I never should have borrowed the camera...!
A guest photo tip column by Josef Litt
I had never wanted to be an underwater photographer, until my buddy bought an underwater housing for his digital compact camera.
My fate was sealed on a deep dive in Croatia, which was necessary for my friend's Advanced OWD certificate. Since I was much more experienced than he was, I had to carry the camera. My task was to take a couple of pictures of him calculating primary school multiplications that turned into quirky differential equations due to the 100 feet of very dry Martini in his head.*
I took the pictures and then tried to capture some interesting marine life around me. Unfortunately, Croatia is not famous for its marine biodiversity. The location we dived was not known for its "biodensity," either. On the whole dive, we saw one anemone, one scorpionfish, and one very alive-looking chimney of a cargo steamer.
It was the scorpionfish that caught my attention—it is a deadly poisonous creature that can trick an unsuspecting diver into touching it with a bare hand. I thought I was ready for the challenge to take the ultimate picture for the cover of National Geographic Magazine. I set up the underwater scene mode on my camera and switched on the strobe to add some light to the darkness of the abyss...
...I really hoped that I had deleted this terribly red picture of the scorpionfish right away, but it turns out I did not—I found it after several hours of ransacking my archives. I share it with some embarrassment, but I hope it makes you feel good to see how far I was able to come after this first attempt.
Now I know that the underwater mode on the camera adds red color to the picture, and the strobe adds red color, too. Together, they make the photograph far too red hot...and you can find at least ten other mistakes I made while taking this picture.
Since that first dive with my friend's camera, I've learned a lot about underwater photography. I'd like to share some of the basics to help new photographers get started. These tips should help anyone take great photos without a lot of expensive gear—all you need is a compact digital camera with an underwater housing, and a little bit of perseverance.
It is important to realize that underwater photographers generally shoot in two ways: close-up pictures and underwater landscapes. These two ways require different settings on the compact digital camera.
For underwater landscapes and big creatures:
• Set up the normal shooting mode on your digital compact camera.
• Switch off your internal strobe (it only reaches a few inches).
• Switch on your "underwater scene" mode to improve colors a little bit.
• Shoot from below and towards the surface to add some light and an "underwater" feeling.
All of the pictures in this column are my very early ones, and were taken with a Canon Powershot S80 compact digital camera in its Canon housing, without any external strobes.
And, guess what? I am really glad that I was carrying the camera on that deep dive!
Josef Litt is a keen scuba diver and underwater photographer. His portfolio includes photographs from many diving locations around the world. You can see more of Josef's work and learn about how he is helping with marine conservation efforts at his website,
*Editor's note: This sentence refers to the effects of nitrogen narcosis, an altered mental state caused by breathing compressed gases at depth.
Photos by Josef Litt (from top): Juvenile Red Sea anemonefish (Amphiprion bicinctus), Brothers Island, Egypt (Red Sea); Scorpionfish (Scorpeana scrofa), Pakostane, Croatia (Adriatic Sea); Bluespine unicornfish (Naso unicornis), Nuweiba, Egypt (Red Sea); Common bigeye (Priacanthus hamrur) and cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus), Sodwana Bay, South Africa (Indian Ocean); Schooling long-fin bannerfish (Heniochus acuminatus) and humpback snappers (Lutjanus gibbus), Sodwana Bay, South Africa.