Getting those underwater “Selfies”
One of my favourite types of underwater photographs that I love taking and often get asked for from fellow divers and buddies are “selfies” of themselves. They are some of the easiest type of UW photos to take and often the most fun in getting. I don’t use any form of lighting, just using natural ambient light.
First thing to appreciate is that you need to reduce the water between you and your subject and also the depth of your subject. The light that you are trying to capture has to travel from the surface to your subject, reflect off your subject and then travel to your camera. You must get as little water as possible between the surface and subject and between subject and camera. The best place to get these images is in the top 5 metres of water, so your safety stop is a good opportunity as you will have several minutes to get your shots. I also like to hang around the bottom of the boat’s ladder and catch divers as they are about climb up (of course, stay to one side and not directly under them!).
Next, shoot horizontally or slightly upwards towards your subject. NEVER shoot down.
Get in such a position that the sun is coming from behind you or over one of your shoulders so that the light is falling on your subject's face. This contradicts taking portrait shots on land where bright sunshine will cause your model to squint. Underwater sunlight is far less harsh and the water will diffuse the light to a certain degree.
The best shots are when the sun is highest in the sky, so noon to 2pm is good. Dawn or dusk dives are not the best.
You don't need an expensive camera; any modern camera will do, but .... get a wide angle lens. If you are using a compact camera then get a wet wide-angle lens to fit to the front of your housing.
Get close, closer, closer...... very close. You need to be within 1 metre or so of your subject so you will need the wide-angle lens to get your subject to fit the frame correctly. NEVER use zoom from a distance to fill the frame. Zooming in will fill the frame but you will still have all that water between you and your subject. If your wide-angle lens is a zoom lens then zoom out to the widest angle. This will then make your subject small in the frame and you will then have to get very close to fill the frame but you will have removed a lot of the subject-to-camera water.
Always shoot in raw, if you need instant JPG images then shoot in raw + JPEG. To get this image quality (above shot example) you will invariably need a raw copy to work from. Raw will have a far more dynamic range than JPG and will give you far more latitude to work with during post-processing. Also, you will need to adjust the white balance and this is pretty much impossible with a JPG image. If you shoot JPGs then you have to get it right first time underwater and most camera’s built-in white balance settings will be of little or no use – yes, even the “Underwater” setting.
White Balancing. Accurate white balancing is absolutely crucial to get accurate colours and a vibrant image. You can perform a manual white balance calibration underwater but this can often take time and you will often just want to grab that unforgettable spur-of-the-moment shot. So, what I do (because I shoot in raw I can accurately correct later) is to leave the camera in auto-white balance and just take the shot. If we are diving with aluminium cylinders then I include a bit of the cylinder in the shot. If you can’t do this then take another shot of the diver immediately after, at the same depth and light angle but include their cylinder. The grey of an aluminium cylinder will be the perfect white balance reference for a manual calibration later in Photoshop. White cylinders are also OK. Another option is to immediately take a second photo of a diver’s slate, at the same depth and angle. Failing all these anything white or grey on the diver or their kit should be OK to calibrate off.
Posed shots don’t work that well, go for candid shots – they are always the best ones. Try and get shots when your subject is least expecting it, like in the shot above. The diver never knew what I was doing until I had the shot, hence the look of surprise in her eyes. Look the other way and then suddenly turn and raise the camera in one quick movement and fire off several shots.
Finally, composition. Always, always look around your subject and around the edges of the frame to see what could possibly ruin the shot. Classic ones are the end of a diver’s fin poking in from an edge of the frame or a diver in the background with their head "chopped off" at the edge of the photo. Always wait until your subject has exhaled and the bubbles have left the frame before you fire. Try and get your subject’s eyes clear and well-lit inside their mask, it’s very easy to get their face in dark shadows (especially if they have a black mask). Always position yourself so that the sun is shining into their face.
Remember, take only photo, leave only bubbles.
Safe diving and happy shooting, Steve