6 Tips for Taking Beautiful Underwater Photos
Kristin Hettermann, a writer and photographer, is recognized for her underwater and adventure travel photography and awareness efforts surrounding important environmental and social causes. Based between Maui and Manhattan, her work and travels have taken her on adventures around the world with a keen eye toward ocean conservation and undeveloped cultures. A regular contributor to Scientific American and the Virgin platforms, Kristin has an active following on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and learn more about her work and philosophy at GraceDelivers.com. She is also one of the judges for the 2017 Marine Wildlife and Seascape Photo Contest!
One thing I’ve learned about underwater photography: it can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. But one of the great things about photography as an expression is that so much of the equation rests in the heart and the eye. It’s passion and an ability to see and capture compositional elements that I believe are the keys to a captivating image.
I recently found a photo album that had been forgotten for over 20 years: my first underwater photography exploration. It was 1994, I was 16 and on a spring break marine biology trip to the Exumas in the Bahamas. The camera was disposable and I bought it at the drugstore. I was quite surprised to see some impressive shots of parrotfish and stingrays.
A series of must-do’s led me away from wish-I-could’s, and it took 20 years for me to take a camera underwater again. When I did, it was an iPhone in an underwater case, photographing my favorite ocean residents, sea turtles, off the coast of Maui. I was hooked. I started to look at underwater photography as not just a practice of artistic expression, but also as a way to express my love of the ocean and my passion to protect it. Thus began my urge to submerge, and I found myself underwater with my camera as often as possible. I wanted to perfect my technique, expand my technical knowledge, learn from the pros. But I quickly realized: underwater photography is not an easy undertaking. Landing cover shots in glossy environmental magazines might not be for everyone!
Countless submersions later, I’ve gone through all the expected stages of becoming a better underwater photographer. I’ve executed a few upgrades to my rig, added layers of neoprene to my costume, learned about ISO settings in low light, and how to capture moving fish while maintaining buoyancy and fighting current. I’ve gone from ocean to ocean, practicing in some of the top ocean exploration locales around the globe. I travel with a completely separate suitcase for photography gear and lug a 15-pound image-capturing operation on and off boats. I have checklists of necessary accoutrements and back-up plans. I’ve observed animal behavior in many different environments, and I’ve learned what makes them come toward me and what makes them dart away. I have scars from run-ins with coral, collided with huge manta rays, lost my perspective of space in dense schools of fish, been harassed by a sucker fish trying to catch a ride and been caught off-guard by torpedo sea lions. I’ve learned a few things.
Whether you grab a disposable camera and hop off the beach in your bikini, or you come into the ocean looking like an aquanaut with a camera that could possibly power you to Neptune’s lair, everyone can share their passion and love for the ocean through capturing and sharing imagery. I’ve shared some tips below.
1) Be patient. Good things always come to those who wait.
This age-old saying applies to the deep blue. Unfortunately, underwater creatures don’t rely on day-planners and cell phones to coordinate appearances. Sometimes you have to just wait.
2) Put yourself in front of things. Increases your chances!
I once heard this in a presentation by a well-known National Geographic photographer where he laid this point out very clearly, and well, it makes sense.
3) Let them come to you, and be prepared to engage in a dance.
Interacting with animals is a beautiful dance—almost akin to a courtship. They express curiosity and if they don’t feel fear, they will come in closer to explore more. Most creatures, humans included, love to meet a new playmate. If you are very lucky and very patient, your slow dance with a sea creature will result in a bond of trust and delight.
4) Be inspired by the artful chaos of the ocean. Imperfect captures are sometimes the best!
This might be my favorite tip of them all. I quickly realized that striving for perfection with underwater photography could be a long and frustrating path, so I’ve learned to accept what I get and see beauty in the imperfections of life.
5) Look them in the eyes. Spirits do connect.
This is perhaps the greatest gift that I have received from my time in the water: Make the effort to connect with animals through their spirits and personalities, not just as a compositional element.
6) Practice, practice, practice.
In photography, as in life, practice makes perfect—and imperfect! The more you shoot, the more you learn. The more you share, the more you inspire.