Underwater photography of Turtle.

Jane Palmer’s Tips for Underwater Photography

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Ever since I took up scuba diving, I’ve wanted to try my hands at underwater photography in between the moments when I am not trying desperately to stay alive. So when I stumbled upon Jane Palmer’s underwater photography, it was no surprise that we invited her to write for Visual Wilderness as a contributing photographer. Jane has some stunning underwater photos and she teaches underwater photography to her students.

Here are some insights from Jane on how to get started…

Who is Jane Palmer? How did you get started with underwater photography?

I am a long time nature photographer. I only discovered underwater photography after challenging myself to face my ultimate fear and learn to dive. I had always been very afraid of water, so when I realized at age 50 that I still had time to reinvent myself, I learned to scuba dive! It wasn’t easy, but finally after about 60 dives, I started to feel comfortable under the water. I was so in awe of the underwater world. I think that’s why I kept going back in even though it was hard to get over the initial fear.

Underwater photo of a male jawfish.

Underwater Photography: A male jawfish incubating his eggs.

Seeing the surface of the ocean doesn’t begin to hint at the incredible variety of life just beneath the waves. I wanted to share this with non-divers and that led me take a camera underwater. I started small, with a mirrorless camera and underwater housing. On my first dive with the equipment, I captured a male jawfish with a mouth full of incubating eggs! And I was hooked!Male yellow headed jawfish with a mouth full of eggs. He keeps the eggs safe for the 7-9 day incubation period. During this time, he does not eat and will be noticeably thinner by the times the eggs hatch.

How is underwater photography different then other genres of nature photography?

Underwater photography is very different than traditional landscape photography. As always in photography, light is everything! When you’re underwater, the light from the sun diminishes rapidly the deeper you go and color drops off quickly after the first 15 feet. At depths of over 30 feet, you are left with a moderately dark and mostly blue scene that doesn’t photograph all that well. The solution is to take your own sun in the form of artificial light. I dive with two strobes that provide the light source to not only illuminate the reef but to also bring out the colors. It’s not unusual to see a shot on the LCD and be shocked at how colorful it is when compared to how it looks to your eyes.

Underwater Photography of Jane Palmer

Underwater Photography of Jane Palmer

Another major difference in underwater photography is that everything is moving. Not only are the fish and plant life moving in the current, but you and your camera are moving as well. That is why buoyancy and your ability to control your position in the water column are so key to success. Beginning divers and especially snorkelers often struggle with this ability to control their stability. They see great improvements in their underwater images once they manage this challenge.

Perhaps the biggest difference between underwater and landscape photography is the safety element. While diving, you must remain vigilant at all times— aware of your depth, your air supply, the current and all the while you must be a good dive buddy. Oh, and then there is that nagging question that never leaves me— where is the boat?! Add these safety concerns to the limited light and constant motion and you have quite the challenge. Ahh, but when it all comes together, it’s so worth it!

Underwater photography of Turtle.

Underwater photography of Turtle take during a night dive.

This large turtle, accompanied by his remora was spotted during a night dive on a shipwreck in Roatan. I had my exposure and strobe settings all dialed in before coming upon this turtle, so I was ready when the peak moment arrived!

Can you get great shot from just snorkeling? Or do you need to be a scuba diver to get great shots?

For beginning underwater photographers who prefer to snorkel instead of dive, it is absolutely possible to get some good shots. The key to success when snorkeling is to choose your location carefully. If you are snorkeling in a location where the reef is more than 30 feet below you, you will be very limited in terms of subject matter. Conversely, if the reef is in shallower water and especially if you are comfortable swimming down for a few moments, you can get some fun shots. Here are some shots that I took while snorkeling.

  • Whale Shark photographed underwater during a snorkeling trip.

    Whale Shark photographed underwater during a snorkeling trip.

  • Underwater photography: Coral Reef photographed during snorkeling

    Underwater photography: Coral Reef photographed during snorkeling

Make sure that you have realistic expectations! You’ve seen those wonderful shots of tiny nudibranchs on a gorgeous reef. Yes, they are amazing. But you won’t be able to devote enough time while snorkeling to achieve that kind of shot. Stick with simple subjects and save those hard shots for when you have time as a diver.

How can amateurs get started in underwater photography? Do you need expensive equipment? Can you do it on a budget?

I have several photographer friends who are taking fabulous underwater images with a compact camera in a relatively inexpensive housing. It’s similar to other aspects of photography; the equipment is rarely the limiting factor in success.

But to be successful, you must first learn to be a skilled diver. I can’t stress this enough. You have to be comfortable and safe in the water in order to shift your concentration to the demands of photography. Don’t try to learn to dive one weekend and take a camera with you on the first ocean dive. You will be frustrated and you won’t be safe.

Lighting and composition are the foundations of good underwater photography, just like in landscape and portraiture. To be successful underwater, you must use artificial light unless you plan to stay very shallow. Plan to budget for at least one strobe but realize that you will get better results with two.

Instead of spending large amounts of money on gear, get a good underwater setup for beginners and spend money on education.

Take a photo-specific dive trip where you take classes during off hours that will help you learn about underwater lighting, composition, and exposure. You will pick up so many tips just by being surrounded by other underwater photographers. We all have thoughts on best ways to pack all this gear, how to post process underwater images, and general scuba tips. Take advantage of these trips as a way to immerse yourself in the community of underwater photographers.

Can you give some tips for getting started with underwater photography?

  • Learn to be a skilled and comfortable diver before you try your hand at photography. I have seen many beginning divers try to take a camera underwater, only to get task loaded and overwhelmed and end up having a bad experience. Learn to control your buoyancy underwater and then take along a camera.
  • Realize that underwater images often need more post processing than landscape images. There are always particles in the water column that show up in your images, even in very clear water. And white balance can be tricky. Plan on spending some time at the computer to really get the most out of your underwater photos.
  • Learn about the undersea life that you are likely to encounter. I knew about male jawfish before I went on the dive in Roatan. I knew where I was likely to encounter them and what to expect from their behavior. You set yourself up for success when you know how to anticipate animal behavior. Luck favors the well prepared!
Male Jawfish incubating Eggs - Underwater Photography by Jane Palmer

Male Jawfish incubating Eggs

Study up on the area you are going to explore and be ready when that jawfish pops out of his little hole in the rubble. And if you do your homework, you just might be able to capture the little guy being a good Dad!

Have you tried to take underwater photos? If so feel free to share your own experience in the comments below.

About Author Jane Palmer

Jane Palmer divides her time between being a Nurse Anesthetist and a landscape and underwater photographer. A lifelong passion for nature and animals led her to spend more time outdoors with her camera, observing animal behavior and photographing them in action. She has been an avid underwater photographer for 10 years and recently began teaching photography. She often leads dive trips to exotic locations and assists divers who want to learn more about underwater photography. Jane currently lives in St. Louis MO with her husband, who loves scuba diving as well. Jane’s strong background in Lightroom and Photoshop allows her to help her underwater students get the most out of their images. So whether she is hiking in the Smokies or scuba diving in the Philippines, you can be sure Jane has her camera in hand to capture the beauty that nature provides for us.