5 Secrets to Eye Popping Underwater Photography

5 Secrets to Eye Popping Underwater Photography

Photo by Steve Simonsen/Queen triggerfish

Underwater photography is a special breed. There’s the plain fact that the most successful photographers know how to scuba dive – not to mention that light behaves totally differently underwater and the equipment is an investment in itself. But for the true aficionados, these are hardly difficult feats to overcome. Caribbean stock and underwater photographer Steve Simonsen is one such specialist who has made his life’s work under water.

Steve has been living and shooting in the U.S. Virgin Islands for over 20 years, so he knows a thing or two about what it takes to capture fast moving fish, deep sea creatures, and rolling waves. Looking back on all his projects – both personal and on assignment – Steve broke his strategy down into 5 factors that have led him to success:

  • Access to marine preserves and diving operators
  • Specialized underwater equipment – with backups
  • Understanding water’s unique & inherent challenges
  • Adjusting to the lack of light
  • Diving experience and expertise

Like most photographers, Steve has a preference for what to shoot. Specifically for marine life, Steve says, “The list of difficult species is long, the list of favorite species is long, and the list of easiest species is short.” But no matter what he’s photographing, his strategy remains relatively similar. Here are his 5 strategic factors in detail:

Access to marine preserves and diving operators

“Many of the areas that I work in are protected and require permits to photograph,” says Steve, “such as national parks, wildlife preserves, and marine preserves. Insurance is another one of the requirements to gain access to these protected lands and their animals.”

In addition to the parks, Steve does a great deal of photographing in his own backyard – and lucky for him, his backyard is the beautiful beaches of St. John. “Most of the images that I capture are simply in nature and getting to them for underwater shooting usually just requires a boat,” he says. “I have had a wonderful relationship with a commercial dive operator on the island of St. John for over 20 years now and I often accompany them on their daily dive trips. I also have my own small boat which allows me to go exactly where I want, when I want, for however long it requires.”

Photo by Steve Simonsen

This is especially handy when Steve needs to focus on photographing a specific species or habitat. “Many of the wildlife behaviors are seasonal,” he explains, “so at certain times of year I may specifically go in search of a particular behavior, such as nurse sharks mating in shallow water in early spring or humpback whale migration through the Caribbean.”

Photo by Steve Simonsen/Nurse shark in cave, U.S. Virgin Island

Specialized underwater equipment – with backups

Although Steve had been shooting with a Nikon for the past 30 years (most recently the Nikon D2X), he recently switched to Canon cameras and lenses (5D Mark II). “I use Aquatica aluminum die-cast housings with huge dome ports to maintain the focal length of the lens. By default I am a wide angle specialist. It comes with the territory. Underwater photography is the exact opposite of topside – shoot wide and get close. My two favorite lenses are the Canon fisheye lens super wide 180° view and the Canon 100mm or 105mm macro.”

Photo by Steve Simonsen/Orange cup coral

Forget worrying about which brand to go with – Steve’s biggest tip is to bring backups. “As an underwater photographer, I learned years ago the importance of backup. For many years, when I would leave for an assignment, I would pack my cases so that each was a complete set up ready to go. I’d do this in the event that one case does not make it through the airlines. Should one case go missing, I would still arrive on location with enough to get started. If one case doesn’t arrive, it might render all of your underwater shooting equipment inoperable if you don’t have sync cords, strobe arms, strobes, battery chargers, etc. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

“I like the analogy that underwater shooting is like stock-car racing,” says Steve. “You have to expect that you’re going to crash and your camera might flood. So don’t cry about it, just reach into your bag, grab your backup and keep on shooting.”

Understanding water’s unique & inherent challenges

“When topside [above water] photographers venture into underwater photography, typically they make the same mistake,” Steve says. “They apply all their knowledge from topside shooting to underwater, only to find that it doesn’t work.” Sound surprising? Read on for Steve’s more specific tips for shooting underwater.

Check your ISO

“Topside shooters think that shooting underwater is going to be dark, so they boost the ISO … not necessary,” Steve explains. “Back in the film days I was shooting Velvia 50 ISO and Provia 100 pretty much exclusively. And I always loved when there was Velvia in the camera. So instead of thinking to use 200 or 400 or 800 ISO,  50, 64, and 100 were the preferred speeds.

Photo by Steve Simonsen/Green sea turtle

Think close

“The use of telephoto lenses doesn’t exist underwater. You’re shooting through an incredibly thick medium of water. You have light absorption, color absorption and diffusion of light. All this adds up to a couple of things: 90 or 95% of the shots require artificial light, and not just one light, but at least two lights. The artificial light does not travel far out and back; therefore you need to get close and stay close. The difference between a professional underwater shooter and an amateur underwater shooter is that an amateur will begin shooting their subject at 5, 8, and 15 feet away. A professional shooter will begin shooting inches away to 1-3 feet away. This will give you the most color from your artificial lights and balance the available light in the background for the blue portion of the picture.”

Photo by Steve Simonsen/Sharknose goby in U.S. Virgin Islands

Photo by Steve Simonsen/Longsnout seahorse

Beware of backscatter

“Also when shooting underwater, it’s as though you’re shooting under an entirely large blue filter. Auto white balance on today’s new digital cameras is not ideal. Daylight is a preferred setting unless you are applying specific white balances. The clarity of the water also has a great deal to do with the sharpness of your images. That’s because when you artificially light your subject, the potential for creating backscatter is huge. An underwater photographer’s worst enemy is backscatter – stray light that is captured that bounces off of particles suspended in water.  You need to think about the geometry of the light that is coming out of the flashes hitting the subject and returning to the lens. Position your strobes so as to minimize lighting the water in front of your subject and only lighting your subject. What this means is you end up pointing the flashes strange directions just to achieve sidelight or rim lighting, and ultimately get less backscatter.”

Photo by Steve Simonsen/Spadefish

Photo by Steve Simonsen

Take advantage of digital

“The other thing that most people don’t factor in is you are underwater for limited periods of time based on safe diving requirements and limits and air consumption. Not to mention back in the days of film you couldn’t change film underwater. So I would usually go in with multiple cameras just so that I had multiple exposures available to me. With today’s digital cameras exposure, count isn’t a factor anymore and that is great. In addition to the fantastic tools digital cameras have now, I love using the histogram information and being able to zoom in on the image playback on the camera to check for focus.”

Adjusting to the lack of light

Steve frequently works on capturing quick moving schools of fish that are prone to scatter, or larger species like sting rays that glide across the ocean floor. You’d think you’d only need to be concerned with a fast shutter speed for these types of shots, but as Steve says, “Motion underwater equates to shutter speed as it does with land photography – however, fast shutter speeds are not often easy to use underwater because of the limited amount of light. I found there is very little difference in digital shooting from 100 ISO to 200 ISO, so whenever needed I will bump up to 200 ISO in order to get a sharper image of a fast moving fish. And there are certain fish that require shooting at a 250th of a second, such as wrasse and clown fish.”

Photo by Steve Simonsen/Southern stingrays, Caribbean

But it’s not always Steve’s goal to get a completely sharp exposure. “Sometimes motion blur will add an element of storytelling to the image,” he says. “And in all honesty, over the years I have preferred shooting it at as slow a shutter speed as I can get away with for better color saturation underwater. Oddly enough one of my favorite conditions to shoot in underwater are completely stormy rainy dark days – that type of lighting is amazing underwater. It is very subtle and even lighting, and you can get incredible color contrast when you use your artificial lights in combination with slow shutter speed, such as the 15th of a second or 30th of a second.”

Diving experience and expertise

“The most essential skill for underwater shooting is to be an excellent, relaxed, comfortable and controlled diver,” says Steve. “Inexperienced divers can’t hold themselves steady. They scare away the fish that they’re trying to approach, and they cloud the water with sand and sediment by contacting it with their hands and fins.”

“Underwater photography is like shooting in outer space – you can remain suspended at whatever depth you choose by maintaining perfect buoyancy control. There’s nothing like it. It is an utterly fantastic environment because your body can move in any directional sphere. There have been times that required me to shoot upside down!”

Photo by Steve Simonsen/Hawksbill turtle

Final say

Steve’s work has been featured in numerous underwater publications and travel organizations, including Lonely Planet guide books, Virgin Island Tourism and Carnival Cruise lines, who will be using his imagery to decorate a new ship this summer. His focus on a niche topic – not to mention photographic talent – has added to his success. To see more of Steve’s work, please visit Steve Simonsen Photography.

Photo by Steve Simonsen




Get more tips from a variety of nature photographers, including Art Wolfe, Martin Bailey, Jerry Monkman, and photo buyers like National Geographic in this free guide! Check out Selling Nature Photography.

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There are 13 comments for this article
  1. Tom Gaitley at 10:41 am

    We had the good fortune of being on a St. John dive boat at the same time as Steve. Not only is he an outstanding photographer, but a really, really nice person. My daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation with him and his unassuming, genial nature – we knew he was a photographer but didn’t know just how great he is until we returned to shore and later during our vacation ended up buying a number of his pieces in galleries. He was also kind enough to offer an image that he had taken of my daughter and I while we were diving together and remains one of my favorites to this day. Great article from a master.

  2. Bo Johnsson at 1:07 pm

    Steve, very interesting to read about your underwater photography.
    Do you dive with “ordinary” scuba equipment (the compressed-air-in-a-tank-and-releasing-air-bubbles-as-you-breathe version) or a closed rebreather system? I’m assume the rebreather will scare the fish less.

  3. Robin Buckley at 1:17 pm

    Wonderful! I am truly inspired… heading to Belize this month and can’t wait to take underwater shots. Unfortunately though, we will only be snorkeling and not actually diving. My shots won’t even be close to the quality of Steve’s but it will be fun to experiment anyway!

  4. Jeff Taxdahl at 10:57 pm

    This is a great article! I love taking underwater pictures even though it is, as this article indicates, very difficult to do. Especially considering the fact that I shoot mostly in fresh, Midwest USA waters that are not the least bit clear. You have to be inches from your subject to get a great shot of it. I’m definitely going to use some of the advice given here

  5. Hagai Nativ at 4:10 pm

    Thanks for the article! I am too, an underwater photographer so I’m very pleased to read and to see this lovely “nich” subject on your blog.

    keep bring them up.

    Steve: Thanks for sharing your tips!

  6. Delbensonphotography at 4:17 am

    I am so greatful that I visited on this website and able to read this blog. I learned so much! Thank you for sharing your strategies…I appreciate it so much. Your photographs are so beautiful. These are truly an eye popping images.

  7. Clark Lowery at 10:28 am

    Being a calm and controlled diver is definitely a big part of having success with your underwater photography, but having quality reliable equipment is another big aspect, in my opinion.

  8. Andrew James at 11:53 pm

    This article is great! Taking pictures underwater is very challenging. It also takes a lot of good shooting and diving skills on the part of your underwater equipment. I can say that choosing the right camera/equipment will help you a lot in doing this.

  9. Pingback: » Five secrets to shoot better Underwater Photography
  10. Andrew at 3:31 am

    I just returned from 2 weeks in St Thomas & St John. I disagree with Steve. I shoot using only natural light, no strobes or lamps, as the water is clear in the Caribbean. It’s like freediving or scuba in a limitless aquarium. Let’s say a turtle is curious and heads directly to me. Totally uncool to greet it with a 5000 lumen flash in the face. Underwater photographers might want to think about that in the future. I am not against using artificial light to enhance the colors of corals, sponges, and fans at deeper depths, but in my opinion, aside from the cruelty aspect of strobes to marine creatures, most photos look unnatural.

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