Oct 082012

Underwater photography isn’t just for divers.  Thanks in part to the fast-growing selection of moderately priced underwater cameras on the market (those that require no housing such as the Canon D20, Nikon AW100, Olympus TG-1, Sony TX10), more and more snorkelers are becoming snap-happy.

Let’s say you’ve got the basics down.  You’ve chosen your camera and you know how to use it (you read the manual, didn’t you?).  Maybe you’ve been shooting snorkeling photos for a year or so, or you’ve taken your camera on several snorkeling trips.  Your photos look pretty good at this point, but how do you move to the next level?  How do you move beyond the basics?

Intermediate Snorkeling Photography – 10 Tips to Dramatically Improve your Shots

1)  Choose your snorkeling expeditions wisely.  If most of your snorkeling is done while on vacation, look for resorts or hotels that have a house reef (I call this proximity from room to reef).  I like to roll out of my room and onto the reef.  That way, I can snorkel and shoot on my own terms and at my own pace.  Be wary of boat snorkeling expeditions with multiple snorkelers on the boat.  These trips can make it difficult to separate yourself from other snorkelers, and the last thing you want is a stray fin in your shot (or worse, a kick in the face).  Plus, these boat trips (unless they are private charters) typically have time constraints, so they are not really photography friendly.

2)  Try to shoot fish and other creatures at eye level or, better yet, from below.  This can be especially difficult while snorkeling (as opposed to diving where it is much easier).  How many snorkeling photos have you seen that look straight down at a fish?  My guess is too many.  Practice your breath holds so that you can dive deeper and for longer periods of time.  Dive down and hold onto a rock (not coral) to photograph a subject.

Looking straight down on a squid – not a good photo

Reef squid at eye level – much better photo

3)  Get to know your underwater species.  Are you shooting a fish that repeats its behavior patterns?  If so, you will soon learn where to position yourself and your camera for the best shot.  There’s no better way to learn about your underwater subjects that the Reef Fish Identification and Reef Creature Identification books by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach.  These books are well known by divers, snorkelers, scientists and marine lovers as the best available guides to fish, sea creature and coral identification.  They also include information on behavior.

4)  Post-production is your friend.  Choose an image processing program and learn to use it.  For me, this has been the most time-intensive aspect of learning underwater photography.  I chose Adobe Lightroom as my image processing program about a year ago, and now I couldn’t be without it.

There are many image processing programs on the market – from basic to incredibly advanced.  Mac users may be familiar with iPhoto, an image processing program that comes pre-loaded on Mac products.  iPhoto is useful, but basic, and most photographers who are serious about their imagery will quickly desire more advanced processing capabilities.

Here are some “before and after” shots.  The “before” images are unprocessed shots straight from the camera.  The “after” images have been processed in Lightroom.

This moray eel was shot with a Canon S90 (with Fisheye Fix Underwater Housing).  The moray is shot from a decent angle, but the colors aren’t great and the blue tones predominate.

Here is the same photo after processing in Lightroom.

I shot this pair of peacock flounder while snorkeling in Grand Cayman with a Canon G12.  The “before” shot is anything but impressive, and the color is far too green (a common problem).

Notice how the true colors are restored in the “after” photo, and how the photo has been cropped to better show the subject’s detail.

There’s nothing special about the stingray photo below (shot this summer at Stingray City in Grand Cayman). The tones are too blue, and there is a stray diver (Mr. Reeftraveler) in the frame.  This is a dive photo, but I’m using it to illustrate the benefits of Lightroom which are applicable to both snorkeling and diving.

The “after” photo has better overall tone and composition.

5)  If you’ve been using a point and shoot camera that requires no housing (Canon D10 or D20, Nikon AW100, Olympus Tough, etc.), consider moving to a more advanced point and shoot camera with manual controls and RAW capability.  Warning- this will require an underwater housing which can be expensive and which will definitely increase the amount of gear you need to lug around vacation.  

So why would you spend more money and carry more stuff when you already have a perfectly good (and perfectly compact) underwater camera?  The reason is called RAW file format, and it’s not available in your compact camera that requires no housing (at least not as of the date this was posted).

Think of a RAW image file as the equivalent of a film negative (some of you remember those, right?).  It’s a file that contains unprocessed image data, exactly as the camera sensor reads it.  RAW files require post processing to look good.

This is an unprocessed RAW file.

Unprocessed RAW file – not pretty

Here is the same photo, after processing in Lightroom.

Photo by Mr. Reeftraveler

What is the benefit to shooting RAW files over JPEG files?  There are several, but the two most important in my opinion are:

-No data loss – RAW files retain all of the data in the image, whereas JPEGs are condensed in-camera.  This is especially important in underwater photography, where colors become lost just feet below the surface.  The RAW file will record the color and detail exactly as seen by the camera sensor, but the JPEG file will often lose color, saturation and detail.  The general result from the RAW file is a superior image quality.

-Greater manipulation capability in post-processing stage – RAW files can be processed to a greater degree, and more adjustments can be made to such parameters as white balance, exposure and sharpness (to name a few).  JPEG files can be altered, but they lose quality in the process.

So if RAW files are so great, why wouldn’t everyone shoot in this format?  Well, for starters, not everyone wants to process their images.  Also, RAW files are huge (often 3 or 4 times larger than JPEGs) so they will take up much more room on your memory card and your computer’s hard drive.

6)  Shoot, shoot and shoot again.  You must practice if you want to improve.  If you find only two good shots in a batch of 200 photos, don’t fret.  Look at the positive – you have two great photos!  Good photographers know that to get one great photo you may need to take 100 shots.

7)  Don’t get a sunburn and ruin your snorkeling vacation.  Unlike with SCUBA, a snorkeler’s time in the water isn’t limited by dive tables or the amount of air in the tank.  If you’re like me, you can easily lose track of time and emerge from the water two hours later.  And you’re at the surface most of that time – a place where you are most likely to get burned.  You can’t count on your sunscreen to protect you for long stretches of time in the water. It’s essential to wear a rashguard, wetsuit or even a “stinger suit”.  I’ve recently become a fan of Ecostinger’s full body sun protection suits.  They are lightweight, comfortable and easy to pack.  Plus, they allow me to safely stay in the water for an hour or even longer.

8)  Always have at least two camera batteries on hand.  As soon as you finish a shoot, charge the battery you just used and insert one that’s been fully charged.  That way, you will not have a dead battery when that manta ray just happens to swim by.

9)  Read everything you can about underwater photography, even if the material is geared towards divers.  My favorite underwater photography instructional guide is The Underwater Photographer by Martin Edge.  This book is an indispensable part of my library, and I refer to it constantly.

Consider an annual subscription to Jack and Sue Drafahl’s underwater photo tutorials.  I’ve attended seminars run by Jack and Sue, and their tutorials have really helped me increase my knowledge base.

Cathy Church’s underwater photo center, at Sunset House in Grand Cayman, is a great place to help you take your photography to the next level.  Cathy and her staff are extremely knowledgable and helpful.

10)  Stay safe in the water and remember to have fun.  I’ve just shared a lot of information with you.  Don’t let it overwhelm you.  Try not to become so overwhelmed with technical details that you lose sight of the beautiful underwater world below you.

Do you have any snorkeling photography tips to share?  What have you done to take your snorkeling photography to the next level?


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  2 Responses to “Snorkeling Photography Tips – Moving Beyond the Basics”

  1. I just stumbled upon your interesting website! I am an avid snorkel-only diver who dabbles in underwater photography. I appreciate the fact that you are a scuba diver who appears to also enjoy and spend time snorkeling – a lot of scuba divers don’t, for reasons I don’t understand. There is so much to see underwater when snorkeling without the time constraints and stresses that usually go along with scuba diving. I agree with most of the “tips” you have posted here. Most snorkeling boat excursions are not that great for experienced snorkelers. You don’t have enough time, they are geared to more casual snorkelers, and they may enforce “rules” that are not conducive to taking underwater photos, e.g., make you wear a buoyancy vest, not allow you to go far from the boat, etc. Just as you say, I frequently hold onto a rock on the bottom to stabilize myself when taking a shot. More and more I am reading comments of people who say you shouldn’t touch anything on the bottom, even if it is just a rock, but snorkelers can’t control their buoyancy and I wouldn’t be able to get many shots in good focus if I did not grip a rock.

    One thing you didn’t mention here, which I consider very important for snorkeling photography, is use of a weight belt to help “get down with the fish”. Unless you have the % body fat of an Olympic athlete, just about everyone is positively buoyant and a weight belt assists greatly when you decide to dive beneath the surface to take a photograph or observe something in close detail. I have used one for many, many years, and I highly recommend this to anyone who is a serious snorkeler. You can rent one during a vacation at most scuba shops for about $5/day. A weight belt will also allow you to use a thin neoprene wet suit for warmth and sun protection and still be able to dive under the surface; even in the tropics, I often get cold after about an hour in the water unless I wear a suit.

    I encourage you to continue this blog!
    Dave C.

    • Dave, thanks so much for your insightful comments!

      I appreciate snorkeling as well as diving, and I do not view snorkeling as a lesser sport. I know many “hard core” snorkelers who do not dive. And as you mentioned, snorkeling photography is quite different than dive photography and requires a different approach.

      Thanks for the tip about wearing a weight belt for snorkeling photography. That is a really great point!

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