Adventures in Underwater Photography: Diving the coral reefs of Belize
A scuba diving trip in Belize seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to try my hand at underwater photography. But not all of us can hit a home-run on the first swing. I bring back some murky video, and a handful of lessons learned for other beginners looking to jump in and shoot.
Sitting on the edge of a boat bobbing in the waves, I have a tank strapped to my back, a mask clouding my vision and a snorkel dangling by my ear. It’s my first time scuba diving and I’m nervous that despite all my preparation I’ll forget something important — and the consequences are ominous. Outside of my possible death, the only other thing I can think about is the digital camera nestled in the pocket of my scuba vest. I want to be sure to capture some cool fish, the colors of the coral, the way the light scatters underwater and a few “selfies” to prove my bravery to Facebook friends.
But breathtaking underwater photography isn’t easy, as I soon found out. Some stories are of successes (read Bob Hamilton’s underwater photography guide for that), but this one is of failure — and the lessons learned through it. Now that I’m back from my trip, allow me to pass along a few pieces of advice for other photography novices who are considering diving deep with a camera.
TIP 1: KEEP YOUR EXPECTATIONS REALISTIC.
Look friends, there is a reason that the photographers and videographers hired by National Geographic get to film fish for a living while the rest of us are stuck in offices — they’re amazingly talented. If this is your first time taking a camera underwater, get ready to learn a lot and have plenty of fun! Don’t expect shark-week quality footage because you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. I made this mistake and it ruins everything. While flipping through vacation photos, all I see are mountains of missed opportunities. Who wants that? Set realistic expectations and you’ll be just fine.
TIP 2: CHECK YOUR CAMERA’S SPECS AND ACCESSORY NEEDS.
I didn’t do enough research on the front end to know that I needed a special underwater case on the GoPro I used. Just because you can take a camera underwater without killing it, doesn’t mean it will actually take good images down there. My case was waterproof, but not optimized the way a special case would have been. All the videos and photos that I captured are out of focus and murky. Sad, sad, sad. Don’t be like me. Do your homework!
TIP 3: THINK ABOUT YOUR LIGHTING SITUATION.
Even in the pristine waters of Belize, it got a little dark once we were down 50 feet. My photos aren’t as vibrant as I would have liked in part because we were diving later in the afternoon. If photography is your main goal for diving, try to get a dive time around noon, when the sun will likely be the brightest. If you must dive in sub-optimal conditions, consider having a light source on hand. Though it is best not to use it if you don’t need it, it can help if you’re having problems capturing color and texture. Your dive master may be able to advise you on what kind of set-up you’ll need for the depth you intend to do. Some dive shops have camera set-ups with flashes you can rent.
TIP 4: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE VIDEO.
I wish I had taken more video while I was underwater, and spent less time trying to capture stills. This might be in part because of my case issues outlined in Tip 2, but the fact remains — our eyes and brains are much more forgiving of bad video than a bad photograph. Just in case the photos you’re getting aren’t amazing, take ample video to capture your experience.
TIP 5: HEAD TO SHALLOW WATERS.
Take the camera you’re planning to use out for a spin before the big day. Even if you’re shooting throw away images of your friend at the local YMCA, you’ll get a feel for how best to use the camera. Many GoPros don’t have viewfinders or digital screens for photo review, so you’re essentially shooting blind. I didn’t quite understand the angle of the lens on my camera, so many of my stills have the object of interest in the lower-most third of the frame. Yeah, not good. Some time spent tooling around in the surf would have helped me figure that out sooner.
I’ll leave you with some additional resources that can help you navigate your first underwater photography trip. Best of luck!