Color balance underwater is not always an easy task. In a fresh water spring, you have the ability to capture the red spectrum a bit more than in a pool, but still not nearly as much as on land. The approach to color correcting your underwater images is not as daunting as it may seem the moment you open them up on your computer and see just blue hues. A few tips will bring back what you envisioned the moment you submerged your camera.
The biggest gasp I hear when teaching workshops underwater is how the photographers do not realize just how much of the red spectrum is lost barely one meter underwater. Some underwater photographers use red filters, but mainly on wildlife or fish photography as they are shooting up close with a smaller subject. Adding in a filter, while can be great, also adds another barrier between you and your subject if you are shooting portraits. The lesser the distance, turbidity, filters, and adapters will bring more clarity to your image. I personally opt for the clarity knowing the color issues can be taken care of in a few small steps.
The typical pool shot image straight out of camera usually looks like the image below. The first image always gets a very rough and quick slider take in Lightroom just to see how the end result may turn out. Lightroom can be a great way to edit batch images, however with underwater work it is preferred to use Photoshop or another detailed editing program so it is not applied to the image as a whole but more locally.
Details Not to be Missed
Smaller issues such as wardrobe tags, air bubbles near the eyes, and applying makeup are too important to look over. While they may seem small and insignificant in digital form, if your client chooses to print a large wall art piece it will become a major concern. The spot healing brush is a quick and easy fix to smaller areas.
Hiring an underwater makeup artist who is experienced underwater sessions can save a lot of time in post production. For this tutorial I opted to have my model come in without anything that a normal client would apply to show how if in a pinch you can rework it. Red lipstick is a major yes for me in underwater photography as it is the one color I can pull from to apply the same hue to the checks and eyelids. A bright matte lipstick works best for underwater. Allow it to be applied about 10 minutes before submerging and you should not have any issues after. First use the eye dropper tool to pick up the color of the lips, then with a soft very low opacity brush (around 4%) and a low flow (around 30%) apply the blush on the cheekbone and lightly on the upper eyelids. Apply a pure black skinny soft brush to the lashes to darken the effect. Lowering the opacity of the entire layer can blend the new look into place.
Cleaning up the backdrop where it floated is easily done with the clone or marque tool.
Color Correction Using Curves
Many factors are involved when color correcting underwater shots. The type of water body the image was shot in, how deep the subject was as well as personal artistic preference for the final image. The blue hues that are sometimes left in underwater art give the image the feeling of being deeper and in an abyss. The more colorful the closer the feeling to the surface. Working with the different sections of the curves layers, specifically the reds and blues, you can then mask out where it was applied heavily compared to the other areas. You can also invert this mask in order to paint the layer where you see fit. In the image below, the increase in the reds was a bit too drastic in the upper chest area so applying the mask will do the trick.
Using curves is a far more detailed way than a slider in Lightroom when utilizing the mask options. While Lightroom is an effective way to see a general visual of how the image will lean towards, it does not have the ability to apply it to specific areas. Even with the brush tool I have personally found a curves layer as a better option as a whole.
Adding Dramatic Style
Flowing hair is a great way to add drama to an underwater image. This models hair was very long but flowed back behind her during her descent. Select the hair and create a new layer from it. Then use the free transform tool along with the warp tool to place it where you prefer. Mask out highlighted pieces in order to blend it into the original hair. Once the hair layer is in place and masked out, use a skinny soft brush to add in a few highlights to that side will help with the texture replacement of the hair. For this image I sampled from the opposite side of her hair that had lighter colors to balance out some of the dark areas.
The same applies to adding more flow to a skirt as a larger skirt can be cumbersome as well as dangerously heavy for a client. Allowing them to swim freely in a shorter more manageable skirt is more preferable.
Once makeup, distraction, and color correction have taken place, the end result can be left or altered a bit more depending on your mood. Using stock imagery is a fantastic way to add even more dramatic looks to your underwater world. For this image I kept it very simple and went with a more defined surface line and a lighter gradient in Lightroom.
These are just a few ways to bring back the lost colors in your underwater photography. If you have any helpful tips for other readers leave a comment below.