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Underwater Digital Photography Course
If you’ve ever been SCUBA diving, or snorkeling, or even just to an aquarium, you know that the underwater world is full of life and color. However, due to the fact it is all under water, taking good pictures is a little more difficult than taking regular pictures. The PADI Diving Society has a course in Underwater Digital Photography that can teach you everything you need to take great pictures, but the class requires a classroom phase, a pool phase, and finally a dive so you can demonstrate what you've learned. I have taken this course and believe it can be distilled into three rules:
- Get Close
- Use a Flash
- Hold Still
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What you Need for Underwater Photography
Before you can do much with these rules, you need appropriate hardware. At the least expensive end of the spectrum, you can buy a disposable waterproof film camera with a flash for under $20, and then scan the resulting pictures. The most expensive end of the system requires a DSLR camera (minimum $500) and a custom underwater case (often more than $1,000). I chose the middle ground – a compact digital camera and matching case from Canon.
Canon may not be the only camera manufacturer that makes its own waterproof cases, but they’re certainly the least expensive. They don’t sacrifice quality, however, as their cases are every bit as sturdy and feature-complete as the expensive 3rd-party ones. I use a Canon SD700 IS - it’s no longer being sold, but Canon has other models with more features at better prices. My current recommendation is the SD1000, which won PC Magazine Compact Camera of the Year (2007). It’s available at a very reasonable price ($159 at Amazon), and its corresponding underwater case (WP-DC13) is also available for a reasonable price ($168 at Amazon). The case is good to the range of 100-120 feet deep, which is about the range for standard SCUBA diving. Some cases are only good to about 10 feet deep – they’re OK for snorkelling but not diving.
The first thing you need to do is practice inserting the camera in the case and closing the case successfully. All cases like this have a giant “O-ring” seal, and this ring must be in perfect condition or it will leak. Even a small hair in the wrong place could introduce a leak. You need to practice installing and removing this rubber ring, and learn to smear it with a tiny amount of petroleum jelly to help get the best seal. Once you have the case closed, you’re ready to test it. Immerse it in water, with the lens pointed up…if any water leaks, it should accumulate at the back and not get into the camera itself. While the camera is under water, press all the buttons to make sure they do not leak.
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Have you ever wondered why the ocean is blue? It’s because the water reflects blue light, and that’s why your photos will appear blue. The less water between you and your subject, the less blue you will have in the photo. You can get some great photos if your subject is arm’s length away. If the subject is any farther, you will not get as good a picture because you lose color.
[See Image 1]
The shark is a good example – when I removed the blue cast, there wasn’t much color left.
[See Image 2]
On the other hand, the brain coral was shot much closer and the detail is amazing, but it didn’t have much color to start with. If you can get close to something colorful and still, you will get a much better photo.
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Use a Flash
I cannot stress this enough – always use a flash even on the brightest day. It helps bring out the color. Remember, the sunlight comes down from above, but you don’t always take a picture looking straight down at the well-lit parts.
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Even if your camera has image stabilization, it may not help if you’re chasing a fish while trying to take its picture. And even if it did, you’d get a picture of the wrong end of the fish (think of the analogy of the North end of a South-bound mule). It’s much better to get yourself in position and hold the pose – many times the fish will come to you if you’re still.
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Additional Underwater Photography Tips & Tricks
Many compact digital cameras today are packed with features, including special scene modes. My camera (and most Canon compacts now) has a special underwater scene mode, which I use for all my underwater pictures. However, this mode does not automatically turn the flash on, and it doesn’t remember the state of the flash. The result is that I have to remember to turn the flash on every time I turn the camera on. It took me half a dive before I figured this out, but once I remembered, I got much better pictures. You will probably need to tweak the pictures in a photo editor (here's a list of free photo editors) – this can be used both to remove the blue tint and to increase the overall color saturation.
Try not to move around too much if you’re near the bottom – you’ll just fill the water with sediment or sand, which reflects the flash back into the lens and fills your photo with well-lit specks. However, you can get some interesting artistic effects this way too. Another artistic effect can be had by shooting upwards at a diver or a fish. Take as many pictures as you can – remember they’re free to take. It helps to have a very fast memory card too, and can drop your time between pictures to the minimum time necessary to charge the flash capacitor. Many compact digital cameras can also take movies, so if yours can, play with that feature too.