Snorkeling photography can be so much fun, but getting a striking picture underwater has it's challenges. I am going to show you how to get great colors in your pictures, instead of those washed out blues. You will also learn some composition tips, so that your images have depth and interest, and a few other tips for getting better pics.
It's What's Behind The Camera
It goes without saying that a good camera is very important for good snorkeling photography. Actually I don't go without saying it. I have a bunch of information on this site about selecting the best snorkeling camera. I am a total gear junkie.
But most folks get trapped in the idea that the quality of the camera is what makes great pictures. Not so. It is what's behind the camera that creates a picture. Notice I said create, not take a picture? When you decide you want to express the beauty of nature better in your pictures, you have entered the realm of creating something. Because a snapshot has little chance of conveying the great peace, motion, and life that you encounter in the ocean.
But it is not a mysterious process. Once you have a good camera, it just comes down to a little bit of knowledge, technique and practice. And the desire to create something beautiful.
What You Saw, Not What The Camera Captured
As good as underwater cameras are, they really do a piss poor job of representing what you saw and hoped for in the picture you took. So know that just about every picture, after it leaves the camera, needs some more work in photo editing software to coax it into something resembling what you saw and experienced.
Still, you should first make the picture as good as possible in the camera, because it will save you a lot of work later in software, and greatly improve your snorkeling photography.
My first attempts at snorkeling photography really bummed me out. All the amazing color I saw in those gorgeous tropical fish came out flat, and mostly blue. Even with modern digital cameras, this is very common problem. Why is that? And what can you do to get better colors?
Water Filters Out Light & Color
The water acts like a big filter, shifting the colors in your pictures toward blue, reducing the warm reds and yellows. The deeper you get away from the sun, the more the water filters out the different colors in the light. And the further away you get from your subject (fish and coral, etc), the more color gets filtered out.
That is the reason why most divers use big flashes. Fortunately a snorkeler has enough light on the surface that with a few techniques the colors can be excellent without having to haul around a big flash on an arm.
There are three ways to improve your colors in your snorkeling photography, without adding an external flash: red filters, white balance adjustments, and photoshop. You can use one method or all of them together.
By adding in red tones, a filter can help balance the light, giving more natural colors. Filters have some problems though. First, they lack control, giving the same results in every situation. They also reduce light, by a stop or more, which can contribute to blurry pictures if you don't have enough light.
This is an essential technique to learn for colorful snorkeling photography. Your digital camera can change how it records colors. Most cameras have two ways to do this, an underwater white balance preset, or by doing a manual (custom) white balance setting. Using the first is easy, and the second is an art.
Underwater White Balance Preset
Look through your camera manual and learn how to adjust your white balance. See what underwater preset it already has. There is no way of knowing how good or useful that preset is without trying it underwater. Test it in shallow bright areas, and looking into deeper water. You can sometimes see immediately if the color looks good by reviewing the picture on your camera screen. But this can sometimes be difficult to see, so check them out later on your computer.
With our camera we have found the preset useful in shallow bright conditions. But it is not as good when shooting through more water, or down into deeper blue areas, where we get better results by doing a manual setting.
How To Do A Manual (Custom) White Balance
With a white balance setting you are telling the camera what is white in the scene, and then it knows from that how to shift all the other colors into a correct spectrum. What you do is set your camera to manual white balance, point your lens at something white, grey or neutral in color in your scene, and then push a button to record that setting. Your camera will use that setting for future pictures, until you change it.
Sometimes it is hard to find something white or grey. Taking a setting off sand works. If your partner has a white shirt or grey shorts, you can use that. Sometimes it is useful to zoom your lens, to fill the screen with the white subject.
Getting a good manual white balance setting takes practice and experience. I often take a setting, take a picture, and then if I don't like the color I see, will try something different.
White Balance Success Tips
Learning how to do some basic color adjustment in Photoshop, or a similar photo editing software is essential for good snorkeling photography.
There are many ways you can quickly improve and bring back colors in Photoshop. Since water filters out reds, here is one way to bring some back:
First, open the image you want to edit in Photoshop. Then click, Layer - New Adjustment Layer - Levels. Then in the layers panel select Red (vs RGB). Below the graph, grab the middle arrow tab and drag it to the left while watching your image. Instantly you will you will start to see more correct color entering your photo. You can also play around with the other colors with this simple tool.
The pictures below show a quick example of this color adjustment.
Another very quick and easy way to improve colors is to use the Image - Auto Color setting. Try it and see what it does. Sometimes it can do wonders.
There are so many ways to adjust color in Photoshop it is mind-boggling. You can do it with curves, with the channel mixer, the match color method, and many others. Try a few methods and stick with what you like.
Below are a few websites showing other methods of improving your snorkeling photography colors with Photoshop:
While in Photoshop you will commonly need to make other adjustments. These are in no particular order. You will figure out the workflow that you like.
Crop To Improve Composition
Crop the image, to focus in more on the subject, improve composition, and to remove distracting elements. Nearly every picture can use a little crop. Don't be afraid to create whatever shape works best. Below is an example of cropping to focus on the main subject and interest in the picture (I also applied a few of the other changes mentioned here).
Besides color, water tends to reduce contrast. Contrast is the range between lights and darks. Give it a boost for much better looking pictures.
Adjust Exposure & Brightness
Adjust the exposure. Is your image overall too light or dark? It is easy to change.
Shadow & Highlights
Use the shadows and highlights adjustment palette to open up darks, and tone down brights.
This tool is also great for reducing sunlight reflection in the water that makes an image look like it was taken in low water clarity (even though it was not). Typically all you have to do is apply the lowest amount of highlight reduction, just one percent reduction, to make the image look much more like how you saw it. The pictures below demonstrate an example of that adjustment. Nothing else was done to the second picture.
Increase Color Saturation
If you have already adjusted your color balance, and increased contrast, but your snorkeling photography still seems a little flat and dull, try bumping up the color saturation a little. It will make your colors deeper and richer.
These composition tips can be used with any camera. Photo composition mostly means paying attention to where you place your subject in the frame in relation to the background. Learning pleasing composition is one of the snorkeling photography skills that takes experience and an artful eye.
Tip #1 - Find A Better Background For Your Subject
You rarely get very good pictures looking down at your subject. The main reason is because the background is often too distracting, and so your subject gets lost.
See the picture at the right? Notice how the Trumpetfish kind of gets lost against the background? And now look at the picture below it. See how the Trumpetfish stands out against the more uniform water background? I intentionally positioned myself to achieve that result. Being aware of the background and how it affects your picture is essential for good snorkeling photography.
So as you compose a shot, also look at the background. Try to position yourself for a better background. Diving down is a handy way to change your angle of view.
Tip #2 - Get Closer To Your Subject
The second most common problem with snorkeling photography is that your subject is just too small in the picture frame. You can greatly improve your pictures by trying to get as close as possible to your subject (unless you scare it away). Once again being able to dive will help this. But even without diving most people tend to stay too far away from their subjects.
Tip #3 - Don’t Just Stick Your Subject In The Center
Pictures that have their subject right in the middle of the frame are rarely very captivating. Fish pictures like this may be good for identification purposes, but not for artistic purposes. A general and useful rule in snorkeling photography is the rule of thirds. Divide your frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, then position your subject at one of the four spots where the lines cross. If you have natural vertical or horizontal lines, like horizons, try to position them on one of the lines, not in the center.
Also, if your subject is moving, try to position it so that it has room to move within the frame.
To position your subject in a pleasing spot in your photo requires you to pay attention not just to your subject, but to the background. See if you can include an interesting background in such a way that it adds to the appeal of the image.
Tip #4 - Lead The Eye - Create Depth
You are trying to convey a 3-D world in 2-D. Try to include elements that pull the viewer into the picture and create a sense of depth. Look for natural lines that move into the picture. Have foregrounds that lead the eye into the background. Sometimes shooting vertically can help this, like the picture at right.
Tip #5 - Convey Size
Like the tip above, showing size is hard in 2-D. If what is interesting about your subject is how big or small it is, try and include something else in the frame that gives the viewer a sense of scale or contrast. For example, look at the huge Tarpon in the picture below. It came right at me, and I got a picture of it by itself. But I knew that it's size would not be conveyed so I intentionally waited for it to cross in front of many other fish, and cropped out the tail, to give a bit of mystery to just how big it really was.
Great snorkeling photography grabs interest, for any number of reasons. It can be an amazing splash of color, or an interesting pattern, or a subject that is just uniquely beautiful. Interesting pictures have something new, or surprising about them. They evoke response. Keep that in mind when looking for pictures, and in how you compose and present them.
Besides all the skills above, and a good camera, probably the next most valuable asset for getting good snorkeling photography is the ability to dive down to get closer to your subject and to change your perspective. You don't have to be a great diver, nor stay down long. Just duck down and get the shot and return. Do this safely though, because diving has many added risks. Never push your limits.
My final tip is take tons of pictures. The vast majority of my snorkeling photography is, well, shit. But I take a lot of pictures, because I know that the failure rate is high. It is not unusual for me to take between one and three hundred pictures during one snorkel. Then I quickly pick the good ones, make them better, and never show the rest. This is the secret truth of all great photographers (not that I am one). You will get more keepers this way, and you will learn faster.
Have fun getting those great shots! And when you get a good one, share it with us.