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By Chris Hacking

Underwater photography is among the most difficult and most rewarding artistic practices possible today. The difficulties and complexities of surface photography are increased dramatically due to the peculiarities of the underwater world; I believe even a professional surface photographer may initially have trouble getting good pictures underwater. However, a good underwater photograph can preserve an image never seen on the surface, and the difficulty of taking great underwater pictures makes them all the more rare and precious.

Pickhandle Barracuda in the clear waters of Raja Ampat, IndonesiaI strongly recommend learning underwater photography with a digital camera. Digital cameras allow many features not possible with film, such as storing each picture's statistics on the file and allowing instant review of a picture to determine if it came out well. Underwater digital cameras (or digital cameras with underwater cases) are easily available and relatively inexpensive. To learn more about why I prefer a digital camera, click here!

Underwater photography requires equipment not used in surface photography. The camera must either be designed waterproof or have an underwater housing. To take pictures anywhere except in clear, shallow, brightly lit water, an external strobe is virtually a necessity. Some special photographic modes (such as macro) should be set up in certain ways for the best results underwater. Setting up and using underwater photography equipment is also somewhat different from doing so on the surface. Wondering what techniques I use for my underwater photography? Click here!

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of underwater photography is backscatter. Backscatter, caused by light from a flash reflecting off suspended particles, is a very common problem that destroys many otherwise good underwater photographs. Avoiding backscatter is so important that I've devoted an entire page to the subject. To read more about the causes and prevention of backscatter, click here.

Light, the essential element for photography, attenuates very rapidly underwater. Even in the clearest water, visibility is rarely more than 150' (45m), and photographically usable visibility is much less (40' or 12m is a lot). An additional problem is that light from the red end of the spectrum is absorbed very quickly by water, while bluish light can permeate much further and yellow or green light is more intermediate (this is why the deep ocean is blue, shallow water is aqua, and a glass too small to absorb even red light appears clear). The human eye adjusts to these color shifts automatically, but photos will appear very blue later, unless a strobe was used to fill in the missing colors. However, there are several ways to preserve a natural color balance, using filters, lights, film, digital cameras, and modifications after a picture is taken. To learn more about light and color underwater, click here.

Composition is as important  underwater as on the surface. However, it is much more difficult! The fluid environment allows easy mobility in three dimensions, allowing shots from angles that would normally be difficult on land. The same fluidity makes it difficult to hold position, though, so an important part of underwater photography is being able to keep the camera in position long enough to take the picture! Getting a good background underwater can also be difficult; your targets are often against something highly complicated, such as a coral reef, which can result in an obscure and confusing image. To see my thoughts about composing shots underwater, click here.

Why Digital? | Tools & Methods | Backscatter | Light & Color | Composing

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