My Underwater Photography Sucks...How to Improve it?

Scuba Diving, Underwater Photography, PaparazSea, Jun V Lao
Does my camera suck? Are my lights crap? is my location limiting my creativity? am I hanging out with the wrong people?  am I thinking too much? I simply can't afford it?... 

I've seen so many scuba diving photographers get into this super fun field of photography only to find them bail after a few years. Most get intimidated by mainly three factors... 1. Gear expense 2. Travel Expense+Time 3. Unable to find your Niche,  three factors which most divers holding cameras think are needed to produce stellar images that will be recognized beyond your existing social circles (friends).

Let's get down to the nitty gritty of things and breakdown the factors to unlock that creativity of yours and shake things a bit for you to produce images where potential audiences will stop, look and listen.

1. Gear Essentials

While this post is aimed for those starting out or new to underwater photography, I will use the compact camera platform to explain what's essential here. 

The compact camera was designed to have a field of view which replicates how we humans see things daily (equivalent to 90 degrees +/-) field of view.

Striking images happen when you see things differently, why the two most important things you need to buy beyond your stock compact camera are a Wide angle lens and Macro lenses. 

You will need the Inon UWL100, without dome, it increases your field of view to around 140 degrees (from 90). Do not buy the cheap usd50 dollar domes from Fantasea, they wont increase your field of view, reason why they are cheap

A wide angle lens widens you're compact camera's field of view (preferably higher than 170 degrees)  and enables you to get super close yet maintaining a very wide vista, to cut through that undesirable blue tinge.

Want to shoot really wide scenes, this is an essential buy. If shooting on the cheap, just buy a go pro or an sj cam, the wide 170 degree view they offer will give you much better images than shooting with a stock compact camera with a limited field of view (think a measly 90 degrees) which forces you to shoot farther (hence very blue images). I'd rather 'Go Pro' then go compact stock when shooting wide underwater scenes.

Add a dome and get a 170 degree increase in field of view, want a full 180 degree field of view (recommended), go dslr+fisheye lens
Macro lenses on the other hand enables you to get your camera to shoot closer distances than your compact camera could enabling you to shoot subjects tinnier than rice (looking magnified). Your compact camera has a fixed working distance, save for the Olympus TG series which was designed to get super close in microscope mode but for other compact cameras, macro lenses or diopters are essential for shooting tiny marine subjects which adds alien like creatures to your soon to be comprehensive underwater portfolio. 

there are many close up lenses/ diopters for macro photography available. I prefer the Aquako brand, clear optics, easily stackable, enables you to shoot bacteria with the right combo, available at Squires Bingham Sports
Hairy shrimps are usually 1-5mm in size, macro lenses gets your camera close so it can lock on focus to tiny subjects 


While both disciplines are way different, there is one thing in common with both, they enable you to capture images which a normal set of eyes cannot see on a daily basis, and that is the secret for stelar images based on visual perspective.

On Lighting

How about lighting? Use the natural light around you, many seasoned photographers purposely shoot without fancy strobes. You're already in the water, you already have a visual platform which is captivating already (a big leap from land based photography), while underwater flash is good, train yourself to use available light and learn to control your cameras's white balance plus it saves you more money for essential gear (lenses) and flights :). On macro photography, a cheap torch light can be great to start with to make the colors of your tiny alien like subjects pop.  

Apo Reef wreck shot with natural light, manual white balance preserves color and tones


2. Travel Expense

If you follow underwater photography groups on social media (FB, Ig), you will notice how seasoned practitioners follow a trendy route in taking underwater photographs (Lembeh, Anilao, Maldives and so on). While location location location is indeed important, and somehow, you get intimidated by the costs and time involved with major dive trips (hovering around the USD1,500 to USD5,000 range and lasts up to 8 days and 7 nights) but do you really want to follow the bandwagon?

While following  where seasoned photographers go is a great way to map out future travels, you can actually shoot 'today' in locations where they in turn haven't been. The road less travelled narrative is always sexy and finding a story to share closest to your backyard (and obviously the cheaper route) can yield captivating images and it becomes very authentic as the location is very personal and unique to you.   

Narrative: Lady of the Lake in a Submerged City in Zambales
Location: Lake Mapanuepe, Zambales, Philippines
Travel Cost: USD40
Gear: Mask and Fins
Camera: 5d2, 15mm fisheye, ysd1 strobes
Shot When: 2014

3. Finding your Niche

The worst thing about underwater photo contests and social media photo groups is they influence people to shoot with "their rules" which inhibits creativity, limits your imagination and the true story you'd want to share. New photographers aspire to replicate winning images plus are subliminally subjected to "this is how and where you should shoot underwater" that we see thousands (if not millions) of homogenous underwater images floating around the net.

Underwater Photography nowadays is quite defined as wide angle and macro photography. They are disciplines. Photography is mainly sharing your story to the world and apply the discipline needed for what you want to share. It's not a technically correct contest where one has to conform to the latest gear, settings used by photo contest winners or what's hot to go to at the moment. Your photography will shine when you focus on sharing images which are uniquely your own and closest to your heart
    
Narrative: Plane on My Head
Location: Busuanga Bay Lodge Front
Travel Cost: A short walk (was house instructor at the time)
Gear: Mask and Fins
Camera: 5d2, 15mm fisheye, ysd1 strobes
Shot When: 2018

In Summary

Want better underwater photos, buy the essential gear, master the basics in technicals, break the rules, see things differently and share an authentic visual narrative which is personal and uniquely your own and  blossom into a visual storyteller who never runs out of narratives to share.  Don't be overly personal and weird, be relevant as well :) Cheers.

footnote: An image with purpose juxtaposed an interesting backstory will always be of more value to humanity than a hollow photo contest-technically inclined pic

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