As with land-based photography, patience and planning can go a long way underwater. And while some aspects of topside image composition are the same below the surface, there are other elements at play underwater that you should keep in mind when composing your shots.
In order to give the viewer a point of reference, try to include a bit of the surface in your images. It can be difficult for viewers (especially those that don’t dive) to comprehend which way is up and down without including some sign of the surface. Depending on your depth, and the orientation of the image, it’s not always possible. However, when it is an option, it can add a nice texture to an image. If you test for the trend, you’ll find most published and award-winning wide-angle underwater images will incorporate this element somehow, reinforcing my point from last week that a lot of underwater imagery is created at or near the surface.
The surface can also provide stunning reflections of your subject. Just as we often look for reflections on bodies of water and other surfaces from above, we can do the same just below the surface. Depending on wind conditions, the reverse side of the waves can produce compelling mirror images of your subject. You can also take it a step further by flipping an image of a reflection in post. This can add intrigue to an already interesting image.
Anyone that has spent a bit of time underwater has surely seen this phenomenon, but maybe never knew it had a name. “Snell’s Window” is the point at which light refraction makes the topside world completely distinguishable while looking straight up from beneath the surface. The phenomenon can be used to highlight an underwater subject against a topside backdrop, which helps create dramatic underwater images. The window is not always noticeable as it depends on good surface conditions; a flatter surface presents more of the terrestrial world.
While shooting at a downward angle generally does not create the most appealing images and should be avoided for the most part, there are particular situations when it can be appropriate. There are some very interesting patterns that can be found underwater, which lend well to a downward angle. For example, giant manta rays, sea turtles, and whale sharks all have detailed designs on their backs that can be very photogenic. You may even find patterns in something as simple as a sandy seafloor or a sloping wall. These are just a couple of exceptions to the rule, but of course there are others.
Choosing your background wisely can make or break an underwater image. A cluttered background takes the emphasis away from your subject and can often ruin a shot. Try to shoot your subject with the water column behind it to create a cleaner, more appealing image. Unfortunately, this can sometimes require a great deal of patience as marine life doesn’t tend to take instruction very well. Furthermore, did you know you can change the color of the water column with your shutter speed? Want a darker water column? Shoot with a fast shutter speed. Lighter? Slow it down a bit.
Creating a pleasing composition underwater can be tricky. You have to compete with divers and their bubble trails, changing surface conditions and currents, and finicky marine life. This list is meant as a starting point for those new to underwater photography and does not stop here. Personally, I love shooting at or near the surface and sometimes try to incorporate several of these compositional concepts at the same time in my images.
Have I left something off the list that you feel should be here? Please comment below.