Snorkeling photography can be so much fun, but getting a striking picture underwater has its 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’s 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.
And hey, if you find this page helpful, you will love our free monthly snorkeling newsletter, where we often share tips on getting better pictures.
Where Did the Color Go? That Fish Was Beautiful!
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 a very common problem. Why is that? And what can you do to get better colors?
Water Filters Out Light and 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 farther 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 with snorkeling photography you have enough light near the surface that with a few techniques the colors can be excellent without having to haul around a big flash on an arm.
Three Techniques for Better Colors
There are three ways to improve your colors in your snorkeling photography, without adding an external flash: red filters, white balance adjustments, and photo editing software. You can use one method or all of them together.
Unless you are shooting in RAW, which is another subject completely, it is important to get the best colors you can in the camera when you take the pictures, instead of relying completely on software edits afterward.
Red Filters – A Mixed Bag
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. In bright shallow conditions, with a red filter on, you will often end up with images that are much too red, like the picture of this wrasse. In some conditions though, a red filter can really help. Generally this is in less bright and deeper water.
They also reduce the amount of light that enters your camera, by a stop or more, which can contribute to blurry pictures if you don’t have enough light.
I used a red filter when I first started in snorkeling photography, but don’t use one at all anymore. For cameras that don’t have an option to control the white balance described below, it may still be an option. It is best though to be able to take the filter on and off in the water, to be able to adapt to different conditions.
Adjusting White Balance – Extremely Valuable
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 snorkeling photography 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
- Try to set your adjusted white balance on a subject that is the same distance away underwater as the subject of your intended picture.
- Reset your white balance setting if your subject depth changes.
- Reset your white balance setting if the sun’s angle on your subject changes significantly.
- Reset your white balance if you notice a change in quantity of light (because of clouds, or a lower sun).
Adjusting Colors in Photoshop or Other Editing Software
Learning how to do some basic color adjustment in Photoshop, or a similar photo editing software is essential for good snorkeling photography.
There are so many ways to adjust colors in Photoshop and other similar types of software that it is is not possible to cover the subject fully in this article.
The quickest and easiest way to modify colors is to just try the Auto Color function in Photoshop. Sometimes it does a great job correcting for color problems in underwater pictures, and sometimes it looks terrible.
There is also a Color Balance function, that allows you to easily make broad color shifts in a picture. This can be helpful if the image does not have enough red in it, which is common.
As mentioned above there are tons more ways to fix colors, using white balance tools, masks, color cast neutralizing, etc.
You can find many guides online for improving snorkeling photography colors in Photoshop. If you come across some that say you must shoot in RAW to get good colors, and you don’t want to go through that hassle, just move on. We have never shot in RAW and still get colors like the picture of the tunicates.
Improve Your Crop, Contrast, Exposure, Shadow and Highlights, Saturation and Sharpness
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). I also straightened the water horizon.
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 and Brightness
Adjust the exposure. Is your image overall too light or dark? It is easy to change as long as you don’t need to make big adjustments.
Sharpen That Image
Depending on your camera settings, most snorkeling pictures can use some additional sharpening. The water tends to soften details.
Shadow and 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.
Improve Composition for Pleasing Pictures
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.
Notice the difference between the two Trumpetfish pictures? One is lost against its background. The other 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 three dimensional world in two dimensions. 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 in your snorkeling photography. Sometimes shooting vertically can help this, like in the tube sponges image.
Tip #5 – Convey Size
Like the tip above, showing size is hard in two dimensions. 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 its 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.
Look for Interesting, New, Patterns
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 a response. Keep that in mind when looking for pictures, and in how you compose and present them.
Get Closer – Dive Down
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.
Take More Pictures
My final tip is take tons of pictures. The vast majority of my snorkeling photography is, well, shit, although my success rate has gotten much higher with experience. But I still 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 better at your snorkeling photography!