Thinking of trying out underwater photography? It’s a lot harder than it looks. Here’s what we learned on our first time out.

I love the underwater look. It’s so dreamy, it’s fun, and some of my favorite photos have used this technique. Recently, I got the opportunity to shoot my own videos and photos underwater. And, you know, I would love to tell you that shooting underwater was fun and easy and that you can “do it with this one simple trick.” But no. It was not. It was very, very, very difficult. I was basically voluntarily drowning myself for an hour straight.

So I’m going to tell you some of the things I did right, and some of the things I wish I did, so if you want to try this out, you can do it a little bit better than I did.


What Did Work

Lighting

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — Lighting

A Leko direct key light was the perfect dreamy light texture that I wanted. Hard light for my shoot worked wonders, since I knew the water was going to displace and reflect a lot of light. Direct light also really highlights the “ray” effect when shooting in water, which you wouldn’t get with a soft source. If you need a good fill light, try out an Aputure ALMW. They are little waterproof pocket LEDs that pack a great punch when you need to fill in the details of your subject.

 Shooting at a High Frame Rate

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — High Frame Rate

Now, I thought that the water would slow down the camera’s movement, and while it did, it was hard to keep straight. You don’t have gravity to help you keep your camera level. So I chose to shoot at 120fps so the slowed-down footage would be stable. It also extended the length of my usable footage. Since every shot only lasts about 10 seconds, when you shoot at a high frame rate, you can turn that 10-second, real-time clip into a 30-second clip just by converting it to 24fps.

Using Weights

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — Weights

Now when you’ve got a sealed camera housing full of air, it’s going to float. Human bodies also float. So, if you try and sink into the water, you’re going to be fighting the laws of physics instead of focusing on the shot. If you buy a little five-pound weight and put it in your pocket, you will sink without having to release your breath, and you’ll still be able to tread water and get the shot.


What I Wish I Did

Quality Camera Housing

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — Camera Housing

Our underwater camera housing was, to put it lightly, a nightmare. I really don’t trash gear that often, but my patience ran thin on this one. For some absolutely nonsensical reason, they decided that hex screws would be the best way to seal the O-ring. What doesn’t go well together? Large bodies of water and tiny screws. God forbid you lose one in the pool drain when swapping out batteries. The buttons didn’t connect with the camera completely, either, which made shooting and adjusting settings a complete ordeal. Worst of all, it leaked and let in water when I disassembled it. If you’re going to rent or buy an underwater housing for your camera, get one with buckle clasps. They’re easy to put together, and some of our pro underwater contributors to the Shutterstock library use these in the field.

Shoot Really Wide

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — Wide Shots

My lens was a little bit too deep, and I couldn’t capture what I really needed without getting very far away. I also had a lot of trouble with my auto-focus, since my depth of field was so shallow. I recommend something in the 16mm range. That way, you can punch in or do some warp stabilizing if you need to.

Clear Communication

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — Communication

Make sure you and your talent communicate clearly about your vision. You can’t give directions underwater. You and your talent need to talk about every move, and what you would like to see before you go under. There’s really no way to signal that you would like a change while submerged.

Remain Calm

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — Panic

Your body doesn’t like being underwater, and it’s hard to get comfortable down there. One of the most frustrating parts of this shoot is that once we would go under, I would line up the perfect shot after 7 or 8 seconds then suddenly remember that I need to breathe. I’d shoot up, and lose the shot. I think a big reason that we had so much trouble was the depth of the water. Shoot in a shallow pool where you don’t feel like you’re constantly drowning. Or get a snorkel. That could also work. Or learn to breathe underwater. That’s preferable.

Put Aside Plenty of Time

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — Time

We only had an hour and a half in the water. I thought that this would be plenty of time, but I forgot that being in the water and going underwater is extremely tiring. Both me and our model Heather would go under two or three times, and then we’d need a 5-10 minute break afterward. Handling that camera is tough, but trying to swim in a full dress is even tougher. Just to make sure I didn’t kill my talent, we would constantly take breaks. That ate up a lot of our time, though. So maybe take about 4 or 5 hours for your shoot so you can rest up and be ready for the water.

All that said, we still got some pretty cool results.

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — Final Shot 1

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — Final Shot 2

Funny thing is, some of my favorite photos I took were above water. Figures.

I’ve shot in the mountains, on a plane, and on an active runway, and I’ve always been comfortable behind the camera. But this was truly the first time I really felt helpless and completely out of my element. It’s a completely different world underwater. I really thought I planned out the shoot to the best of my ability, but like Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time — Final Shot 3

One of the best things that I took away from this shoot is that sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. You need to get knocked down by something new to realize how much you have to learn. It might not work the first time, but it’s like jumping off the diving board: sometimes you just gotta do it.

So if you’re thinking about trying your hand at taming the open water with a camera, heed my warnings and take your time. It might be tough, but with enough patience (and strong enough lungs), you might capture your favorite image yet.


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