Underwater Photography for the Enthusiastic Amateur: Trials, Tribulations, and Occasional Triumphs

“Discovering what lies beneath” a photo of an underwater photographer swimming under a school of fish. © Jim Squires
“Discovering what lies beneath” © Jim Squires

By Jim Squires

Nature photography is a powerful medium. Transporting us from expansive celestial heavens to secretive microscopic worlds only inches away, nature photography has the power to drop jaws, warm hearts, foster curiosity, and inspire action by giving the viewer a front row seat to our natural world. While the bulk of nature photography has captured life on the surface of our planet and its interface with the skies, more recently photographers have been discovering what lies beneath.

As an educator, I was typically in need of a second or third income to live the lifestyle I desired. I was always attracted to nature, particularly water, so becoming a diving instructor was an ideal way to supplement my income.  My diving experience also afforded me the perfect opportunity to combine my long-time interest in photography by diving in to underwater photography. While I describe myself as primarily a “self-mistaught photographer,” I’ve had the privilege to dive alongside and learn from some amazing mentors. Over the years I’ve progressed enough to manage my share of “keepers” and impress my relatives and friends with the beauty of the underwater realm.

Hawaiian goatfish lining up at a cleaning station. © Jim Squires
Hawaiian goatfish lining up at a cleaning station. © Jim Squires

That Pesky Learning Curve

Jumping into the ocean with a camera does not automatically qualify one as an underwater photographer. Believe me, I speak from many years of experience. I am reminded of the four stages of learning – Unconscious Incompetence (ignorance is bliss), Conscious Incompetence (oh-oh, time to quit)), Conscious Competence (mindfully “getting it” through perseverance and learning), Unconscious Competence (it just comes naturally). Over time I progressed through these stages to become a better underwater (UW) photographer while my camera store benefited financially from increased sales and continual repairs of flooded equipment. It is amazing how capturing one satisfying image out of hundreds can evolve into the analogous fisherman’s plea of “Just one more cast!” It’s easy to get hooked.

Sparing You Some Pain

If you want to enjoy photographing underwater life even a fraction of my obsession, I can be your ardent cheerleader. That said, it isn’t something best learned from scratch on your own. While it is beyond the scope of this article to really teach anyone the necessary skills for taking great underwater images, allow me to share a few words of advice.

  1. It’s a different world down there. Underwater is an alluring realm, be it a blue Pacific lagoon, turquoise Caribbean reef, or crisp mountain lake. One common element is that it’s wet. Cameras and water do not get along, so great care must be taken to prevent consummating a union between the two. Other environmental factors such as light, temperature and pressure must all be taken into account before you press the shutter.  
  2. First, be an excellent diver. Don’t even think of carrying a camera with you until you have acquired the necessary skills for that environment. Being able to control your buoyancy, master breathing and air consumption, and identify and solve problems are but a few of the skills you’ll need to acquire through your diving certification process. Stay safe.
  3. Be a perpetual student. Even when you achieve Unconscious Competence, you risk falling prey to being Unconsciously Incompetent when you enter a new or unfamiliar environment, such as shifting from the warm, clear waters off Florida to an ice dive in Vermont. Continue your training throughout. Also, learn about the specific environment and its inhabitants. In advance! You improve your chances of capturing a memorable image when you better understand the behavior of the subject.
  4. Know your equipment. Underwater photography is an equipment-intensive endeavor. Be fully familiar with how everything works, from your dive computer to your camera setup before you jump in the water. Take care of your equipment and it will take care of you. Again, owning the equipment doesn’t necessarily transform you into a photographer.
  5. Be prepared. Anticipate what you might encounter before you enter the water and use the lens that suits the situation. UW photographers typically use a “jump setting” when plunging into the water in the event some incredible event appears right off the bat. The more you are prepared, the greater the chances for capturing a successful image. Inevitably, you will see that tiny pygmy seahorse when you are set up for wide angle. When that happens, forget the camera and enjoy the experience.
  6. Be patient. This is one of my greatest reminders to myself. Survey the larger situation to get the best vantage point and think before you shoot. Am I approaching the subject correctly? Are my settings appropriate for the shot? Are my strobes pointing where they should? You may only get one chance to take that shot so move slowly and thoughtfully.
An immense school of jacks in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico provides a perfect wide-angle opportunity. © Jim Squires
An immense school of jacks in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico provides a perfect wide-angle opportunity. © Jim Squires

A Challenge with Every Bubble

Even with the best planning and preparation, there remains no shortage of challenges for the UW photographer. For example:

  • If you become so focused on taking pictures, you may forget to monitor your depth limits, time restrictions, or air consumption which can lead to serious problems.
  • Water conditions can be unpredictable and change without notice; strong currents can take you where you don’t want to go and surging water movement can make careful framing of subjects difficult or impossible.
  • Fish and other critters frighten easily when they are pursued, especially when you move quickly or exhale bubbles; no one likes to be preyed upon.
  • Approach every shot as though it will be a one-shot opportunity; if you are fortunate, there will be opportunities for S-R-A-R (shoot, review, adjust, reshoot).
  • Light and color behave differently underwater so you need to bring your own lighting to the party and apply it strategically; poor lighting can ruin an otherwise sensational photograph and there is only so much that hours of post-processing sorcery can heal.
  • Backscatter is the bane of an UW photographer’s existence (along with the next item); it occurs when your strobe brightly illuminates unwanted debris between you and your subject, creating a blizzard-like effect destined to send many images to the recycle bin.
Backscatter can ruin an otherwise good image. Photo of a diver that's ruined by prominent floating debris. © Jim Squires
Backscatter can ruin an otherwise good image. © Jim Squires
  • Other divers may be attracted to your activity not realizing that you have been patiently waiting for the shy baby octopus to emerge from the opening of a discarded bottle; their well-meaning curiosity may not kill the cat but it can kill the shot.
  • Camera malfunction is inevitable at some point. At times it can be a disaster such as a camera flooding with saltwater at a faraway location (I speak from experience), other times a temporary inconvenience caused by a loose cable connection. When this happens, remember why you began diving in the first place- your love for nature’s beauty- and enjoy the remainder of your dive.
  • UW photographers do not have special preference or priority over other considerate divers. Be a good buddy first and pay more attention to your buddy’s safety than the critter you are trying to photograph.
Macro photography reveals small wonders that are often overlooked. Photo of a goby on wire coral. © Jim Squires
Macro photography reveals small wonders that are often overlooked. © Jim Squires

Fin-ishing Thoughts

Underwater photography may have its challenges but it has provided some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had with a camera. It puts me close to nature and allows me to capture memories that can provide warmth on a cold winter night.

UW photographers have an added obligation to give back to the seas in which they dive. UW photography can be a useful tool for increasing environmental awareness, supporting conservation efforts, and conducting scientific or historical research. Still, no photograph is so important that it should jeopardize marine or human life. As the mantra reminds us, “Take only pictures, leave only bubbles.” (Learn more about responsible nature photography with NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices.)

Ask any accomplished underwater photographer and she’ll tell you capturing an iconic image where everything comes together happens once in a blue moon. Still, it doesn’t keep us from trying. Through persistence and continuous study, I like to think my images have magically improved over time. My love affairs with some early shots have become faded memories, replaced with new lovers. And every time I dive into the water, I keep hoping that I will finally find “the one.”

Photo of a reef shark overhead. It pays to look up every now and then. © Jim Squires
It pays to look up every now and then. © Jim Squires

Jim Squires is an avid amateur UW photographer who recently retired from the field of early childhood education. He was also A NAUI diving instructor for nearly 30 years in the cold waters of Vermont’s Lake Champlain. Limited to one or two dive vacations a year, he calculates he has been taking photographs underwater for nine months over a span of 30 years, progressing from his “ever-flood” Nikonos film camera to a housed Canon DSLR. Some of his work has been recognized by NANPA, the Georgia Nature Photographers Association, Beneath the Sea, and other organizations. His work can be seen at squiresjames.photoshelter.com.