Editorial

7 Lessons Learned from a Pro Photographer’s First Underwater Experience

by Hunter McRae | September 3, 2014

© Hunter McRaeDisclaimer: I am not a professional underwater photographer. Like most of you, I have seen incredible underwater photography and wondered how in the world pros create such astonishing images. I am, however, a professional photojournalist (currently specializing in editorial, weddings, corporate events, and family portraits) with a never-ending curiosity and desire to expand my skills.

Underwater diving © Hunter McRae

When I booked a wedding in the Abacos, Bahamas last May, I was excited about the opportunity and wanted to use my extra time in the islands to try out some new techniques. White sand, clear water, and coral reefs: I figured it would be the perfect place to experiment. I do not own an underwater housing for my camera and never attempted shooting below the surface. I wasn’t about to invest in expensive gear that I wasn’t sure I would love or use often, so I rented the AquaTech Sport Housing for my Canon 5D MKII camera body and the lens port for my 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens.

AquaTech sport housing for camera

Lens port

It took some creative packing to fit the gear into my Pelican case, including stuffing bathing suits into the crevices. Once I arrived and unpacked I watched a few YouTube videos on how to assemble the housing to be absolutely sure I put the pieces together properly (no second chances here). The only tricky part was hooking up the plastic band that catches the lens so that you can adjust your zoom under water. In the end, I opted for a fixed 24 mm lens.

Although the housing was relatively easy to put together, it was hard to put my trust in a thick piece of plastic. Once it came time to take a dip in the water with $5,000+ worth of gear, I had to muster up the emotional strength and remind myself that there’s a reason why I invest in top-notch insurance. Of course, I didn’t even consider trying this until after the beautiful wedding!

I was pleasantly surprised when the underwater housing worked as advertised.

Whew! But then what? Here’s what I learned:

1. You can’t control the environment you’re in. Crystal clear water and kaleidoscopic coral reefs? Not so much, at least in the waters immediately around the Abacos’ Elbow Cay. What I had imagined was not reality, so I had to work with the conditions provided and turn to the subjects I could find: fish and people. In between torrential downpours, I snuck in the water and managed to capture some fun shots.

Light burst underwater © Hunter McRae

2. You can trust the gear, but triple check everything to be on the safe side, including that the gaskets are seated properly in the grooves that hold them. I checked seals by dipping corners of the housing (with the camera inside) in the sink and opening it back up, just to make sure water wasn’t seeping in anywhere. If I’d had some food coloring handy to dye the water, I might have used that to more easily identify any leaks into the housing. Fortunately, there were none! These housings are very well made.

3. Underwater housings are bulky and heavy to swim with. With the fixed 24 mm lens, I had to compensate by moving my body where it needed to be to get the composition I wanted. This is not as easy as it sounds when maneuvering under water!

4. Use flippers to help you swim and a mask to see both your subject and the camera’s viewfinder. Don’t forget to hold your breath!

5. If your camera has a live view option, use it rather than looking through the viewfinder. A lot of things are harder to do underwater, especially peering through a tiny viewfinder inside of a bulky plastic housing!

6. Underwater photography amateurs (like myself) might need to rely on automatic settings. I always shoot manually, but I had a hard time seeing and switching my settings quickly enough underwater to capture moving fish, so I used the automatic setting and hoped for the best.

7. Gear does matter. Slightly frustrated in the moment of the experiment, I believed that I could probably achieve the same look with a less expensive, smaller, lighter, and more manageable underwater point-and-shoot camera. I was not terribly impressed with what I thought I was capturing. However, when I got back home, I was able to tone the images to look pretty great. Since the images were high quality RAW files, I was able to brighten, color correct, and experiment with black and white until I was happy with the outcome.

School of fish © Hunter McRae

Would I do it again? Professionally, yes. Underwater photography with a DSLR housing clearly requires practice, but I think the images produced from the DSLR will outshine any waterproof point-and-shoot camera and provide greater leverage to manipulate in post-production.

If I were going on vacation and simply hoping to capture fun shots of family memories, I’d likely rely on a point-and-shoot, saving the hassle and fear of ruining my gear.

What was my biggest takeaway from this experiment? That it would be great if Canon released a waterproof DSLR! Wouldn’t that be amazing? But in the meantime, we have to find creative ways to get our gear safely under the sea.

Whether you’re a pro wanting to experiment and expand your skill set or a hobbyist about to go on vacation, I hope that my simple examples will inspire you to spend your next big adventure near water!

About the Author

Hunter McRae is an award-winning photojournalist and wedding photographer based in Charleston, S.C. She has been featured in The New York Times and Weddings Unveiled and is a frequent blogger for BorrowLenses.com.

5 thoughts on “7 Lessons Learned from a Pro Photographer’s First Underwater Experience

  1. Be careful you don’t get the bug. You too can suffer through airports with scuba gear, camera gear and underwater housings.
    I took my first UW shot with scuba in 1972, actually used a bulb flash, replacing the bulb with each shot.
    Systems for UW shooting are getting smaller and more portable. But point and shoot cameras as well as mirror-less systems still suffer from shutter lag which can be frustrating when that turtle swims by.
    In film days there was the old stand by Nikonos cameras with some pretty terrific lenses. Have not used the Nikon 1 AWI which is rated to 50 feet.
    As pointed out the true colors of the UW world do not stand out unless you supply the light with a strobe. Red/yellows are filtered out in 10-15 feet of water. Also with breath holding it is tough to get settled to compose a picture unless you are a really good swimmer. That brings scuba diving into the equation and a whole new set of issues such as proper buoyancy to protect the reef and competency to be able to dive safely while thinking about photography.
    When you do get that housing (!) remember it can be used for all manner of images. I put mine in swimming pools with dogs/kids, Lilly ponds, streams, puddles…

  2. Hi everyone – I was snorkeling and this was my first time taking my camera underwater. I would love to try again and use some of the knowledge gained after reading your thoughtful comments and advice! Thank you for your comments!

  3. Very interesting read. While the author did a good job of getting images in a medium where she was unfamiliar with, I would have recommended her to approach things differently. The main suggestion would be to not use a DSLR as a first time underwater photographer (professional or otherwise). While we may be intimately familiar with our DSLR’s and it’s capabilities, you lose all that when you are confronted with the controls of an underwater housing. Lots of times the controls are not where we are used to. There is also the size of a housed DSLR with the proper ports. If the photo of the cylindrical flat port is the one used by the author for the 24-70 then this severely restricted the wide angle capabilities of the lens since a flat port essentially magnifies the image by 20%, thus the 24mm lens is shortened to an almost 29mm lens. In a discipline where camera to subject distance is crucial, this certainly cut back the ability to get in closer. A wide angle lens is best supported by a hemispherical (or dome) port. Though let me address the points as outlined by the author:

    1. You can’t control the environment you’re in.

    Yes, I most definitely agree and that’s part of the fun. =) Being set up for the conditions is key. You don’t shoot wide angle if the conditions are rough, you go to a secluded area and maybe try for static shots of the reef.

    2. You can trust the gear, but triple check everything:

    There is an old adage to underwater photography, “The questions is not IF you’ll flood your gear, it’s WHEN.” there are options now of prechecking the integrity of the seals for an underwater housing, at additional cost, but a quick dunk in a fresh water rinse tank/hotel bathtub to ensure that no stream of bubbles comes from the housing is the cheapest and best form of insurance. At least in fresh water, the electronics won’t get fried.

    3. Underwater housings are bulky and heavy to swim with.

    DSLR housings are definitely large and bulky but lots of compact or mirrorless housings are much smaller and easier to handle. The author does say this in the end about choosing a point and shoot for fun shoots instead. Canon’s excellent line of housings for their G-Series even allow third party wide and macro lenses and are also compatible with most underwater strobes. The G-series allow for RAW files as well, very important for getting proper colour back in natural light UW photos. Also, most serious photographers have a pocket camera for times when one doesn’t want to carry their DSLR and in many instances there are inexpensive plastic housings for most current cameras.

    4. Use flippers to help you swim and a mask to see both your subject and the camera’s viewfinder.

    Flipper is a dolphin ;-). The proper term are fins. Get a pair that fits properly, don’t get tempted by the set sold at Costco. If you’re doing this for more than one quick dip in the ocean, proper fitting equipment is critical. Hard to compose when you have a mask that constantly leaks or fins that give you cramps. I won’t even go to scuba gear as that’s a few articles worth.

    5. If your camera has a live view option, use it rather than looking through the viewfinder.

    I strongly disagree with this for DSLR shooting. Unless you’re using a 70D with it’s dual phase AF, most live view shooting with a DSLR is painfully slow to non-existent. You’ll just end up frustrated waiting for the camera to focus. A proper fitting mask will alleviate the problem of jamming your face to the housing’s finder. Again, this is where compacts really shine as they are using live view regardless and will for the most part, out focus a DSLR in live view. Their inherent greater DOF is also a strong advantage.

    6. Underwater photography amateurs (like myself) might need to rely on automatic settings. –

    If you insist on a DSLR as your snorkel camera, the better option would be manual or aperture priority with auto ISO turned ON. There are no DSLRs with an UW setting and when in P or Green Box mode, you’ll end up with blurry photos since the camera will slow down your shutter speed significantly. Light will lose about 1 stop per every foot of water.

    7. Gear does matter.

    I’m so glad it does or I wouldn’t make a go at a 2nd income selling underwater gear! ;-). Underwater photography is a very gear intensive branch of an already gear intensive hobby and in many instances will turn one’s basic understanding of photography on it’s ear and give it a shake. I had a long talk with a very well know and well respected photographer and he’d never really done much UW shooting, what he said warmed my heart, to paraphrase, “I’ve learned more new things about photography today than I have in a long time.”

    Cheers!

    Stu

  4. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’ve wanted to shoot underwater for years but never could justify the cost of so much expensive gear (although I did finally get my SCUBA cert a couple years ago). I still hope to give it a try one of these days!

  5. First let me say congratulations on your first attempt at underwater photography. Let me make a few comments for those that may be thinking about trying this. First I assume you were snorkeling and not SCUBA diving since you make the remark about holding your breath. A safe way to test out the waterproofness of your housing, leave the camera out. That way if the housing leaks then you haven’t lost anything. Once you are confident on how to assemble the housing and it passes the bathtub test, then you can put the camera inside. Since it is not “if” but “when” you will flood your camera, I personally prefer a clear housing to be able to spot a leak. This has saved me a couple of times. Auto settings aren’t really any good for underwater shots. There are just too many variables to consider so manual is a must. Unless you are shooting in just a few feet of water on a sunny day, you will need a strobe to bring out the colors and to get the white balance correct. I’ve been doing this for about 15 years now and there is always new things and techniques to learn and improve on.

    The main thing is to get out there and enjoy the aquatic world.

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