World Wildlife Fund Good Nature Travel

Behind the Lens: Shooting Underwater

  • Date: 06 October 2009
  • Author: Elissa Leibowitz Poma, WWF Travel Manager

The third in an occasional series about nature and wildlife photography.

Of the wide-ranging variety of subjects you could photograph on a nature tour, marine life may be the most daunting. In fact, only 10 percent of all travelers take photos underwater on snorkeling and scuba diving tours, according to expedition leader and underwater photographer Thomas Baechtold.

“You need quite good diving skills before you can take really good pics,” says Baechtold, a dive master who often helps lead WWF voyages. “For snorkelers, using ‘snappy cams,’ as I like to call point-and-shoot digital cameras, is slightly more challenging because you’re on top [of the water’s surface] looking down.”

Still, underwater enthusiasts shouldn’t be dissuaded from purchasing a waterproof camera casing and trying their hand at underwater photography. Baechtold shared his five best tips for capturing stellar photos below the sea:

Turn off the flash. The reason many non-professional underwater photos often look hazy is because the flash illuminates particles and nutrient material in the water in front of your subject, rather than lighting up the subject itself.

Professional underwater photographers often use a highly specialized underwater strobe on an extendable arm to shoot, for instance, the pastel hues of huge gorgonian fans clinging to underwater canyon walls off Roatan, Honduras. While they’re mandatory for professional underwater photographers, the strobes are pricey and not travel friendly for the layman photographer.

For photographers with simple equipment, Baechtold suggests changing your ISO setting to 400 or 800 and shooting without a flash on a sunny day.

Use the macro setting on point-and-shoot cameras. Whereas professional photographs will opt for wide-angle lens for their SLR cameras when shooting underwater, the macro setting is best for layman photographers. You won’t be able to get a stellar shot of a gam of patrolling juvenile blacktip reef sharks, but for subjects that you shoot close up—jewel-toned mandarinfish in Palau, or perhaps a coral pinnacle off the island of Tuvalu in the South Pacific, for example—the close up will lead to a vibrant and clear photo.

Shoot slightly upward. If you take photos with your camera pointed downward, you’ll have a very dark background that looks like a hole. Shoot upward, and you’ll likely capture sunlight sparking above the reefs.

For snorkelers, this can be tough, because you’re already at the water’s surface. Those who are comfortable holding their breath should free dive below the surface to get slightly lower and shoot upward, Baechtold advises.

Anticipate what the marine life is going to do before you take a photo of it. Otherwise, you’ll risk getting a shot of just a turtle flipper or a whale fluke. Baechtold says he will swim in a wide circle around a marine creature to get ahead of it before attempting a photo.

Try to hold your breath once you’re ready to snap the photo. This applies to both snorkelers and scuba divers. Your camera will stay steadier and you won’t scare away the animal with your air bubbles.

Go on a WWF snorkeling or diving expedition.

See Thomas Baechtold’s nature photography.