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Landscapes underwater


Underwater landscapes can be spectacularly colorful and seem almost other-worldly. Photo by Tom Sheldon.
Underwater landscapes can be spectacularly colorful and seem almost other-worldly. Photo by Tom Sheldon.

Underwater landscapes are best photographed in shallow water, no deeper than 20 to 30-feet. Natural sunlight filtering through the water provides the broad illumination needed for a good landscape, but the light’s intensity falls off significantly at lower depths, where the use of artificial light becomes a necessity.

VISIBILITY

The murkiness of the water must be taken into account. Poor visibility will translate into a poor landscape image. If the water is somewhat murky, look for underwater scenes that contain contrast (red coral against a backdrop of white sand, for instance), then get as close as you can to fill the frame. The less water between you and your subject, the less murkiness will be apparent.

Suspended particles will often reflect light, creating an effect similar to shooting through a light fog. Sometimes a change in position will minimize this effect. Asking another diver to float above you to block the light so as to provide shade immediately in front of your lens may help, too. The most-effective solution, however, is usually to get as close as you can to your subject.


LIGHT

The quality of the light falling on the scene is equally as important. The best light is generally bright sun directly overhead in a cloudless sky. Scenes will generally be adequately-illuminated during the two hours preceding and following the time the sun is directly overhead, however in very shallow water, the sun may provide sufficient illumination at other times of day.

Underwater flash can be beneficial as fill flash, particularly if there are fish, other marine life or a particularly-interesting feature within flash distance, which is generally no more than 10 to 12-feet, even from the most-powerful flash units.

Getting close to your subject is always important, but underwater it's essential. Photo by Tom Sheldon.
Getting close to your subject is always important, but underwater it's essential. Photo by Tom Sheldon.

Light falls off rapidly with increased depth and its color changes, too, making flash essential for proper illumination. Photo of a diver approaching cloud sponge by Tom Sheldon.
Light falls off rapidly with increased depth and its color changes, too, making flash essential for proper illumination. Photo of a diver approaching cloud sponge by Tom Sheldon.

EXPOSURE

You should meter the light illuminating your underwater subject. (This can be accomplished with cameras that have automatic exposure or by using a hand-held light meter made specifically for underwater photography.) When you can’t, here is a helpful guide for underwater exposure in natural light:

1. First meter the light falling on the surface of the water. No light meter? Then, use the Sunny 16 rule or the exposure guide on the data sheet packaged with your film to estimate exposure at the surface.
2. With the sun directly overhead, open by one stop for shots where your subject is just beneath the surface. (If your aperture setting above the water should be ƒ16, use ƒ11.)
3. Open an additional stop for every ten feet of depth of clear water.
4. Be sure to adjust exposure for the filter factor for any filter* you may be using.
5. Use the smallest-possible aperture for maximum depth-of-field with a shutter speed fast enough for hand-holding.
6. Bracket your exposures, remembering, however, that it uses up precious film, which cannot be changed underwater, so bracket only for important pictures you want to be sure you've captured.

* A wide selection of underwater filters is available for purchase from B&H Photography, the world's leading retailer of imaging products. Click here to be taken to the underwater filter section of the B&H Photography website.


ANGLE OF VIEW

The angle of view used for many good underwater landscapes is one that is almost parallel to the bottom, rather than a scene shot from directly overhead, which can appear flat and featureless. Many underwater photographs look like aerial pictures because the snorkeling photographer remained floating directly above them, generally at the surface. Your photographs gain much more appeal when you dive down and compose a scene just as you would on the land, with consideration for foreground and background, and a center of interest.

Diving down and getting close will often provide you with pictures you can't get by floating at the surface. Photo by Tom Sheldon.
Diving down and getting close will often provide you with pictures you can't get by floating at the surface. Photo by Tom Sheldon.

Some creatures can be difficult to identify or even to pick out from their surroundings. Photo by Tom Sheldon.
Some creatures can be difficult to identify or even to pick out from their surroundings. Photo by Tom Sheldon.

When you come upon a scene you would like to photograph, try to imagine how you would compose the image if the water was not there, and where you would be positioned. Then, dive down and shoot from that viewpoint, if you can. Your pictures will appear more three-dimensional, the lighting will be less flat, and because you got closer to your subject (hopefully filling the frame), the image will be a better composition.

COLOR REPLACEMENT

Since water absorbs lightwaves in accordance with their wavelengths as depth increases – beginning with the shortest waves at the red end of the spectrum – the use of filters is necessary to restore color balance once you get beyond the first few feet. A light-red filter is useful from 3 to 8-feet below the surface, and a medium-red filter is effective at further depths to 12-feet. In very shallow water, shooting when the sun is low on the horizon may provide the scene with sufficient red light to render colors more naturally without the need for filtration.


The water itself may be tinted by particles in suspension. An abundance of plankton, for instance, can turn it green. Magenta filters can help balance green-colored water.

CONSIDER TIDAL CHANGE

An underwater landscape scene that may be too deep for natural light photography at high tide may be ideally-illuminated when the tide is low, and there is less volume of water for sunlight to penetrate.

At low tide, the ocean floor may be much more brightly-illuminated.
At low tide, the ocean floor may be much more brightly-illuminated.
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Sunny 16 rule