Swimming with the fishies: A beginner’s guide

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Director of Photography Bob Hamilton tried his hand at underwater photography while he was vacationing in St. John, Virgin Islands. He offers a couple tips to think about before you take the plunge.

My wife and I were traveling to St. John, Virgin Islands for our 30th wedding anniversary (yeah, I’m that old) and one thing on my agenda was to go snorkeling and try my hand at underwater photography. My only problems: I didn’t have an underwater camera and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

The first problem was easily remedied: I needed to buy an underwater point-and-shoot camera (an anniversary gift to myself). But which camera to get.

For that solution, I visited my favorite site for all things digital photography — dpreview.com, which has tons of information including field tests on many of the cameras that you can purchase at your local retail store.

As I did my research, I quickly found out there were many underwater cameras and camera housing options. After educating myself on the various features and comparing the makes and models, I finally settled on an Olympus Tough HG820. This model fit my budget and seemed like a good starter camera.

Now that I had the camera, all I had to do was figure out how to use it.

First things first, read the manual. I know that many people loathe breaking out the manual, but it can save you time and frustration when it comes time to shoot. I also recommend familiarizing yourself with the “menu” items on the camera. You don’t want to be fumbling with buttons while you’re swimming in the ocean and chasing a school of fish.

The camera I bought did not cost thousands of dollars, far from it, so it wasn’t too complicated to figure out. Almost all point-and-shoot cameras come with “scene” modes and it’s a good idea to take advantage of these features. A common example is for taking pictures of sporting events (usually pictured as a figure running). If you flip the camera to this scene mode, it will adjust the camera to the highest possible shutter speed to greatly increase your odds of an action shot that is in focus.

On the camera I purchased, since it had underwater capabilities, there were four scene modes for underwater use. This seemed like overkill to me, but I’m sure the manufacture had reasons for it. The first was for shooting in a pool, so I ruled that out since I was ocean bound. The second was for shooting fish up close, while the third was for underwater landscapes. The final scene was for underwater action shots.

When I got in the water, I spent time toggling between the three scene modes that seemed the most relevant and after a while I became accustom to adjusting the camera while underwater. I must say the hardest part was framing a composition through a swim mask. I found what worked best for me was keeping the lens at a fairly wide angle and lining the lens up with my intended target. Then, just shoot a way. Not very scientific, but I figured I could always crop the image after the fact. At the end of the day, I would say: mission accomplished.

So go ahead, break out the sunscreen, bathing suit and underwater camera, head to your nearest body of water and take a shot.