Aquatic photography requires a new approach on almost all levels, from learning how to adapt to new gear to customizing your camera’s menu and buttons and dealing with a different set of rules for how light behaves in water. First, you need to make sure you are using the correct equipment and that it is fully tested. Here is how to get started!
Preparing Your Gear for Underwater Use
First, set up your gear to allow your cameras and lenses to safely function underwater while optimizing chances for great shots.
Choose a camera based on the attribute that will be most important when shooting under or at the surface of the water in a housing. Housings are customized for each DSLR and different housing models offer different levels of control. Select a housing specifically designed for your camera to ensure you have maximum functionality, which will be dictated by the physical controls specific to each housing.
What Your Camera Should Have for Most Underwater Shooting
- Full frame 35mm sensor
- RAW file capability
- Manual White Balance
- Ability to record to 2 memory cards simultaneously
- Fast frame rate
- Fast, multi-point fully customizable autofocus system
- Excellent battery life
- Low noise levels at high ISOs
Two excellent choices for shooting underwater are the Canon 5D Mark III or 7D/7D Mark II. Nikon shooters should look for housings for the D800/D810 and D750. Sony shooters can find housings for the a7 series and the a6300.
Most DSLR water housings do not offer 100% access to every button on a DSLR. The AquaTech Canon 5D Mark III housing offers more button access than the 6D housing, for example, but even on the 5D Mark III housing you can’t switch from M to Av or Tv mode; you must choose one before you put the camera in the housing.
Also, you will not be able to access the dial on the top of the camera adjacent to the shutter button, which is an often-used control. Instead, changes to shutter speed and other controls can be made via the “Q” button on the back of the camera, which you can access through the AquaTech 5D Mark III housing but not the 6D. The best thing to do before getting in the water is customize all of your functions to be assigned to the buttons that are accessible with your particular housing.
Lenses and Underwater Shooting
For lenses, you should choose a 1 lens/camera combination and then build a housing, extension tube, zoom gear (if using a zoom lens instead of a prime) and port combination to accommodate it.
Sticking to 1 lens is easiest because you must exit the water and dry the housing before changing lenses, tubes, zoom gears, and ports. You can swap lenses among ports but you must check the manufacturer’s chart first to make sure your new choice will work. If your port is too small for your next zoom lens, for example, then you may end up hitting the port’s plexiglass front when changing focal lengths.
A wide-to-medium telephoto lens, like the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II, is a versatile choice. Wide angles, such as the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II, are great for surface work. Macro lenses, such as the Canon 100mm f/2, are great for diving (up to 33′ deep) on reefs and shooting fish or marine life. Many surf photographers choose prime lenses (which have fixed focal lengths) and maneuver with fins into the perfect location on a wave.
Adjustment Tools to Use with Lenses Underwater
To control the zoom of a housed telephoto lens, you need a specific “zoom gear” for each lens. These are machined plastic gear rings that slip over the rubber zooming ring of your lens, enabling a wheeled gear mechanism on the outside of the housing to control your zoom (kind of like a follow focus unit in videography).
This can be critical when shooting sports or portraits in aquatic environments where you can’t reposition yourself to recompose. Before closing the housing, be sure to have the correct zoom ring on the lens by testing the zoom control.
If you are using a prime lens, you will not need a zoom ring.
Provides extra length for certain lenses inside certain ports. Having this on hand might make it so that you can have two different lenses using the same port when otherwise you wouldn’t be able to.
The pistol grip attachment, like that shown for the AquaTech 5D3 Elite Housing, is an invaluable aid for shooting action sports, especially when using Live View to compose photos on the back LCD screen of the camera while extended at arm’s length (or further when using a pole). You can shoot surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, or other surface water sports while floating on the water. If you want more articulation, AquaTech offers an extension pole that can put 3’ between you and the camera; you get closer to the action and can even take an underwater selfie.
Always make a checklist when planning for a water shoot. There are mission-critical items without which you may have to cancel your entire shoot. Here’s my list:
- Zoom rings for each zoom lens I bring
- Spare O-ring seals
- Ports for each lens I bring (or extension rings if that makes it so that I can use only 1 port)
- Domes for every lens (where applicable, otherwise your port will have a flat front)
- Housings and their included backplates
- Camera tripod plates
- Camera plate screws
- Flathead screwdriver
I have a Pelican case for underwater shoots years ago because to have everything in one hard case. When renting gear, I typically put all the boxes inside the Pelican and fill space with towels.
How to Properly Test Your Underwater Housing Equipment
Even though gear is testing before it leaves the factor, you must still test your housing’s integrity before submerging your gear. This can be done in a bathtub, a lake, or the ocean. Try all different combinations of lens ports, extension tubes, and back plates. Hold the assembled housing under calm water for at least 15-20 seconds and look for escaping air bubbles.
Do another test when you arrive to your shoot/dive/swim location for water-tightness. Dunk it, count to 15, and watch for air bubbles rising from underwater. Look for pooled water inside the bottom of the housing when you pull it out and hold it up.
Underwater Shooting Strategies
Since looking through the housing’s viewfinder while diving or floating in rough surf is challenging, I use the Live View feature of my Canon 5D Mark III and compose and adjust the exposure while viewing it live on the screen. Be aware that when doing so in autofocus mode, the frame rate of the camera may be less than it would be when looking through the viewfinder. Use the “burst” drive mode to overshoot so you can pick the best frame later.
Use a dome port (as opposed to a flat-front port) for “over/under” shots. Narrower apertures produce a crisper water line across the port and simultaneously produces maximum depth of field to the far distance.
When dealing with tricky exposures such as sunsets, the dynamic range can be extreme between above and below the water. Stabilize yourself and use your camera’s bracketing feature. You can blend the +/- exposures together later in Photoshop.
Since autofocus is tricky in underwater housings (water droplets on the lens port can confuse the AF system), use the “back button focus” feature on your housing (assign AF to a button on the back of your camera instead of relying on half-pressing the shutter button). If using your viewfinder (not Live View), you can set up your 5D III to switch between autofocus zone selection modes by pressing the “AF Point Select Button” through the housing, then using the scroll wheel on the back of the camera to customize your selection.
For some surface water sports, I sometimes switch my lens to MF and pre-focus on a known middle distance then use masking tape to lock the lens focus ring down before the camera goes in the housing. If I shoot in Av mode (Aperture Priority or just “A” for Nikon folks) and choose a high aperture, such as f/13, everything from the far horizon to about 6 feet from me will always be crisp. The camera will instantly fire at its max frame rate and won’t hunt for focus and blow the shot or, worse, accidentally back focus and leave my subject out of focus.
If autofocus is critical for your water shoot, or if you need to shoot at wider apertures, then before you put your camera in the water, spend some time with your camera’s manual and understand how to change the focus settings with the limited buttons on the housing you have.
General Water Shooting Tips and Tricks
Try to get really close to your subject (as close a few feet) when shooting underwater. Light travels through water more slowly and covers less distance than it does through air. Start by positioning yourself so that the sun is behind you as much as possible. Shooting during times that you might typically avoid above water (like the middle of the day) can produce excellent results underwater since the high angle of the noon-hour sun can light up underwater environments well.
Consider adding a flash to your underwater kit and make sure to use a setup (like leads or brackets) that allow the flash, or flashes, to sit off-axis from the lens. If you are skin diving in less than 20′ of water, make sure the sun is behind you. To get the maximum impact, don’t shoot down at fish and underwater creatures. Instead, be at their level, looking directly at them. When you’re shooting living things, make sure their eyes are in focus so your viewers can connect with the subject. This holds true for everything, from fish to seals to surfers.
Always double check your settings in the water-tight testing phase of your shoot. All menu settings and custom buttons should be ready to go before you jump into the water with your other gear. Anyone who SCUBA dives knows there is always a methodical, lengthy gear check done by you and your dive buddy before you enter the water. Don’t add the camera testing process to this – do it beforehand so you can focus on your safety.
Also, your photography will vastly improve if you are at ease in whatever water environment you are going to be shooting in before you jump into it with a camera. Shore breaks can be dangerous and riptides can pull you out to sea. Those who aren’t strong swimmers can easily get themselves into trouble when they are focused on operating a camera and not paying attention to the water’s environment. An old Hawaiian maxim always holds true for me: never, ever turn your back on the ocean.
Shooting in or around water is an exciting, challenging new environment in which to shoot. If you invest the time to learn how your camera will work in a particular housing, assign your camera functions accordingly, and test it before you use it, then you can be amazingly creative in the water with little to no worry. Dive in!
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