color filters.

I hope these tips will help you in your future endeavors, and if you’re curious to learn more you, might try taking a look at SDI’s Underwater Photographer or Underwater Videographer course! You can always contact your local SDI Dive Center for more information.

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1 reply
  1. Tex Hooper
    Tex Hooper says:

    I like what you said about being aware of how many pictures you are taking of the same object. I need to get a photographer to help out with my sister’s wedding. I’ll have to hire someone who is good with low lighting.


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