In January 1927, the first ever color photograph taken underwater appeared in National Geographic. The picture introduces us to a hogfish living it up in the Florida Keys, and underwater flash photography was born. Photographer Charles Martin, with an autochrome camera, teamed up with marine biologist Dr. William Longley, and together, they headed to the Florida Keys. The biggest problem they faced was underwater illumination, and they solved it with magnesium flash powder. That’s right, explosives! And those of us who remember film days thought developer was nasty!
That little hogfish changed the course of photographic history forever. It’s been ninety years since the days of Martin and Longley’s experiments, and underwater photography has progressed by leaps and bounds. Modern camera and lighting technologies have made it possible for us to explore the beautiful underwater world and to take our love for water, photography, and creativity to new heights.
…or should I say depths.
I have always had two passions: photography and the water. I picked up my mom’s camera when I was ten years old and never put it down: I knew I wanted to make pictures. After high school, I attended the University of Florida and then moved to Daytona Beach where I worked on various projects and building my book. I got the opportunity to head to Los Angeles and work for Turbo Magazine & Import Tuner. After a few years on staff, I decided to branch out on my own again and started pursuing a career in advertising, working in all creative aspects from photography to creative direction to production. Growing up in Florida I played in the ocean, springs, and rivers. Later, I would also dive them and complete instructor level training with the 2 top SCUBA agencies in the world, PADI & NAUI, and becoming a NAUI certified SCUBA instructor. Then, eleven years ago I combined both my passions and started focusing on underwater photography and I’ve never looked back.
Let’s be honest, underwater photography looks awesome. It is eye-catching and different, and it gives us a view into a world that most of us do not get to see every day. Using a camera underwater can be difficult, with many more challenges than we face on dry land. How many have tried it with a disposable camera on vacation, a GoPro, an iPhone housing or even the ol’ “fish tank in the pool,” only to come back with lackluster images?
I know I have. But that was part of the learning curve, and there are different techniques needed for underwater photography that I have picked up over the years. Hopefully these pro-tips will get you started whether you are a new to photography or a pro making the transition to the underwater world.
1. SAFETY This is something we don’t normally think about in our daily photography, but it is the most important. Make sure you are a good swimmer and are comfortable in the water. Safety must come first. If you don’t feel good about swimming without a camera, you are putting yourself in danger when you add a camera to the mix. You don’t want to be thinking about keeping your equipment safe or adjusting your camera settings when you should be focused on safety. If you are going into deep water, make sure you have experience with snorkel or scuba gear and that operating this equipment is second-nature for you. Learn to dive properly first! You can’t focus on buoyancy control, camera and strobe settings, and composition all at the same time, so you should have enough diving experience that you do the buoyancy control part automatically.
2. CAMERA & HOUSINGS The best quality underwater photography is still pretty expensive. However, you can still get some decent images on a budget. On the low end, a GoPro can do a pretty good job as an entry into underwater photography. However, it is limited by the fact that there are no manual controls. Some “waterproof” point-and-shoot cameras can do a little better job, certainly the ones that have manual controls and that you put into a housing. The best option is to use a DSLR with a waterproof housing with strobes.
3. GET CLOSE And then get closer! All those little particles in the water between you and your subject are called “backscatter,” and cause images to look less clear and more hazy, especially when light hits them. The closer you are to the subject, the fewer problems you will have with clarity and contrast. This means that most of the time you will be using a wide angle lens underwater. Telephoto lenses will not work very well shooting through a large volume of water.
Pro Tip: While you want to get close, do not chase the marine life. Doing so never got an underwater photographer anywhere except back on the surface, quickly, with a memory card full of bad shots. Be patient, set up your shot, and wait for the scene to develop. It doesn’t matter how good of a swimmer you are; the fish are faster.
4. BRING BACK THE LIGHT Water is nearly 800 times as dense as air, and it sucks out color from full spectrum light. Specific frequencies of ambient light get absorbed at different depths. Remember the mnemonic ROYGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) from high school chemistry?
Underwater, red nearly disappears at around 5 meters (16.5 ft.), followed by orange at 10 meters (33 ft.), yellow at 20 meters (66 ft.), green at 30 meters (99 ft.) and eventually even blue at 60 meters (198 ft.). In other words, there are not many colors left at deeper depths. That’s why so many underwater images look blue and lack color contrast. The best solution is to add artificial lighting by using underwater strobes that will bring back color, create contrast, accentuate textures, and retain details that were lost from the water’s absorption of natural light. After purchasing a camera and housing, strobes are arguably the best investment you can make to improve your underwater photography.
Pro Tip: If you don’t have strobes, they miss-fire, or your subject is just too big, try black and white and boost the clarity & contrast!
5. ALWAYS SHOOT RAW The flexibility of RAW files will allow you to bring back some of the contrast and color to your photos. Also, there will be a blue cast to most of your images since many of the warmer red wavelengths don’t make it into deeper water. You can use RAW adjustments to help balance out the color spectrum.
6. SHUTTER SPEED Shooting around 1/125th will freeze motion underwater and still leave a good amount of ambient light in your scene. Move your shutter speed up a couple of stops to darken the background or down a couple of stops to have a lighter blue. Make sure you know what your camera’s sync speed is to avoid that annoying black bar from crossing your photo.
7. GO MANUAL Beginning your underwater photography foray in “auto mode” is not a problem, but eventually you will want to start using manual controls. While “auto” or “program” works fine on land, those settings were designed for shooting in air, not water. Additionally, if you are using an external strobe, you will want to manually control your exposure, as your camera won’t be able to automatically balance the natural light in the scene with the additional light from the strobe. TTL can be a mixed bag and it’s not consistent underwater.
Pro Tip: Light is quickly lost the deeper you go, so you will want to bump up that ISO. With modern DSLRs ISO sensitivity isn’t much of a problem, and you can easily shoot at 400 or 800 with no noise.
8. THE RIGHT LENS Unlike topside photography, not all lenses are best suited for underwater use. Deciding which lenses are most useful actually goes back to rule number 3: the need to get close. Because you are forced to be in close proximity with your subject, you will need to use lenses with close minimum focus distances. This is why underwater photography is usually categorized into either macro or wide-angle, as the lenses that work best for shooting close are macro or extreme wide-angle lenses. Midrange zooms tend to have minimum focus distances that are too far for underwater photography, so you can leave that kit lens on land.
9. SHOOT UP! Underwater subjects look better when shooting them with a slight upward angle. The tendency to shoot down is a more natural one, as we are usually swimming with the reef below us, but images of the tops of most subjects shot this way are almost never appealing. By shooting up, you can include the water column in your image and can create necessary contrast between the foreground subject and the background.
Pro Tip: Try shooting with the sun behind your subject for a nice back light.
10. DO THE SPLITS And use a big dome. A good split-shot is comprised of several elements: a strong topside scene, a strong underwater scene, and an interesting water line across the frame. The larger the dome port, the more surface area to create this water line. The big dome provides more room for the waterline to move up and down on the dome while still splitting the water. Shoot wide or with a fisheye, because you want to have plenty of room for both under water and topside scenery.
Don’t forget, shooting split-shots is similar to landscape and close-focus wide-angle photography in that you need a large depth of field in order to keep the entire image in focus. In most split-shot scenes, there’s an underwater subject, say a stingray, within a meter or two of the lens and also a topside subject that can be anywhere from three meters to hundreds of meters away. Stopping down to a low f-stop like f16 allows you to keep both scenes in focus, including the water’s surface just in front of the dome.
Pro Tip: The best split-shot will be unusable if blurred out by water droplets on the dome. My preferred method of keeping those drops off the dome is to use my custom mask antifog: baby shampoo. That’s right, this is the good stuff. Putting a dab on the dome, rubbing it in, then dunking it a few times will help shed water and give you a few minutes to capture a spot-free image. In a pinch try licking your dome, it may be a little salty, but the photos will be sweet.
Remember, underwater photography is all about being safe and having fun. Taking pictures underwater is a completely unique experience, and by following a few of these tips you will be producing stunning images that your land-lubbing photography friends will drool over.
My last tip for the day something I tell every student, diver, and photographer: Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but bubbles.
The Essential Elements of Retouching with Viktor Fejes Learn the essential elements of retouching. Join Viktor Fejes as he provides you with a solid a foundation for how to approach retouching. This is not a class on how to use the basic tools of retouching, but rather how to think about retouching in a logical and methodical fashion, so that you can develop a workflow to properly retouch a photo from start to finish. You’ll learn how to evaluate an image, how to start in Camera Raw, how to structure your layers in Photoshop, how to use techniques involving false colors to fine tune texture, tones, and color, and all the while gaining a firm understanding for why you would approach retouching in this way.
In Case You Missed It Learn the core fundamentals of retouching hair! Join Kristina Sherk as she teaches you how to retouch hair smarter, not harder. From removing stray hairs to changing your subject’s hair color, and from creating custom hair brushes to adding dimension and shine, Kristina will show you how to do the best things possible in the fastest amount of time. Every photographer working with people can benefit from adding these hair retouching techniques to their set of skills, so that you can deliver outstanding work to your clients and get back behind the camera. By the end of the class you’ll know how to make your clients look red-carpet ready and how to do it faster than ever.
Not every photographer wants or can afford to hire a retoucher. That said, I hate seeing photos with all the potential of becoming something amazing being ruined by bad retouching. I am not even talking about those mistakes that only a specialist would catch – it is about the ones that make everyone say, well, it has been photoshopped.
To get around this issue, and to hopefully help those who retouch their own photos I compiled this list of tidbits to help you produce better results when it comes to post-production. Even though a couple of these are no-brainers, it is good to remind ourselves that sometimes seemingly simple notions are the hardest to truly understand.
1. You Have to Learn Photography First Post-production should come after pre-production, and production. Never has been a more evident truth written. It is important to keep this in mind because sometimes beginner photographers start with a bit of photography knowledge, and immediately after that they jump into Photoshop. This is usually wrong as it produces subpar results. When your base is lacking, it is better to work on that rather than trying to polish it.
Here is my advice to you: learn photography, then learn a bit more photography and only then start with a very small amount of retouching; just barely using the healing brush here and there. Once you are confident with that and are producing great results, move on to more photography and more retouching etc. This way you will not get into the habit of making your photos ‘interesting’ only because you applied some random colour to it.
2. Do Not Buy into Techniques A technique is a technique is a technique. I am 99% sure that you have heard about ‘frequency separation.’ It is being advertised by ‘gurus’ as the tool high-end retouchers use – it seems to be the magic technique everyone wants to learn or perfect. I know many people who retouch whole photos with it; which is possible, but ill advised. I cannot even remember the last time I used it. It is only a technique and should be used as so, not the be all end all tool of skin-hair-whatever retouching.
I know someone who used frequency separation on a group photo. That is not when it should be used. Whenever you encounter new techniques be sceptical, learn it, and only use it when it is necessary. The main ideas behind retouching can be applied using any techniques. Sit down, study your tools and you will be able to skin that cat in a hundred different ways.
Instead of learning techniques, learn the principles of a good image.
3. Zoom Out I remember a photographer a couple of years ago boasting about how he zooms in to 400% magnification whenever he is retouching. Do you know how his photos looked? Blurred. When you work on an image really zoomed in you are basically eradicating the detail in that photo, and that will result in a blurred look, much like you used Gaussian blur.
So here is a question for you: when you look at the cover of a magazine do you put your nose to the glossy finish to peep at the dots of the image? Probably not. Hence, try to retouch your photos as the intended use. Will people see it zoomed in, from a distance, on a billboard, on the cover of a magazine, on canvas? Factor this all in, and this will help you understand how far you should take each of your images.
4. There Is More to Retouching Than Skin In people’s minds, most of the times retouching equals to making a person’s skin look beautiful (especially the face). This usually results in a contrast between the main subject and everything else. Aim to be equal in your retouch – try to balance everything out, not just colour and contrast but the degree of retouching, too.
If I am hired to work on an image, I try to be all over the place and retouch everything to the same degree. That way, if I run out of time because the client needs to take a look at the photo sooner than planned, they will still see it as a perfect unit without parts being out of place.
5. Mimic Movies The people who make movies look good on the post-production end are called colourists. They will make sure that scenes look natural while maintaining the same aesthetic throughout. The thing is that they cannot be as precise as retouchers because they work on moving images that usually contain 24 frames in a second. That is a lot of images. However, I dare you to take a screencap of any movie and find every little detail these colourists worked on. It would be almost impossible as they work so well.
Based on this, my advice is to try and work like they do. First, try to utilise feathered, broader selections and use those to guide the viewer’s eyes with colour and contrast. Set a nice tone, and make artistic choices while still keeping the basic principles in mind. Once you have all of these worked in seamlessly and you still think you need to go in and retouch more in detail, only then do that. This way, you will keep things fairly natural and will not overwork the image unnecessarily.
As you can see it does not take much to improve your retouching – all you have to do is to study others’ work and try to do less. When you start small and apply basic principles, even the hardest tasks can be easily handled. Where people fail most of the times is that they either do not have a strong enough base or they try to do too much right off the bat. It is OK to learn one step at a time, and you do not even need to remember a library of techniques to succeed in the end when it comes to retouching.
Using Light to Bring Emotion into Your Images with Moose Peterson Follow the light! Join Moose Peterson for an inspiring look at how to use light as a means to tell a story with your photographs. In this class Moose draws on his 40 years of experience as a photographer to teach you how to see light, how to understand the way the human brain responds to photographs, and how to bring all of that information to bear to create more evocative and impactful photos. Chock full of examples, stories, and insight, you’ll end up with a deeper appreciation for the qualities of light that you can blend with your passion for image making.
Hey there! Tracy Sweeney here, owner/photographer of Elan Studio in the lovely seaside town of Bristol, Rhode Island. I’m delighted to accept the invitation to guest blog this week!
I’m a newborn, child and family photographer and get asked all the time about my lens choices for my consistent imagery. I’m a Canon girl and shoot mostly prime. I love shooting at wide apertures, which can be challenging, especially when capturing fast toddlers and exciting family interaction and movements. I want the little ones to be the primary focus in my work without competition from the setting. And while landscape is important for coloring and texture, I want my subjects to emerge from the composition, allowing my viewers to feel something; to actually hear the laughter I’m capturing and to feel the joy. And in this way, my setting is secondary.
I’m a toggler. I selectively focus each shot, moving around the points on my Canon 5D MK IV. This allows me to separate my focus and control my exposure. It takes a little practice to get used to this technique, but it is now second nature for me, and I am constantly moving my dial throughout a session. I am always focusing on the child in the photo (preferably the eyes). In sibling and family images, my focus is on the subject closest to me. Since I am shooting wide open, that focus becomes the story of my image. If I’m photographing children running toward me, away from their parents, that becomes the moment I’m capturing, and the parents, falling out of focus, add to that narrative.
I set my camera first according to the aperture at which I want to shoot, and adjust my ISO and exposure accordingly. I use spot metering and typically, when shooting outdoors, underexpose the entire image a tad so as not to blowout skies. I always shoot handheld, and often have moving subjects, and thus need fast shutter speeds which my wide apertures buttress.
I change a bit with each lens choice as I’ve discovered some of their sweet spots. But generally, I shoot between f/1.8 to f/2.8, except for when shooting with my fisheye, which I fix at f/4. I use these apertures even when shooting multiple subjects, attempting to pose and direct my subjects within the same plane. But my hope is always authenticity and organic connection, which I cultivate and support through instruction and articulated expectation to my clients, and so, as I am shooting, and the stories develop, and the subjects move, I make specific focus choices.
TOP 5 FAVORITE LENSES FOR CHILD PHOTOGRAPHY And so, here are my top five lenses for child photography that allow me to accomplish the aforementioned. I shoot with only one body and change lenses throughout the session, again, making choices in consideration of the final image I want to achieve. In no specific order, here are my all time favorites.
Canon EF 200mm f/2L This super hi-end telephoto lens allows me to capture amazing high quality, sharp images wide open of fast moving subjects. The bokeh is unbelievably dreamy. I get lots of looks when I’m shooting with this lens in the field because of its sheer size. The already super long lens is exacerbated additionally by its hood. And to boot, it’s super duper heavy, but I still handhold it, often laying on the ground or shooting from a low perspective complementary to the small stature of my primary subjects (little ones).
You can see me photographing behind the scenes with this lens in my Family Photography: The Art of Storytelling course on KelbyOne. One of the true benefits of this lens is that I can photograph as an observer, shooting from a distance and capturing children interacting within the setting in an organic state, without being right in front of their face with the expectation that they perform or react within my proximity. With this insanely high quality lens I can create magical, compelling imagery. This is the newest lens in my repertoire, and one I invested in after years of building my child photography business.
When shooting backlit images with this lens, I get very low to the ground positioning myself so that the subject is blocking the light. Harnessing the light in this way allows me to emphasize the childhood moment and connection.
Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II I recently upgraded to the version II of this lens, and it is fast becoming a go to during all of my sessions (both in studio, outdoor, and underwater). The wide angle allows me to include more detail in my images, especially when I don’t have the real estate in which to back up, and or/to elevate any higher when shooting from above. I can capture a larger scene without significantly distorting my subjects.
The close perspective allows me to interact with children while shooting, engaging in conversation, making jokes, asking questions, etc. to capture natural expressions. It creates a more intimate shooting space for me, as I am obviously closer to my subjects, and in this way, is the antithesis to the time I spend behind my 200.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L When I mentor photographers who want to invest in a quality lens to achieve the “dreamy look” for which my work is known, this is the number one lens I recommend they have in their arsenal for shooting children outdoors. This is the first “serious” lens in which I invested. The focal length is manageable for directing families while allowing enough space for natural interaction. The depth of field is crazy amazing at 1.2 which makes it a fabulous portrait lens. It’s super sharp and mostly fast, though not as fast as some of my other lenses. When I first began shooting with this lens, I rarely switched out, often shooting an entire session from start to finish with this 85.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L This lens is essential for my newborn work, so that I can capture the tiny details: eyelashes, lips, nose, toes, and fingers. It allows me to craft images from a detailed perspective creating an image gallery for my clients that is varied, but doesn’t create additional set planning. I am able to craft a beautiful stylized newborn image and photograph it with a wider lens such as my 35, and then switch to the 100 mm macro lens and focus on specific elements, ultimately, creating multiple images in the same set. You can watch me employ this technique in my upcoming newborn course on KelbyOne.com. However, not only is this lens a fantastic macro lens, it’s gorgeous for portrait work too!
Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L This fisheye lens is such a fun creative lens that I whip out at the end of nearly every beach sunset session. It functions unbelievably in low light, allowing me to maintain sky texture while correctly exposing my subjects, or intentionally silhouetting. This is presently the only lens I shoot with that is not a prime lens, and I typically extend it to 15mm to reduce the already significant distortion. With this lens a quick tilt up or down will change the entire image. To avoid the bending in the horizon line created from he fisheye perspective, I shoot, again, very low to the ground, and often am submerged in water to get close to the action, taking in my entire setting.
Thank you so much for having me! I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about what’s in my bag and how I use these lenses to achieve light filled joyful images of little ones.