In 1926, the first ever color photograph taken underwater appeared in National Geographic. The picture introduces us to hogfish living in the Gulf of Mexico, and this is the story of how it was made:

Photographer Charles Martin teamed up with an ichthyologist (or fish scientist) by the name of Dr. William Longley, and together, they headed to the Florida Keys. The biggest problem they faced was underwater illumination, and they solved it with magnesium flash powder.

A magnesium explosion could light up to fifteen feet below the water’s surface, but it also posed some serious risks. At one point, Dr. Longley was almost killed by an unplanned explosion. Nonetheless, that little hogfish changed the course of photographic history forever.

It’s been ninety years since the days of Martin and Longley’s experiments, and underwater photography has progressed by leaps and bounds. Modern camera and lighting technologies have revealed to us the unfamiliar world in the sea, and perhaps more importantly, they’ve developed in such a way as to allow us to observe without harming fragile marine life.

We interviewed seven outstanding underwater photographers and picked their brains for pieces of advice and wisdom they’ve picked up over the years. Below, you’ll learn about their favorite destinations, their best gear, and their sources of inspiration.

1.”Wide-angle or fisheye lenses are needed for larger subjects, and macro lenses for smaller critters.”

Rich Carey

Image by Rich Carey. Gear: Canon Eos 60D camera, Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens, Seacam housing, and Ikelite DS160 strobes. Settings: Focal length 10mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f10; ISO 400.

What has been your favorite place for underwater photography thus far?

I have dived and taken underwater photos in Egypt, the Bahamas, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand. All are great destinations with excellent diving. Currently, I spend most of my time in Thailand, going out to the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea. It’s a good choice for underwater photographers, as it has warm, clear water and a large variety of marine life, from tiny macro subjects to large animals such as manta rays and whale sharks.

I took this photo of a Green Turtle eating a large Mosaic Jellyfish in November of 2015. I saw the turtle swimming near our boat when we were moored up one morning, and I got in to snorkel with it. I was planning to take some half-and-halfs (split images, half in and half out of the water) when the turtle spotted the jellyfish and started eating it, giving me a golden opportunity to get some unusual pictures.

What do you always make sure to pack when you’re planning an underwater shoot?

The key to getting good quality, colorful underwater photos is to get very close to your subject, so wide-angle or fisheye lenses are needed for larger subjects, and macro lenses for smaller critters.

The camera body isn’t that important, as long as there is a good underwater housing available for that model. I find the Seacam housings to be outstanding. It’s also essential to use strobes. Under natural light, the color is lost very quickly underwater. I use two Ikelite DS160s, and this gives me good, even lighting, excellent battery life, and fast recharge times.

When you set off on a diving trip, take spares of everything! Many awesome dive destinations are a long way from the nearest camera shop. If something breaks, you better have spares.

Pictured: [1] Image by Rich Carey [2] Image by Rich Carey [3] Image by Rich Carey

Pro Tip

My number one tip for people new to underwater photography: Learn to dive properly first! You can’t focus on buoyancy control, camera and strobe settings, and composition all at the same time, so you must at least have enough diving practice that you do the buoyancy control part automatically.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

The best way to get inspired to take better photos is just to go somewhere nice and go for a dive. As soon as you see something beautiful, you’ll want a good photo of it!

2. “I wanted to use my photography to bring awareness to the fact that sharks are not waiting for hapless swimmers to eat.”

Greg Amptman

Image by Greg Amptman. Gear: Nikon D90 camera, Nikkor 10.5mm wide-angle lens, Twin Iklite DS160 Substrobes. Settings: Focal length 10.5mm; exposure 1/120 sec; f11; ISO 200.

What has been your favorite place for underwater photography thus far?

That’s a tough question because I have been to so many places, and they all had something to offer. If I really had to narrow it down, I would have to say it would be a place called Tiger Beach, which is nothing more than a sandbar, surrounded by coral reefs, in about twenty feet of water. Tiger Beach is located about thirty miles west off the coast of Freeport, Bahamas.

Tiger Beach boasts a diverse and healthy shark population, which is protected by the government of the Bahamas. The species of sharks living there range from nurse sharks, bulls, and hammerheads to large tiger sharks. Tiger Beach is a great example of what happens when a government protects their large predators, such as sharks. It results in a diverse and healthy underwater ecosystem. Because of that, it has become an area rich in marine life, making it a photographer’s dream.

I was invited by Eli Martinez and Paul Spielvogel of Shark Diver Magazine to join them for my first time to Tiger Beach. At that time, my only experience with sharks was diving with six gills, which are a very large but docile species.

We had been in the water on our first dive for about twenty minutes, and we already had a large group of lemon sharks in the area, as well as a couple of tiger sharks. I was sitting on the bottom waiting for a shot, when suddenly, Eli caught my attention. Eli was pointing to me and then followed up by using the hand signal, “shark.”

When I turned around, there was this eleven-foot tiger shark coming up from behind. The shark was so close, and all I could do was duck underneath the animal as she swam over the top of me. At first, she seemed like she was going to swim off. But instead, she turned around and came back at me again, and this is when I shot the photo above.

The flash from my strobes seemed to interest the shark as she then began to bump my camera several times. During that encounter, my heart was pounding. It was an amazing experience!

Image by Greg Amptman.  Gear: Nikon D90 camera, Nikkor 10.5mm wide-angle lens, Twin Iklite DS160 Substrobes. Settings: Focal length 60mm at four feet. Exposure: 1/200 sec, F8, ISO 200

In this shot, I wanted to get some extreme close-ups of some of the Caribbean reef sharks of Tiger Beach. In the twilight hours, I made a dive on the reef, knowing that the shy reef sharks would begin their evening hunt. Because of the dim light, I also knew that the sharks would be moving in close to investigate me. I wanted to show the detail of the animal that would normally be missed by shooting wide-angle.

Image by Greg Amptman. Gear: Nikon D90 camera, Tokina 10-17mm wide angle lens, Twin Iklite DS160 Substrobes with a Sola Dive1200. Settings: Focal length: 15mm. Exposure: 1/100 sec. F6.3. ISO 200.

Our group decided to do a night dive. In the darkness, there were perhaps twenty to thirty lemon sharks ranging between six and eleven feet in length. During the day, lemon sharks are very curious and will make slow passes around divers and then move on. During this shoot, however, their demeanor had changed, and we found ourselves being bumped and jostled from all sides, which was a little disconcerting. This was probably due to the low light, sand being kicked up, and strobe lights going off, causing the sharks to be a bit disoriented. In spite of all that, it was another amazing experience.

What do you always make sure to pack when you’re planning an underwater shoot?

Everybody, I think, has their own preference about what works best for them. What I have found is that you really don’t need state-of-the-art photo equipment to get some great captures. What I use is a refurbished Nikon D90 camera body. I would put my money on a brand-new lens, such as the Nikkor 10.5 mm and the Tokina 10-17mm wide angle lens. I then pair that with an Aquatica AD90 housing, which you can still purchase online. For lighting, my choice is the Iklite DS160 Substrobe. They are a bit bulky compared to the Inon Z220, but they have a near instantaneous recycle time, which helps in cutting down on missed shots.

I always make sure I pack a second camera body, an extra lens of the same focal length, spare O-rings, silicone grease, spare battery packs, as well as spare dome ports. More than once, I’ve seen photographers have some kind of mishap or technical malfunction that caused their camera to flood, putting them out of commission for the remainder of their trip.

To mix things up, I also like to bring along a three-inch mini dome port. This little dome port is great if you are going to a place where you are not sure what you will find. It allows you to get your lens within three to four inches of a small subject, such as a large nudibranch, while also allowing you to photograph larger subjects.

Pro Tip

Shoot at different angles. Moving one or two inches to the left, right, up, or down can make the difference between a really good shot and a mediocre shot. Most of all, don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun doing it.

I started underwater photography at almost the same time as I got my basic underwater certification, which was about seventeen years ago. One of the things I wished I had learned early on was to always be aware of your surroundings. Put your head on a swivel.

When diving in any form, we are visitors to the underwater realm, and it is so easy to get focused on trying to get that shot. In other words, it can be very easy to stress an animal by getting in its personal space. Regrettably, I was guilty of that in my first year of diving. I later found that if you keep a distance of at least three feet, your subject will be more relaxed, and you will actually get a better shot. If an animal comes to you, great, but if they shy away, that’s when you should back off.

Pictured: [1] Greg Amptman [2] Greg Amptman

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

All my life, I have been fascinated by the ocean, but growing up in Idaho didn’t give me much of a chance to spend anytime there. When I moved to Washington State, I would spend countless hours exploring the tide pools of Puget Sound until finally, I made the leap to get my SCUBA certification.

When I made my first open water dive, I was amazed by all the things I was seeing, and I told myself that I needed to share my experiences. I took a basic underwater photography course with my former SCUBA instructor, Oly Recio, who was a great help in getting me started.

Six months after finishing his course, I ran into a small six gill shark during a dive. Because I’d heard so much of the “man-eating monster” hype, I don’t mind saying that I was a little scared about being so close to this animal. In spite of that, I took a chance and brushed the shark’s side with my hand and it promptly swam away in a big hurry. This was something I had not expected.

I wanted to know more about sharks, and what I have learned is that sharks, for the most part, are indifferent to us. While I went diving with sharks, they could have swarmed in and killed me anytime they wanted to. Instead, it turns out that they are very tolerant of people and sometimes even want to interact. I also found that some of the sharks I have dived with actually enjoy having their bellies or noses rubbed on occasion.

I wanted to use my photography to bring awareness to the fact that sharks are not waiting for hapless swimmers to eat. They are wild animals, and they play a very important role in the ecosystem. To date, an estimated 100 million sharks per year have been killed, either for their fins to make shark fin soup or as by-catch. Without them, entire fisheries would collapse.

Instead of fear and loathing, they deserve our respect and protection, and in the end, awareness and education are my inspiration.

3. “…getting close to the subject eliminates most backscatter and increases contrast.”

Ethan Daniels

Image by Ethan Daniels. Gear: Canon 5DS R camera, Canon 15mm lens, Aquatica underwater housing, and two Sea & Sea YS-250 strobes. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f10; ISO 100.

What has been your favorite place for underwater photography thus far?

There are so many stunningly beautiful places where I’ve been to shoot, but if I had to choose just one, I’d say Komodo National Park is currently my favorite destination.

The dry volcanic islands within the park offer a variety of photo opportunities, from big animals and rich, healthy seascapes to small, camouflaged critters that hide in the sandy seafloor. The area also harbors tremendous marine biodiversity that is spread through numerous habitats.

This image typifies the health and diversity of the shallow coral reefs that fringe the arid islands. This tropical region, part of the Lesser Sunda Islands and the Ring of Fire, is part of the Coral Triangle, which is home to more marine species than anywhere else on earth.

What do you always make sure to pack when you’re planning an underwater shoot?

It’s my personal feeling that the camera doesn’t matter as much what lenses are used. I keep things fairly simple and carry a wide-angle lens and a macro lens. That’s it. I’m concentrating either on shooting beautiful seascapes or portraits of the smaller denizens of reef habitats. I also make sure to have two powerful strobes that help add color in an otherwise bluish underwater world.

Pro Tip

One of the most important aspects of underwater photography is getting close to your subject. Water is so dense and always has floating organisms or debris in it, so getting close to the subject eliminates most backscatter and increases contrast.

Of course, being as comfortable as you can be in the water helps a lot. If you’re not at ease, it becomes difficult to get close to animals that are much better adapted to the underwater world than you are.

Pictured: [1] Ethan Daniels [2] Ethan Daniels [3] Ethan Daniels

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

I used to spend hours looking at National Geographic photographs– images that told stories of nature, travel, and culture.

I’m always trying to capture timeless images that say something about our planet, whether that be a message of inspirational natural beauty and diversity, environmental issues, or conservation efforts.

There are now thousands of talented photographers who work throughout the world, and I do my best to keep my eye on those who are shooting in a unique way. But the most inspiration always comes from being in the water and viewing the incredible life that has evolved there– from the microscopic to the massive.

4. “…underwater photography is all about the right lighting. Get good strobes, and know how to use them.”

Kristina Vackova

Image by Kristina Vackova. Gear: Canon 7D Mark I camera, Canon EF100mm f/2,8 Macro USM lens, two Inon Z240 strobes. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f13; ISO 100.

What has been your favorite place for underwater photography thus far?

This is a hard question because every diving place, like every sea, has a specific atmosphere. My two favorite destinations are Indonesia (because of the fish, the colors, and the coral reefs) and the Red Sea in Egypt (because the visibility and the coral are unbeatable).

If I have to name only one destination, it would be Lembeh Strait in Indonesia. I dove there last year for the first time, and it was also my first experience with muck diving ever. I had no idea what to expect!

My mind was blown. I am used to diving every day, and if I bring my camera, I take around thirty to sixty pictures per dive, but in Lembeh I was going home with around 500-800 pictures per day. Every three meters, we were stopping to find a critter.

What do you always make sure to pack when you’re planning an underwater shoot?

I am not sure if there is such a thing as “the best gear.” Everybody prefers something different. The hardest decision to make is whether to take a wide-angle lens or a macro lens.

You need light, of course, as underwater photography is all about the right lighting. Get good strobes, and know how to use them. I always make sure to pack my chargers, the right batteries, and spare gear. When traveling the world, it’s also important to bring an adaptor!

Image by Kristina Vackova

Pro Tip

You have to know your camera well on land before you take it into the water. Practice the position of the strobes; learn about composition, and always get closer to the subject. And another important tip: work on your buoyancy. And don’t destroy underwater life!

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

Every dive gives me inspiration. Each fish too. I look at the work of other underwater photographers, and I usually have my image in my head before I start shooting. We are all different, and each of us has a specific style.

5. “…use a fast shutter speed and eventually raise the ISO”

Andrea Izzotti

Image by Andrea Izzotti. Gear: Nikon D810 camera, Tokina AT-X 107 DX Fisheye 10-17mm F3.5-4.5 lens, Leo 3 Easydive underwater housing, two Subtronic Pro 160 strobes. Settings: Focal length 14mm; exposure 1/250 sec; f9; ISO 200.

What has been your favorite place for underwater photography thus far?

My favorite destination for underwater images is actually Baja California Sur, Mexico. The Sea of Cortez has a rich variety of fauna. At Los Islotes, an island not far from La Paz, BCS, you can swim and interact with a colony of sea lions and take wonderful pictures of seals. If you are lucky, you might see other species, like manta rays, whales, and dolphins.

Two years ago, I started an underwater project called The Seventh Continent. The aim is to take pictures of humans interacting with underwater beings, without compromising their behavior or habitat. Sea lions are the best because they are curious, although sometimes territorial, animals.

Last October, I worked for one week with a Mexican model, Cristina Mendoza, who is a superb free-diver, and she was dressed as a mermaid. The sea lions were crazy about it and started to swim around. In this picture, the mermaid and the sea lion look like they are dancing together.

What do you always make sure to pack when you’re planning an underwater shoot?

I am always sure to pack a fisheye lens that produces superb results underwater. Also, having two strobes definitely makes all the difference.

Image by Andrea Izzotti

Pro Tip

I recommend using a fast shutter speed and eventually raising the ISO. Everything is moving underwater, and if you shoot big animals, you want them to be perfect. I wish I knew when I was just starting out how difficult it is to take good pictures underwater without a strobe light. I spent a year without underwater flashes, and now I regret it.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

I get inspiration from the wonderful underwater world I see every time I dive. Mother Nature is the best and the humblest artist, and it’s up to us to try to capture it.

6. “It’s all about the light. You are better off with $5,000 lights on a $500 camera…”

Fata Morgana by Andrew Marriott

Image by Fata Morgana by Andrew Marriott . Gear: Olympus EM1 camera, Olympus 8mm fisheye lens, Nauticam housing, two Sea and Sea YSD1 strobes. Settings: Exposure 1/80 sec; f13; ISO 200.

What has been your favorite place for underwater photography thus far?

Truk Lagoon, in the country of Chuuk, is my favorite. I’m a huge history buff, as well as a diver, so Truk Lagoon has a special appeal to me. There are thirty-two big shipwrecks sunk in that lagoon, all of them in battle. No artificial reefs there. These wrecks have never been commercially salvaged, and thus they are like moments frozen in time.

Aside from that, the islands have stunning natural beauty, and the water is always clear and warm. For underwater photographers, Truk Lagoon has almost anything you could want: stunning coral reefs; tons of marine life; massive, moody shipwrecks; clear water, and very easy dives. Once divers go there, it tends to become the touchstone that all other locations are compared to.

This is an anemonefish living on its wonderful anemone home, which is actually the wreck of the Fujikawa Maru. There is this nice sense of life and warm color, while in the background, the dark industrial shapes of the ship are framed in cool blues.

What do you always make sure to pack when you’re planning an underwater shoot?

Honestly, the best gear is the gear you are most comfortable with and know how to use. It is important to be familiar with your camera, and you need to be able to make it respond underwater in a hostile environment.

Ideally, you should be able to manipulate your camera without ever looking at what buttons you are pushing. In my work, it is often so dark you can’t see them! You don’t need the biggest and most expensive cameras; you just need to know how to make the one you’ve got work for you.

Pictured: [1] Image by Fata Morgana by Andrew Marriott [2] Image by Fata Morgana by Andrew Marriott [3] Image by Fata Morgana by Andrew Marriott

Pro Tip

It’s all about the light. You are better off with $5,000 lights on a $500 camera than you are with a $5,000 camera and bad lights. Plus lights can go on other cameras when you change or upgrade in the future. Start off with good strobes and learn how to use them and the camera, and then upgrade the camera when you need to. I wish someone had told me to shoot macro first and learn that before moving into wide-angle. Start with little subjects and grow from there.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography? My inspiration comes from everywhere, but mostly I watch what other people are doing and then make sure I do something different! I do shoot a lot of traditional shots for commercial use, but in my art pieces, I always try and show people something new and exciting. I see a lot of underwater photos every day, and I want to make sure that the ones I do for fun look like none of those. It’s too easy to get into a rut, so I try and take chances.

7. “Go slow and let the undersea creatures come to you…”

Bruce Campbell

Image by Bruce Campbell. Gear: Nikon D800 camera, Tokina 11-17 lens, Ikelite housing, two Ikelite strobes, Sola focus light. Settings: Focal length 16mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f8; ISO 100.

What has been your favorite place for underwater photography thus far?

One of my favorite places is the Bahamas. There are several reasons why I like the Bahamas. First, the water clarity is excellent most of the time. It is not uncommon to have visibility of 100 feet or better in the Bahamas. For an underwater photographer, 100 feet of visibility is spectacular. It means that I can get close to my subjects and have relatively little particulate matter in the water that would have to be removed in post-production.

Second, the light in the Bahamas tends to be excellent. Yes, there can be some cloudy days, but as an underwater photographer, I want relatively clear skies so I will have as much natural light to work with as possible.

Third, there are plenty of large animals to photograph in the Bahamas, and I like large animals such as turtles, sharks, and dolphins.

One of my favorite shots from the Bahamas is one I almost didn’t take. I was doing a shark dive and waiting for the shark feeder to arrive and for the sharks to start to get closer to us. I happened to notice a Hawksbill turtle swimming near me and heading for the surface for a breath of air. The turtle was far enough away from me that I was going to have to swim pretty quickly to get close enough for a picture.

On top of that, it meant that I was going to have to break one of the cardinal rules of diving with sharks: I was going to have to move away from the group and be pretty exposed to about twenty reef sharks. I took the risk and swam upside down and got one image of the turtle from beneath him, with the sun behind him, before he broke the surface. Then I swam back down to the dive group and just kept shooting when the sharks arrived.

What do you always make sure to pack when you’re planning an underwater shoot?

I almost always use two strobes and a focus and/or video light. The problem with underwater photography is that water removes the red band of light from what is visible within the first ten feet of water. By a depth of thirty feet or so, you have to add artificial light back in. Otherwise, all your images just look blue, and you won’t have any of the colors that you find on reefs. So be prepared to carry some substantial lights.

My camera rig weighs in at about thirty-five pounds on dry land. There are some days when I get in and out of the water while carrying over 150 pounds of gear between scuba equipment and camera gear.

In the water, it is buoyancy neutral, which means I am not hauling around the equivalent of a large boat anchor, but getting offshore into deep water can be quite a challenge. Once I am underwater, I still have to watch out for fast currents. The camera, which looks like the front end of an old Buick, can act like a sail and pull or push me a long way from where I want to go.

Image by Bruce Campbell

Pro Tip

Go slow and let the undersea creatures come to you to the greatest extent possible. If you swim after them, you look like a predator, and they will swim away from you faster than you can swim.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

Underwater is quiet and peaceful– no phone, no fax, no internet, etc. Seeing some of the incredible sea creatures is all the inspiration I need. I try to tell their stories one image or clip at a time. Some of the stories behind what I shoot underwater can be found at my blog.