Don’t be embarrassed, we have all been there. In fact – we wouldn’t be able to make a list like this if we hadn’t have first made many of these mistakes. The purpose in sharing this is not to shame those of us who are learning – but rather to save valuable time on common mistakes. Work to rid these bad habits out early to get great photographs early on in your experiences.
Backscatter, backscatter, backscatter
Sometimes having debris in your images in unavoidable, but the professional underwater photographer will adjust their strobe lights in a way that highlights the subject and hides the debris from the camera. Remember that even though debris is in the water, backscatter is caused by a flash or light highlighting the particles when the camera is capturing the image just like how you would use studio strobe lights to change or hide details on a studio subject, you can employ the same technique underwater.
Another tip to avoid backscatter is to get in as close as possible to your subject. This allows you to lessen the distance and debris that is captured.
For more information on Backscatter you can read this article: What is Backscatter in Underwater Photography
Lack of light
When shooting photographs underwater you need light. In a lot of circumstance the ambient light in the water (even if you are shallow and just snorkeling) may not be enough. As the light travels through the water it diffuses and gets weaker and weaker. If you happen to be looking upward towards your subject then there will be little to no ambient light even available to you. The same goes for looking inside rocks, caves, holes, etc.
The best setup are a pair of external strobes. Those however can be very costly. Using a cameras internal flash is good – but often is the cause of annoying backscatter within your images. If you can’t yet get your hands on a pair of strobes you may want to consider a dive light that you can use to illuminate your subjects.
Proper lighting allows for several things. First is that it helps the camera capture details in sharp focus. Second is that it helps the camera capture better color information. A third benefit is that the light drops off quickly and often causes your background to loose detail causing your subject to pop (which is ideal).
For more help on lighting you can reference these articles:
This is another common mistake that a lot of early underwater photographers make. While there is beauty in a photograph of a busy reef, more times then not the real beauty and detail is missed. Underwater photography is actually one of those disciplines that you want to get good and close in on your subjects. Make them the center of your composition and focus on their details.
The same concept applies for your background. Often underwater photographers are focused on the subject that they forget to look beyond the subject to the background that they are capturing. A great close up photo of an eel may be ruined by a half deteriorated beer bottle in the background or another fishes tail swimming through the frame.
When shooting pictures of reefs, make sure that there is a distinct subject for the eye to hold onto. This is common in landscape photography. A beautiful mountain scene looses it majesty when captured without depth and a subject to tie the photo together. A reef underwater will have little value without a subject for the viewer to enjoy.
Lack of sharpness
Portrait photographers know that the key to a good portrait is on a sharp and crisp photo. Often they are instructed to focus on the eyes and the mouth of the subject. The same applies underwater. If the fish is not sharp, it will not be a good photo. Use the same eye trick with your underwater photographs. Find the eyes of the subject and use that as your focal point. You may be surprised that can get away with a blurry tail or legs as long as the face and eyes are in sharp focus.
Over doing adjustments in post
Its common to come back to editing studio and be a little frustrated with the lack of color vibrance within your captured photos. Easy solution you think – just pump up the saturation and vibrance in photoshop. Unfortunately this will damage the color hues and alter the look and feel of the fish. Be careful with your saturation slider. If you need to adjust it – keep the adjustments in the single digits.