JonW's Guide to Simplified Underwater Photography

You can spend several thousands of dollars on underwater photo equipment to get razor sharp closeups with great color. Or you can spend a fraction of that amount and get very good underwater shots with good color that you will be proud to show to your friends and other divers.

Here are pictures from my most recent dive trip. The underwater shots were taken with a Canon PowerShot SD1000 camera (shown below) and the above water ones with a much newer Canon PowerShot ELPH 100HS. If you like the quality of these pictures then please read on.

I'm often asked how I especially get such great colors in my underwater shots. If you are looking to get into underwater photography or to simply improve the pictures you are already taking, here are my tips and techniques. I hope you find them useful.

1 - Keep it simple

You have a number of things underwater you need to pay attention to and upon which your life depends: air consumption, depth, no-deco time left, where your buddy is, and navigation (ie. how to get back to the boat). Taking pictures underwater can easily interfere with monitoring these. The simpler you can make taking pictures the better.

2 - and inexpensive

I use a good quality Canon digital Elph camera and the Canon underwater housing made for that model camera. Until recently I've been using a 7.1 megapixel Canon PowerShot SD1000 camera (shown here) that is several years old but has a good lens, good features, and takes good pictures. When one of the buttons on the back stopped working I bought a second used camera from eBay that I've continued using with the underwater housing I have for it.

Recently I bought a housing for my current 12 megapixel Canon PowerShot ELPH 100HS but I haven't used it diving yet.

These small digital cameras by Canon and Nikon (and many others) all take good pictures and are suitable for underwater use if there is an underwater housing available for it. If the primary camera you use does not have a housing available for it then consider getting a new camera that you can get with a housing. These small cameras are usually less than $200 and the housings are between $150-$300. These are the housings made for SCUBA diving and typically are rated to 130 feet or better, and are not the inexpensive ones for snorklers rated for 10 feet of depth.

Note that this class of camera does not usually offer raw mode. I haven't found this to be a problem for me. If your camera has raw and you want to use it, that's fine.

Also note that the camera manufactures make only a limited number of housings for each model and if your camera is older the housing for it may no longer be available. In that case check eBay or think about getting a newer model for which you can get a housing.

IMHO here are the really important features in a digital camera for underwater use:

Flash and zoom specs are not important - you will not be using them underwater.

Get a good size memory card - they are very reasonable these days. You should be able to hold at least 1000 pictures on an 8 or 16G memory card, which should be enough for a whole week dive trip. Bring a second one, just in case. Also get an extra battery so you can have one charged and ready to go when you need it.

3 - Shoot only available light - no flash!

The built-in flash on your camera will NOT produce satisfactory pictures underwater. The light output is inadequate and the position of the flash is too close to the lens (you'll get backscatter - reflections from particles in the water). Shooting flash pictures also will drain your camera battery(s) much faster.

For really good flash results you need two external flashes sync'ed together and positioned on arms above and on either side of the camera. This setup is bulky, expensive, fragile, and usually requires its own very padded travel case that will either count for your carryon bag or you will have to pay to have it checked. It's batteries are yet another thing that requires recharging and attending to, and is one more thing that can fail when you need them.

Don't get me wrong - you can take some incredible underwater shots with a good flash setup. For me I just don't think it's worth the expense and hassle. I may miss out on some low-light pictures of some fish life, but there are plenty of other interesting things to get nice pictures of, and I don't take my camera on night dives.

Not shooting flash maximizes your battery life and completely eliminates the problem of backscatter.

So now you're probably thinking, how do I get good color without illuminating with flash. Keep reading, especially about white balance below.

4 - Camera Settings

On land, before I put my camera into the underwater housing I set the following camera settings. I'm turning off functions I don't want or need, mostly to improve battery life: When diving, I turn on the camera once I've descended to the bottom and then leave it on until I surface or am doing my safety stop. If the LCD screen times itself out to conserve battery life, pressing the shutter button halfway quickly wakes it up when I want to take a picture.

With my Canon camera I get two dives before the battery runs out. I resist the urge to review the shots I took on the first dive so I won't run out on the second. Unless I'm on a live-aboard I will not open up the camera housing on a boat between dives, even if the battery died during the first dive.

5 - Set White Balance Manually

When you put your camera into program/manual (ie. non-auto) mode you should have the ability to set the white balance to things like auto, sun, shade, fluorescent lighting, etc. One of these settings should be "Manual". This is what you should use for diving.

The deeper you dive the less red light there is. Without setting the white balance all your pictures will be blue. Setting the white balance will compensate for this and bring back the colors when you later process the pictures on your computer.

Every 5-10 feet I ascend or descend I reset the white balance as follows:

  1. (On my Canon camera) I press the Function button, select white balance, then manual. After I've done this once, pressing the Function button takes me right there again

  2. I pull out my white plastic dive slate (on a retractor attached to my BC), point the camera at it, and press the button that then sets the white balance (on my camera it's the Menu button)

  3. Press the Function button to exit Function mode. Now I'm ready to take pictures at this depth

If you wait to do this until you see something to shoot, you will probably miss the shot.

If your camera has an underwater shooting mode you still need to set the white balance manually. When I put my Canon PowerShot ELPH 100HS in it's underwater housing a button on the housing forces the camera into underwater mode and one of the few things I can change is the white balance. Good enough - all other settings I wanted I set on dry land before putting the camera into the housing.

6 - Getting the Shot

Here are some general suggestions for getting good underwater shots:

7 - Post Processing in your Digital "darkroom"

I use Adobe Photoshop Elements which is a fully featured, easier to use, and much less expensive program than it's big brother full Photoshop. Here's what I do after uploading the images from the camera onto my computer. Note that the commands/names may be a little different in other image processing software but most have the same functions.

For each image I like enough to at least clean up:

  1. Open the image file in Elements. I'm usually dragging it from another program I use for quick viewing

  2. Select Enhance > Auto Levels - this brings back the color and clarity, especially the reds

  3. Often there is a slight blue or green color cast I want to remove by selecting Enhance > Adjust Color > Remove Color Cast. I then click the eyedropper in an area of gray, white or black and see if it gets better. If not I press the reset button and try again elsewhere in the picture until the colors are as I remembered them. If there is a diver in the picture I use their tank with the eyedropper, otherwise usually a shadow on the sand if there is any in the shot

  4. If I want to crop the image I do that now

  5. If I'm going to reduce the size and/or resolution (if it's going on the web) I do that

  6. Then I sharpen the edges (only) by selecting Enhance > Unsharp Mask with the settings: Amount: 85%, Radius: 1.0 pixels, Threshold: 4 levels (thank you Scott Kelby). This should always be the last thing you do before saving. If you want a softer image then skip this step

  7. Save as a new .jpg or .jpeg file with a more meaningful filename. Never overwrite your originals!

Below are some examples of pictures in various stages of editing in Elements so you can see the changes and differences. None of these were cropped. Here is what each row illustrates:
  1. as uploaded from the camera
  2. after applying Auto Levels
  3. after removing any color cast
  4. after Unsharp Mask applied


Updated: 9/30/2013
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