Composing Underwater Images

Composing Underwater Images

I recently co-hosted a Webinar on underwater and wildlife photography with my fellow Fstopper’s writer, Mike O’Leary. During that half hour general discussion a participant asked for advice on composing an image underwater.  While composition underwater can be a little tricky at first, I’ve put together a short list of things to keep in the back of your mind when you are first getting started.

Composition might come naturally to some, but others might need to work at it a bit. But it is really important not to go too far with these “rules.” As a photographer the way you see the world is what sets you apart from other photographers — so be confident in what you shoot.  With that being said, there are a few things that will help brush up your underwater image composition skills. 

Most importantly, try to jump into the water knowing what it is that you want to shoot. Otherwise you risk getting very distracted and pointing your camera at everything that moves! Of course it is not always possible to know what you want to shoot, and if that’s the case, try to be very picky as you decide.

Choosing a subject that is on a busy background most likely won’t do it much justice despite it being the first time you’ve seen it. Try to opt for a clean background. Does the reef drop off? Can you position yourself at the edge of it and shoot out into the blue? If that’s not possible, try shooting at eye level with a large aperture to blur a busy background.

I generally like to shoot at eye level, and slightly up towards the surface. This can make for some dynamic images. One feature that is usually present in my wide-angle underwater shots is some sign of the surface — perhaps just a small ripple. I tend to feel a little disoriented looking at images without the surface and I definitely do not want the viewer to feel that way.

While it is just a guideline, it’s best to avoid shooting down — although there are situations where it can be nice. Shooting down can work when there is something of interest such as spots on a whale shark or a diver blowing bubbles towards the surface. Generally these shots work well when your subject is in the water column and the bottom is not in sight.

There are of course a lot of similarities to shooting topside that can be applied underwater, such as the rule of thirds, leaving enough negative space in the image, eye contact and focus, and not cutting off parts of your subject. But if you are new to photography in general, then you will certainly want to read up on some of those "rules" before venturing underwater with a camera.

Joanna Lentini's picture

Joanna's writing, photography, & trips focus on the natural world and our connection to it. Whether underwater or on land, she strives to capture not only the magic of our planet, but also the perils facing it. She is also the COO of the non-profit organization Oceans in Focus whose mission is to raise awareness about the plight of our oceans.

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I shoot underwater everyday...Simple things like waiting for the right time to shoot is important depending on the depth you are working on ...sunlight at around 5pm hits the water are the perfect angle ... shootingwith the sun behind you, slightly below looking up at the subject is great for compostion