Photo masterclass part 5: Underwater

The sea is one of the most challenging places to get great photos, but don’t be put off – with our experts’ advice your efforts will be more than rewarded.  

Photo masterclass part 5: Underwater photography article spread
This time, we plunge into a completely different element – water. The sea is one of the most challenging places to get great photos, but don’t be put off. Small waterproof digital cameras are increasingly available and with our experts’ advice your efforts will be more than rewarded. 
Taking great wildlife pictures on land is tricky enough, but diving beneath the ocean waves introduces a whole new set of trials and tribulations. Your equipment gets wet and encrusted in salt, the light can be terrible or overwhelmingly blue and you frequently have to shoot through a veritable soup of sand, mud, floating vegetation, animal droppings and fish dandruff.
It’s impossible to change lenses underwater and since long telephoto lenses are completely out of the question, you have to get exceptionally close to your subjects.
There is no way of using a tripod and yet you are often being tossed around by waves and currents. And to add insult to injury, the best equipment, as underwater photographers frequently joke, costs roughly the same as normal camera equipment but with an extra decimal point in the price.
But don’t despair. With recent advances in technology and more diving and snorkelling opportunities than ever before, underwater wildlife photography is now within reach of almost anyone with enough determination and patience. You don’t need the best equipment to get started and there are some fabulous underwater wildlife subjects surprisingly close to home.
Most importantly, the satisfaction of obtaining a colourful close-up of a starfish on a coral reef, a loggerhead turtle silhouetted against a spectacular sunburst or even a wide-angle shot of a basking shark makes the effort more than worthwhile.
MEET THE EXPERT: David Doubilet, USA
Underwater photographer David Doubilet has photographed more than 60 stories for National Geographic and is an Honorary Member of the Royal Photographic Society.
David Doubilet began shooting underwater at the age of 12, with his camera inside a rubber anaesthesiologist’s bag borrowed from his father’s hospital. “Unfortunately, we forgot to remove all the air,” he laughs, “so it was like diving with a giant puffer fish.”
His first shoot for National Geographic was in 1971, when he produced a story on garden eels in the Red Sea. Nearly four decades later, David is as enthusiastic as ever about his life’s work.
He typically spends about 100 days a year taking underwater pictures and never dives without a camera. “I couldn’t bear to miss a wonderful shot,” he says. The final image is often the product of serendipity, but he does a huge amount of research beforehand and often has a particular image in mind.
David loves to capture the feel of natural light near the surface and to be equally artistic in the darker depths. “I don’t like the idea of firing a flash like a member of the paparazzi and will often work with three different strobes to achieve a more pleasing result. Subtle illumination, perhaps with a little rim lighting, can really make a picture.”
His great passion is black and white imagery. “I began as a black and white underwater photographer and I am now working on some personal projects using the same medium,” he says. “The sea is the most colourful place on the planet – nowhere is more bright and vibrant than a coral reef – but black-and-white imagery is more elemental, emotional and dramatic.”
David Doubilet’s top underwater photography tips
  • Be intimate with your subject
    Your aim should be to capture the essence of the creatures you are trying to photograph. Understand their lives and habits and look them in the eye. It sounds like a cliché, but you really can tell if a photograph has been taken by someone who is emotionally detached or unsympathetic towards an animal.
  • Look how lighting works
    Lighting is important in all forms of photography, whether in portraiture or landscapes, but underwater it is everything. Never stop thinking about the quality of light and learn to understand how it can be used or improved in your pictures. A slight change in position or timing or a burst of artificial light can make all the difference.
YOUR STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE: Mark Carwardine shows you how to apply the theory to get the perfect picture.
Get close
  • Get close to your subject – it’s the cardinal rule of underwater photography. It’s simple: the less water you shoot through, the better your pictures will be. Whatever you are photographing, the colours will look snappier and your subjects will appear sharper.


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