Tips for better underwater snorkeling photos
That’s a handsome octopus!
After day three of snorkeling the reefs of Bonaire, my wife looked at my computer screen and said, “Honey, what did you do today? Your snorkeling photos look so much better!”
Ahhh, she noticed. I had indeed changed my approach to taking photos underwater. The night before I devoted some time to analyzing all of my failed attempts to capture the ocean’s beauty and its amazing creatures. And I made a determined effort to learn from my flops and make specific corrections the next day.
Before I share these tips with you, I need to state my qualifications. I’m an avid hiker and the overwhelming majority of my photography is above ground, not in the water. I’m a pretty good outdoor shutterbug, but not a professional. I give myself a B minus to inspire myself and avoid complacency; some friends and acquaintances might rate me as high as an A minus. And remember, there are plenty of highly skilled pros who can counsel photographers about underwater photography. I’m just an average guy, with an average IQ, who learned some lessons by trial and error.
In addition, I don’t own a true underwater camera, like the ones many divers use. Since I enjoy most of my outdoor activities on dirt surfaces, I simply wasn’t interested in over-investing for water gear.
So, I established a goal of finding a low-priced ($250-$350), versatile waterproof camera, one to fart around with while snorkeling, which we do, on average, for one week a year. After reading quite a bit of online research, I settled on the Olympus TG-4. It was always in the top five of the reviews. This model fits into the category sometimes referred to as “tough cameras.” There are a lot of options out there, so shop around.
The TG-4 has an automatic setting for “underwater,” plus that setting has sub-settings — very easy to use. I highly recommend buying the red version – it complements my swimsuit colors. Second thought, maybe just buy the one that best coordinates with your aquatic outfit.
On a side note, I always carry the tough camera in my backpack while hiking, just in case it’s raining or the beach sand is blowing (when I don’t want to use my good SLR). The TG-4 also has some very good pre-programmed settings for the outdoors. As a matter of fact, I exclusively use the TG-4 for macro close-ups of flowers and bugs because, in my opinion, it outperforms my good SLR. And, not surprisingly, these cameras are indeed “tough” and can tolerate some banging and abuse. But I have to confess, I still treat the camera like it’s made of eggshells. And I cuddle it while watching scary movies. Perhaps that’s an overshare.
But this post is not just about the camera. As a matter of fact, I took a boatload of photos with my tough camera that, well, stunk. Then I improved by eliminating my bad habits and by learning the difference between how my camera functioned above and below the water.
Here are the six main things I learned from my evening analysis and put into action during the next few days.
- Don’t be afraid to dive. I stopped taking photos from the surface down to the ocean floor; instead, I started diving down with my snorkel gear. Not very far, just far enough to get closer to my subjects. That made a big difference.
- Avoid the zoom. I stopped zooming in, unless I had no other option. Like strategy number one, this reduced the amount of ocean and water between my oceanic subjects and my lens.
- Pay attention to the light. I noticed that all of my good photos occurred when the sun was shining, so I took a break when it was cloudy and I went crazy while the sun was out. Of course, with digital, there’s no cost in taking a huge school of photos, but I found that waiting for the sun helped me better concentrate on correcting my bad behaviors.
- Watch the sun. Just like dry land photography, I tried to keep the sun at my shoulders when facing the subject, and avoided shooting when the sun was in front or behind me. That’s not practical all the time, but this reduced the number of photos littered with sunspots.
- Lose the flash. I never used flash. With the sun shining (see tip #3), I didn’t need it.
- Stay shallow. My best photos were taken in shallower waters, so I snorkeled closer to shore while also being careful not to run aground on fragile reefs, which can inflict some pain and suffering on the human body. And yes, mine is human.
I still made a few adjustments in post-production on my computer, but not drastic changes, rather, simple things such as light/darkness and sharpness.
Wrapping up this post, I enjoy snorkeling and capturing “on film” these great memories, not for sale, but for my family’s personal reminiscing. One last tip – don’t touch the venomous scorpionfish. It hurts.