5 Tips for Your Underwater Journey

5 Tips for Your Underwater Journey with Karen Bagley

I am so very passionate about the underwater world that we have on this planet. I have built a career around this passion and have had the privilege to photograph models and wildlife in oceans around the world. My travel underwater photography is a huge part of my business and I want to share my journey to help others who have this very same interest.

Underwater photography while mesmerizing is not for the faint of heart. You have all of the regular challenges that come with shooting on land, and then about 1000x’s more challenges that come from shooting in a moving environment. All of this is intensified when you are shooting in the ocean versus a pool. While almost everything can be controlled on land, that is not the case while underwater. You have a split second to get what is in your mind, set up and captured in camera to eventually share with the world. While that challenge is quite addicting for me it also makes it difficult for those interested in underwater photography to know how to go about getting started or improving in this very amazing yet difficult field. For that very reason I have created 5 tips to help you start or improve your underwater business.

Tip 1. Understanding the challenge that comes with ocean underwater photography

Before even picking up your camera to take the dive it is vital that you know the dangers and challenges associated with being underwater.  You must be mindful that ocean water will make you more buoyant because of the salt. This is great if you want to stay on the surface but for true underwater work, we need to be able to go several feet below the surface. If you are a diver – great – you have the gear you need to keep you under for an extended period of time. For me I free diver. I need to know what my models are experiencing. I do not want them trying to hold their breath longer than they should just to stay down a few seconds longer because I have dive gear. When they feel the need to come up, they need to come up. With that you are now on a time clock. You have a matter of seconds to go down, fight the currents, compose your subject, capture your subject and then come back up for air. So, imagine you have an entire wedding to capture in 15- 30 seconds. Now mind you, you have multiple times to try and get all the important shots you need, but you are also trying to get these shots in very powerful wind where everything is moving constantly AND you are holding your breath the entire time… now you have an idea of how underwater photography plays out. So, you need to be able to move quick on your flippers (pun intended.) You need to have a plan, and an idea and a way to execute this plan. You need to take time with your models before getting in the water letting them know what you are looking for and how they can go about making this shot come to life. Running a couple of tests with your model is vital. No camera, just you and your model going down together so you both get a good feel for how the water is that day. Then let the shooting begin!

Tip 2. Everything FLOATS!

While the housing units to shoot underwater are very heavy outside of water, they are made to float in the case that you let go of your camera and housing in the water. When I first began underwater photography, I had only a $60 waterproof bag from amazon. This bag was so buoyant it would literally pull me back to the surface in a matter of seconds. Nobody expects to have such an issue with floating underwater which leads to photographers getting frustrated and thinking they cannot shoot underwater. I refused to not figure this issue out. Leading to me improvising. I would tie a 10lb weight to my amazon bag. Yes, I literally drove around with a 10lb dumbbell in my car.  It was a risk because if I dropped my camera then that weight would drag my camera to the bottom of wherever. I did what I had to do because I realized I wasn’t going to get anything at the surface. Knowing that floating is such an issue underwater how do we combat that? You must get yourself a weight belt. One heavy enough to help you control your own buoyancy and the push back you get from your underwater housing. Make sure you test your weight belt before getting in the ocean where you cannot see the bottom. You should never go into deep waters without testing EVERYTHING in more shallow water. I do not always shoot with a weight belt because it slows me down and sometimes the water/oceans I shoot in are hard to reach, I have to hike to them. If I can lessen my load I will. When I do not have my weight belt, I must forcefully push myself down (housing leading the way. If you let it drag behind you, you will never get down low enough) into the water deeper than usual because I know I will float ten times quicker. Sometimes I will even have my husband give me a push and /or stand on my back or shoulders underwater. Floating can be a huge issue but it can be overcome.

Tip 3. Trust your camera

When it comes to your settings when shooting underwater you must know your camera like the back of your hand. You need to be able to control the things you can control and then let your camera pick up the slack. Cameras these days are POWERHOUSES. If you think you are going to have time to play and change your settings the way you would on land, you got another thing coming. Some of your settings need to be set and others need to be able to adjust given the lighting circumstances. The SECOND you are underwater you immediately loose light. The deeper you go the more light you lose. Because of this many of my ocean underwater shoots are shot on auto ISO. I am fine with my images having some grain in them. What I do not want is my images being blurry because the shutter speed is too low … nor do I want shallow depth of field if my aperture is too low, trying to compensate for low light. Along with low light situations you also have a huge change in color the SECOND you go underwater. For obvious reasons, everything is going to be more blue/green. You can somewhat counteract this with setting your camera to automatically adjust your white balance based on the lighting situation. There are also filters you can use on your lens to help balance this out. I personally do not use these filters which is just a personal choice. But really all of your colors can be adjusted in post-production. You can also help yourself by understanding the best time to shoot underwater which leads me to my next tip…

Tip 4. Find the light

KNOWING… I mean really knowing ambient light is going to be another huge piece to this puzzle. There is of course lighting gear for underwater but it is large and cumbersome and still is not powerful enough to overpower the sun… so for me I shoot ambient as much as I possibly can. With that comes responsibility in knowing which direction you want to shoot in based on the direction of the sun and where you place your subject. Being able to compose your subject based on your light source to create a true work of art takes time and quite a bit of studying the sun and water. Practice is going to really teach you the most when it comes to this tip.

Tip 5: Post production is your key

While every photographer, including myself, Is going to tell you to get your images as close to perfection in camera when shooting on land… it just Is not possible when shooting underwater. You can get as close as you can but even still you will HAVE to spend time in post-production. Color correction will be the first thing you will do in post. For me I do all of my color correcting in lightroom. I use the lovely little eye dropper tool and voila my color is almost 100% corrected. Sometimes you will have to a custom correction but that is rare. Color correction will go a long way but then you will have to manually adjust highlights/shadows, etc. Then you will have to remove backscatter, debris and even salt. Without a fairly good knowledge of lightroom and photoshop your underwater images may possibly suffer. I would say post production is a good 40% of the final outcome of your image. Yes, that is higher than what I would like to see on land but that’s just it, you’re not on land. Embrace the postproduction work that is sure to come along with any underwater session.

Implement these tips and you will be well on your way to creating AMAZING underwater photographs!

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