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 Underwater photography and UNDER WATER photos of Sharks, Whales & SCUBA

underwater photo of manta ray and diver, copyright Andrew Woodburn   underwater photography of breath hold dive, copyright Andrew Woodburn
freediving with a tiger shark, underwater photographs Copyright Andrew Woodburn

Taking your photography deep down, Underwater Photography.

UNDER WATER photography, what to know, how to begin and other stuff

Photos and text by Andrew Woodburn, Wild Woodburn Photography

Start at the beginning I was told, so let’s start at the beginning. As with all photography, underwater photography is still primarily about light. Where light comes from, how light falls, lights intensity and effects on the subject in view. But that’s where a lot of similarity ends. There’s a lot more to deal with under the surface than land based point & shooters, amateur photographers and photo professions first might realise. First and foremost it’s all wet, and as we know cameras, electrical current and water get along famously, so famously that the result tends to be terminal.

So the first decision to take, is how does one want to record an image or photograph in the water, and what type of subject matter is your interest? Luckily there are many options available these days as compared to a few years ago. For amateurs, fairly cheap and easily available point and shoot cameras can be bought ( make sure you buy a consumer camera that has a housing available for it as many don’t due to a dearth of these types of cameras).

Once you are ready to get amphibious, there is one other major decision to take on your underwater phototgraphic journey: Are you merely going to get wet or are you really going to submerge. Getting wet merely covers jumping in and out of a swimming pool or kayaking down a river rapid. Submerging means having enough time to take underwater photographs and means mastering Scuba diving or Freediving. Both types of diving activities need training and are potentially hazardous if proper procedures are not followed. Should you want to learn to dive with underwater photography in mind please contact me for advice on which operators tend to be more photographically orientated.

The key to good underwater photos is understanding your subject matter, whether it be a shrimp, whale or diver, and working to ensure your equipment will be able to take the photograph that is desired. This needs to be in water that provides the visibility to get an image which is clear enough for it to be easily identified. This means horses for courses, and it means you will have begun your journey through underwater photography and diving that will now present to you with a number of choices.

These choices will encompass improving your scuba diving knowledge, equipment and techniques. This means being able to stay down long enough to shoot your subject and would cover advanced diving techniques and different options such as rebreathers, wreck diving and deep diving. At the same time you will have begun to notice that it would be very rare for printed photos of good quality to be taken on a consumer automated camera and so the options for upgrading your camera will start to emerge. This will lead you into underwater housings and dedicated underwater photographic camera systems and most importantly lighting will begin to play a bigger role. All of this can be costly but I wouldn’t worry too much if you don’t have a large bank balance as the secret to improving your images is to buy into a modular underwater or amphibious system which you can add to, a piece at a time. The benefit is that you become proficient at each addition before adding the next and hence acquire a rang of skills which will serve you well into the future when breakages, flooding and conditions sometimes don’t let you carry out what your intentions might be.

Macro photography is the obvious choice as it presents interesting subjects which don’t in general hide as well as being incredibly colourful. Underwater macro photography can be a lifetime passion and deliver fascinating images which win photo competitions and inspire scientists. Your scuba dive club or underwater photography club such as the Gauteng Underwater Photographic Society (see the link from to ) can guide you through your learning curve. In addition the protection of the marine environment is very important. The creatures in the ocean take time to grow and build their worlds and hence photographer focussing on their image capture need to be completely aware of where they are putting their fins, hands and cameras. DO NOT damage the marine environment, don’t crash into coral or try ride a turtle. Support conservation bodies as this is your photo backdrop and we will all need it in the future. I even follow the fish guidelines for when I choose fish to eat which can be found at in “About WW” Eat 2 Conserve.

At this stage your knowledge and number of dives will have been increasing in leaps and bounds, and so for those who already toil at mastering this art the main technique tip I can provide is to understand your lighting. How strong are your strobes, where are they placed, what do you want to show in each image and change the lighting position accordingly Try using one , two or remote lights and with digital, the use of constant burn hi intensity lighting is becoming more prevalent. Video in the underwater environment is growing very quickly and provides a whole other creative opportunity.

So if you have, or want to venture into the underwater realm, stay excited, enjoy stretching your photographic skills and be ready to learn a bunch of new things as this is such a different environment. It’s still an environment where the photographic process of being in your environment, under standing it and converting your experience into an image is still fundamental in a world that relies more and more on imitating reality in studio or manipulating images with computers. All this have their place but I still love the decent into the blue, camera in hand wondering what might come my way today.

Andrew Woodburn is a leading underwater photographer in a broad range of fields covering marine life such as sharks and whales, underwater modelling, safari and dive lodges, special effects, and extreme sports. He has been published in major magazines and has won international wards for his underwater photography. Andrew’s Wild Woodburn Photography has just launched a new website where you can register for free, email him on or call him on 27 83 260 5553 for advice on where to do what relating to photography and water.  Keep on clicking


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