In addition to being wedding photographers, Anna and I are also keen divers (at least as long as the water is warm and clear!) so quite naturally, we’ve been eager to experiment with underwater photos for quite some time. As well as photographing marine life, we were particularly interested in capturing people underwater and doing under/over shots, where part of the frame is above water while the rest is an underwater scene.
We read through countless websites, forum posts and books, but regardless of how keen we were, we couldn’t quite commit to the cost of buying a full underwater photography rig. After a couple of years of experimenting and trying various alternatives, we eventually caved in and now feel as though we are finally making good progress with the quality of our underwater photos. To celebrate our recent advances, we thought we would write a short post to share with you some of the things we learned when testing out various methods, and hopefully you’ll find these hints and tips useful if you take on the challenge of planning your own underwater shoot.
Most people interested in underwater photography usually start with: a GoPro, a mobile phone in a plastic pouch or a compact underwater camera. It was no different in our case. We first tried underwater photography/video using a GoPro when snorkelling on our honeymoon and whilst a GoPro is an impressively capable camera for what it is, it also has some serious limitations so soon we started looking for something else.
The next step for us was a plastic bag type of housing (Ewa Marine) for the Sony A7RII. As we were planning to use it no more than a meter or so underwater, we thought it would work just fine… well, it didn’t. We had two main issues with it: the first was that the handling was dreadful – just pressing the shutter release button was a challenge let alone adjusting anything or reviewing the photos, and the second was with the size of the port (lens opening) – we used a 28mm lens, and with a flat port, the field of view was substantially smaller than expected. As a result, we sold the bag after just a couple of uses.
Finally, towards the end of 2017 we took the plunge and bought a proper underwater housing. We opted for an Ikelite housing – one of the cheapest options amongst professional underwater housings, although ‘cheap’ is very subjective in this context 😉 The main reason why Ikelite housings are cheaper is due to the fact that they are made from plastic rather than aluminium and tend to be a bit more bulky, neither of which posed any issue for us.
Buying a ‘proper’ housing is quite a big commitment. They are expensive, often similar in price to the camera they are designed for and every camera model requires a different, dedicated housing. We have a couple of different cameras, but we decided to get a housing for our Nikon D850 as it’s the most future-proof.
To use a housing, you must also buy a lens port. These come in various sizes to accommodate different lenses and in two different types: flat port (used for macro), and dome port (used for wide angle). Water decreases the angle of view of the lens by approximately 25-30%, e.g. 24mm lens becomes roughly 30-35mm. Dome ports are used to reduce or remove this effect entirely. As we wanted to do over/under shots and photograph people underwater, we opted for a dome port.
Our full setup for the first shoot included the following:
As far as underwater rigs go, this was quite a simple setup. We decided to use just natural light to start with so we didn’t have to worry about underwater strobes and arms to mount them.
We used a fisheye lens, as it’s often recommended for wide angle underwater photography due to the fact that it performs well with a dome port and has huge depth of field (very helpful for under/over shots). Although it worked alright (after correcting distortions in Lightroom), it also forced us to put the subject in the centre of the frame to avoid distortion. For our next shoot we’re planning to use a 28mm rectilinear lens.
Using the dome port not only allows you to capture a much wider scene but it also makes under/over shots possible. The bigger the dome, the easier these photos are. In fact getting an under/over shot is relatively easy, getting one which is technically correct and interesting, is far more difficult.
Photographing people underwater requires a fair bit of planning, so we have put together a list of things you need to consider when planning such a shoot. These will also be applicable if you want to photograph marine life using natural light.
Underwater photography is inherently heavily equipment focused and involves several challenges you don’t have to think about when shooting topside. These are a few things that you will need to check and prepare in advance of your underwater shoot.
Although good preparation will definitely help, don’t underestimate how much more difficult shooting underwater is (even if it’s just under the surface) in comparison to shooting topside. Below are a few tips you may find useful:
So, after a lot of reading up on underwater photography and a few not very successful attempts, how did it go when we finally did it properly with all the equipment?
We did two shoots: one where I photographed Anna who acted as the model, and another with a couple who were up for taking part in our experiment 😉 We shot around 700 photos in total and culled this number down to around 30 images with potential. Out of 30, less than 10 were actually usable and you can see the best ones below.
Shooting underwater or doing under/over shots is very difficult even for an experienced topside photographer. It requires a lot of planning, practice and some luck, but it’s extremely rewarding when it goes well. We’ve got another practice shoot lined up really soon (this time in a swimming pool) and a couple more planned for the coming months so you will soon start seeing more of those photos in our portfolio.
We hope you found this helpful, and can make some use of these tips when experimenting with your own underwater shots.