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How to take Great Underwater Pictures using Compact Cameras without a Strobe

Have you ever wondered why the underwater pictures from your last dive weren’t all that great? Why they were mostly a bluish/green mix of water and far from the beautiful reef and fish life-pictures you see in the dive magazines? You might be thinking that it’s the quality and performance of your compact camera holding you down. But before you go and spend money on new equipment, try to consider what you can do to improve your pictures using what you have already. Let me tell you now, you don’t need a big DSLR underwater camera to capture greatpictures. You just need to know how to use your cameras features to the best of their capabilities. This quick guide will help you bring back some amazing pictures from your next dive. Two things to remember before we go any further: 1) Light and Depth is crucial to your pictures. 2) Light is essential to everything, including your pictures. As you should know from your dive theory, light is being absorbed in the water. As sunlight penetrates the water, it interacts with the molecules of water, which is 800 times denser than air. In effect, water diffuses light causing a reduction in brightness. When diving in clear tropical water you wont miss the light that much, but as the light is being absorbed the colours will disappear one by one. The first colour to be absorbed is red followed by orange, yellow and then green. This is the reason why your pictures mostly have those bluish/green colours and don’t have all those nice warm colours. Depending on the water conditions the red colour will be completely gone at a depth of 5-10 meters (17-33 feet). Light penetration in water will depend a lot on weather conditions and the time of day. Expect lesser light intensity when you dive in choppy waters than a nice flat surface. Sunlight coming from the horizon is reflected compared to sunlight straight from above. So when you are taking pictures using natural light, it’s best to do it from 10am to 3pm where you’ll have the most sunlight. 

How do I get the right colours into my underwater pictures?

The two best ways to get colours into your underwater pictures are: • Bring your own light – either with a build-in flash or strobe • Find the natural light. You don’t want to be using your built-in flash when taking wide pictures of the reef or big marine life that is shot from a distance, I’ll get to why later. Using a strobe will give you great light and lovely underwater pictures, I’ll go much more into the detail of using strobes in a later post, though finding the natural light is your best way to take great pictures of moving marine life, big coral reef or for any picture with a lot of water. The best way to find the natural light is staying shallow, as previously mentioned before – the warm colours disappear at depth, so to take a great picture stay at 5 meters (17 feet) deep or less. You might not like this, as a lot of divers like to go deeper, but the shallow water is the best place to take photographs of coral and diverse fish life. The corals here are healthier, as they get more light, and with corals comes fish life. So basically dive shallow, or take your pictures on the safety stop after the dive, and dive when the sun is highest and shining the most. That is a great formula for a great picture.

Get close

The distance between you and the subject may also affect the quality of your picture. The water is filled with small particles that will affect your picture. As you get closer you’ll minimize the amount of water and improve your chances of getting a great shot. It will also give you a better ability to compose your picture. Advanced photo composition I’ll save for another day too, but try focusing on the subject’s eye (if it has one) it will add extra life to your pictures. Managing your buoyancy is crucial when getting close to your subject. Bad buoyancy will not just break corals or destroy the visibility when you stir up sand, you will also scare away any life around you. So when you get the chance, practice taking pictures while hovering without too much movement. If you get really close to a small macro object, you may consider setting your camera to macro mode (the small tulip icon on your camera) This will make the camera more able to focus properly on a macro subject and give the perfect sharpness in these kinds of pictures. 

Using your built-in flash to take great underwater pictures

One way to compensate for the loss of colours is to use artificial light. Most, if not all, cameras have built-in flash that will add the light to your pictures. But remember, built-in flash does not extend as far when used underwater. Small particles in the water will make the light from the flash reflect, causing small flashy spots in your picture called ‘backscatter’. You might have seen this on your previous pictures – it’s all those white spots. To use your built-in flash you’ll need to get close. You have to minimize the amount of water between your camera and your subject. Less water also means fewer particles to reflect the flash and therefore better pictures. Basically you should only use your built-in flash when taking macro pictures. All the small stuff inside corals and cracks are perfect subjects for built-in flash photography. Adding an external strobe to your camera will bring back the colours of your picture even at greater depths. The big advantage of an external strobe is that it will give light from an angle, in contrary to your built-in flash that lights directly from the camera. The angle gives the benefits of more light, but if set up correctly not the disturbance of backscatter. To learn more about taking pictures with a compact camera and strobes follow my next article here at Simply Scuba blog.