How To (And Not To) Shoot Underwater Pt.1 Natural Light

How To (And Not To) Shoot Underwater Pt.1 Natural Light

This year my family and I escaped the cold of NYC and went to South Florida to celebrate the holidays. I was so glad to be heading to some warm weather, and I planned some shoots that wouldn't be typical of the winter weather up North. I had never shot underwater before, so I wanted to challenge myself and try it out. I contacted BorrowLenses to see if they had an Aquatech housing that I could rent for my Nikon D4, but sadly it hadn't been released yet. However, BL did put me in contact with Aquatech reps who were still testing out the new NY-4 housing and lent me one for the month I would be in Florida in return for some feedback, I gladly accepted.

Remember, this was my 1st time shooting underwater, typically I am a dance and portrait photographer that operates far from water. I made mistakes that hopefully you won't have to make after reading this article. However, I did a lot right as well and I want to pass on ALL of that info to you to make your underwater shoots more successful, especially when first starting out.

First off, yes, I was using an expensive housing that costs a lot of money on a camera that costs a lot of money. I chose my D4 because I thought I would need to use high-ISOs that I wouldnt be comfortable pushing my Nikon D800 to, but in fact I never went over ISO 800 during either of my 2 underwater shoots. So a less expensive camera could have totally been used to do these shoots, easily. Also, the cheaper the camera, the smaller and cheaper the housings, so take all of that into account while reading this. I could have shot these same images using a Canon 7D or Nikon D7000 using something like an underwater bag or the new Outex "housings". So don't think that any one of you aren't capable of the same quality images with whatever is in your budget (unless you're working with peanuts, then you should just eat the peanuts). I chose the Aquatech because there is no way I would trust putting my D4 (or D800 really) in anything other than a high quality hardcase housing that is made specifically for that camera. It really just eases your state of mind while going under with your camera.

I did two underwater shoots while I was in Florida, the 1st was all natural light in a very shallow 5ft deep pool (Part 1 will cover this) and the 2nd shoot was lit with a single strobe above the water in a 9ft deep pool (Part 2). Both days were mostly overcast and they still yielded some very cool results.


FIRST SHOOT - Natural Light

I had 2 of my favorite gingers, Hope and Blesi Tchividjian, be my test subjects for the shoot. I knew that their blazing orange hair and light complexions would really bring out some interesting color and vibrance to the washed out vibe that I knew the water would create. The pool was shallow and presented some challenges since the tiles at the top of the pool would infringe on most of the photos. Also, Hope and Blesi's hair would float most of the time, so composing the shot right without getting the tiles made it even more difficult. So I took a high vantage point just barely below the surface to minimize and sometimes eliminate the tiles altogether.

My settings were simple, which allowed me to take my mind off technical things and focus on getting the shot to work. I was at ISO 800, Aperture Priority, Auto WB, F/5.6 with my 24-70 lens zoomed to 50mm and I had my focus set to fully automatic (which would catch anything from bubbles to faces to the back wall of the pool). Definitely something I would change next time, I think I would use single point focus and just move the point where I needed it per the shot. I ended up with LOTS of out of focus face shots with bubbles in focus.


It can be very strange and frustrating for you and your models at first because you're unable to direct while shooting, which right off the bat was probably the most difficult thing I had to adjust to. It took about 15 minutes for 1 of the models to figure out how to relax her face and look more natural while holding her breathe, but once she got it she was like a pro. Another thing that took a while was, when shooting the girls together, one would float higher than the other, or one would take longer getting to the bottom, so by the time they both go where I needed them, the other would have to come up for air. After a few minutes of trying to figure that out I came up with the idea that they should hold onto each other and go under, which (1) made an awesome shot and moving subject matter, and (2) eliminated the uneven sister problem. When you're all oxygen deprived and dealing with other people that have never posed underwater, you need to think of the easiest ways to correct the problems you're encountering, because there is too much that everyone is trying to keep in mind already, so you don't want your subject to be overwhelmed.

Last thing that comes to mind for me with this shoot that I had to overcome was composition. I really didn't wan't the same ol' look for every shot, i.e. people in the middle of the frame at the bottom of the pool. I wanted some shots from underneath, a few split-levels and close-up portrait types of shots.
These types of shots turned out to be my favorites just because of how different they were compared to how I typically shoot. It's always god to go outside of your normal style and try something new, sometimes it becomes part of how you shoot. But you''l never know if you don't try, so do it!



All in all, I felt like this shoot went pretty well and I was happy with the final images that I got from it. But the next shoot was riddled with problems, be sure to check out Part 2 coming out next month.

I learned a ton shooting underwater, but if you're someone that shoots underwater a lot and you want to share some more tips ad info, feel free to in the comments. We would all love to hear what you have to say too!

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Cool contribution! I've been wanting to try this thing for quite a while now. I'm thinking about using a GoPro to just film and then take stills from the movie. Anyone have any experience with that, combined with a water setting?

I dont mean to put a downer on that idea...but thats pretty much the worst thing you can do. taking stills from a movie and having them look good is hard enough even with a good camera but from a GoPro! they will look aweful. If you are going to take underwater PHOTOS with the gro pro that could work but I would strongly suggest using the stills mode to do it not the video.

I've done stills from GoPro video. The results were good enough to show friends on Facebook parts of my scuba dive, but I wouldn't recommend it for any kind of serious or commercial work.

I do all my underwater shoots midday, the sun bounces off the bottom and gives a great fill light.
My base setting is f/5.6 1/320 ISO 100 AWB
The white balance is the tricky part in post, there is a massive lack of reds.

Amazing shot my friend!!

And here I thought midday was the _bad_ time of the day to shoot at!
Now I know I just have to make sure my shoots are in a pool!

nice! always wanted to try this out.

Here is a picture I did last summer with natural light (in the afternoon) with a D7000 and an underwater bag. IMO, the most important is to have a really clear water (harder to find in the sea than in a pool)

I'm a scuba diver and I take my Canon 550D (I guess it's called Rebel T3I in the US?) in a housing with me in my dives to shoot aquatic life, which is slightly different from this.

However, I do use my dive buddy as a model sometimes or to show perspective. I never tried shooting in a pool, but it's probably not that different, except that you have to hold your breath, but then you don't stay down for long.

Check out my underwater photos here:

One thing I advice everybody who shoots underwater to do is to set your WB to CUSTOM!! Although I don't know to change my settings to shoot JPG (RAW all the way), I still do set my WB as soon as I go underwater because it a) saves time on adjusting in in post and b) it's more accurate setting it up in camera than using say LR (that's my finding). Some photographers also take a reflector with them, but when shooting in pools, the floor and walls act as a huge great deflectors.

Two things I learnt from underwater portraits are that tiles are a nightmare - try to find a pool without tiles if you can - and small bubbles on faces or fine hairs around the face can be really annoying and take ages to get rid of in post production. A great way to minimise this is once the model's in position underwater get him/her to shake their head or rub their hands over their face to dislodge the bubbles just before you take the shot. This can also makes the hair float around really well (if the model's got long hair).

I tried out an underwater shoot for the first time earlier this year, and this is some great advice, and does pretty much summarise my experience. Only had one model to deal with, and it did take a bit to stop her from blowing bubbles in the middle of a shot, but once she got it, she got it. :) I was working in a 4 ft or so pool though, and those pesky tiles around the border... :/ Nikon D90 in DiCAPac underwater bag

I managed to take underwater photos without an underwater housing last summer! I guess I like challenges! ;)
Check out my "behind the scene" article explaining how I did:

I've had acceptable results shooting with an old Cannon SureShot underwater camera. My biggest problem is seeing through the viewfinder accurately. I will be messing around with it a bit in Cuba soon, but actually in the Caribbean, not in a pool.

Hello to everyone!
A very nice post, happy to read some UW stuff. I have also done two fashion shots in the pool.
My findings - go for as clear water as possible (if shooting in a public pool, try to do it overnight-the debris in the water sets down), in order not to get bubbles in the models hair - it is good not to use conditioner and shampoo for the hair.
Always shoot RAW...
For the shoots we used a black backdrop and the floor. Some pics of the BTS and the fashion pics are on the site of the client.
and some tryouts

best regards

I have been shooting for over year and half underwater images and just had Life Aquatic exhibit. It's very tricky, lot of things to think about when shooting underwater. Model has to be relaxed, weight belt always helps to keep the model down and focus more on poses. Further the model is from the camera you start loosing lot of colors. I shoot with Canon 5d mark ii with Ikelite Housing 17-40 mm lens or 20 mm lens. Having light behind you always worked the best for me, unless you at the bottom of the pool and going for cool reflection from the sun.

I just posted couple of image on :

If anyone have questions feel free to contact me.

I live in Hawaii and I have been taking a lot, a lot of under water photographs.
My main subject are woman under water in natural light.
I use Nikon and Ikelite under water housing, I can talk more about the gear later...
The most challenging situation under water is... The water!
First start with a clear water. I find out that over cast day gave me a soft box effect on my subject. A very pleasant light condition, as if it was in a studio setting.
Also the wind affect a great deal the under water light. I find out that a windy day will breaks the water surface and give a better under water light. It's physics...I try to read and look at other artist work as much as I can.
For me, being under water shooting a beautiful model is the best thing in the world!
I look at my model and/or assistant and say:
Another day at the office!
You can see some sample of my work at: