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Photo tips

Cathy started writing about how to take photos underwater way back in 1965.

The first monthly series in Skin Diver Magazine was titled “Underwater Photography Quick and Easy” and lasted for over 50 months. In 1978, she and Jim Church started a brand new series called “Beginner’s Course in Underwater Photography” and was still being printed in black and white.

This article has transformed into the following questions.


1. What SCUBA gear is best to use when photographing?

Weights: The right equipment for divers and the right equipment for photographers may not be perfectly the same. Photographers have to hold their bodies at all types of odd angles while they are holding a camera that can weigh up to a few pounds underwater. This means that you must keep your center of balance as close to your center point as possible. With heavy cameras, your main weight system must be at your back, and definitely not in pockets in the front of your B.C.D. The closer they are to your body, the less changes you feel as you twist for that perfect camera angle. The further away they are, such as out at the tank, high on the back pack, or at the sides on your BC, the more torque they can deliver and the more their effect changes as you turn. This makes you less stable.

The heavier the camera system, the more important this becomes. With the heaviest systems (such as some housed SLRs or mirrorless cameras with the large 180º viewfinder and an extreme close-up lens) you will be more comfortable with ankle weights. Don’t forget to take off the lead from your belt that you are adding to your ankles.

BCs: If your BC uses integrated weights, keep in mind that they make it difficult for many types of underwater photography so use a belt if you have one. BCs with integrated weights are difficult for photographers because they do not allow you to adjust the position of the weights to the back of your waist. Pockets high on the back aggravate your forward tilt when you need to lean just partly forward. I sometimes adjust my weights during the dive so that I can lie on my side, or remain straight, depending on the angle I need to hold my camera for the photo.

BCs with the air just on the back also aggravate movement. For example, suppose you are holding level and the air in the BC is in the middle, at the top (of course) and then you need to roll just a little to the side for the best camera position. Suddenly all of the air moves to the left wing of the BC. Because it is several inches from your body, it has more leverage than air that is held close to the body in a full jacket or wrap around BC. This extra leverage is translated into instability while you are trying to hold a camera within an eighth of an inch of that Christmas tree worm.

Every time I take a student who is struggling in the water with an “Angel Wing” BC, and lend them one of my SeaQuest Spectrum BCs, they improve dramatically and quickly. None of them really knew that they were having a problem until I watched them in the water. All of them felt the difference and switched BCs.

Mask: If you have trouble seeing your camera settings or tiny creatures, get prescription lenses! Contact Cathy if you need advice for photographers needs and contact for info. For modeling, use an open oval window, or any face plate that continues across the bridge of the nose. Separate plates or tear-drop lens shapes often make the model look sad.

Fins: Booties make your feet float, so, in warm tropical water, smaller, full-foot fins are easier to balance when holding a camera. If you are getting ready to buy fins, please AVOID the split fin and Force Fins™. These are not good for small maneuvers which you must constantly make for good Underwater photo control. If you still have your old fins, especially if they are a simple blade fin, and not particularly long, bring them instead.

Aiming lights: Small Underwater flashlights can be strapped or held to your strobe with expensive flashlight holders or cheap, large rubber bands, but large flashlights cannot be used efficiently for night photography; they scare the critters away, annoy other divers and make the camera system too cumbersome. The new LED flashlights are great at night, but the ones I have seen are not powerful enough for daytime use further than a foot away. I use the Ikelite PCm and PCa flashlights that use four and six AA batteries respectively and I love them.

The hottest new lights are the Sola LED lights. (And I should not say they are the hottest, because they work much cooler and therefore need a smaller battery package for the amount of light they produce.) While they are much more expensive, they offer an adjustable soft wide beam or a narrow spotting light. You can turn on a red filter to reduce scaring your night creatures.

For auto-focus cameras, when you do not have a built-in focus light in your strobes, you should carry one all the time for focusing in dim areas and to check on color. You can attach it with an ultralight system to the mounting shoe on the top of some housings.

Keep warm: Since you will often be waiting without moving for a creature to stick his face into your photo area, you may want a thin dive skin such as a PolarTech™ or a Darlexx™, 1/8″ or 3/16″ wetsuit even in warm 85-degree water, if you chill easily. In the coldest water, wear a dry suit. You often need more than divers who are swimming constantly, but you also want to use as little as you are comfortable with so that your need for weights is less, and you will have less buoyancy changes with depth. In cool water a hood or hooded vest provides the most efficient source of warmth with the least effect on buoyancy.

2. I Have trouble holding steady. What can I do?

Make sure that you are weighted correctly. When you breathe out you should be able to sink, and as you breathe in more deeply you should start to rise. Do not add extra weight, and then depend on using more air in your BC to hold you up – that will only make matters more difficult as I shall explain.

You have the right AMOUNT of weight, you now need to make sure that it is all in the right place. Read “2A.) WEIGHTS” and 2B.) BCs” below, and then come back to this point.

Once your weights and BC are right, go back in the water with your camera and try again.

  • Lie about a foot above the bottom, and use one or two fingers from your left hand to hold steady against a bare or dead area on the bottom. Can you remain still while shooting? If not, where is the problem? You are subject to all of the laws of gravity, so become aware of yourself. Are you tilting to one side, do your feet sink or float uncomfortably? If so, just move the weights around until you are trimmed more evenly. This will take a few dives, but it is worth every effort to become neutral in all ways with your camera.
  • If the camera itself is heavy, use UltraLight buoyancy arms. With my D810, Nauticam housing with dome port, I need two  two long arms on each side, I can let go of the housing, adjust my weight belt, and pick the camera out of the water before it has settled more than a few inches in the water. Having a camera system that is close to neutral will help you a LOT!

3. Beat the plateau

Has your photography stopped improving? Try these tips.

After taking pictures for many years, you may reach a plateau – your photography doesn’t improve and you become bored. Why does this happen, and what can you do?

It can happen when you dive in the same area over and over, and you are looking for the same sort of things. You tell yourself that you already have a photo of this and that, and you don’t see anything new. Your photography may not improve if you don’t dive often enough to get used to the equipment, making it difficult to improve. This happens with any skill from skiing to playing the piano.

What can you do to beat the plateau? Here are a few of the simpler suggestions. (Come to Cayman and we’ll cover more complex methods during an advanced or private class.)

Try a new lens. If you are good at using your macro lens, start using Super Macro, or add the MacroMate or ReefNet close-up lens to port of your SLR housing. In addition to enjoying the very smallest subjects possible, don’t overlook photographing tiny portions of larger subjects. Push the extreme and shoot things that you wouldn’t ordinarily photograph. I recently discovered a fascinating pattern in the rind of gorgonians. If you are using a housed camera, and are comfortable with a 60mm Micro Nikkor, move up to a 105mm. If you have done lots of wide angle, try wider – get a 10mm ultra wide for your Nikon digital camera. This lens, and the equivalent for Canon cameras, etc., have a 180-degree diagonal acceptance angle. It is hard to use, but worth it.

Look at your photo file. Choose a few photos that could use improvement and ask yourself very specifically, what may make it look better. (Work within the range of techniques and subjects that are available to you.) Then go out and shoot using your plan.

Add a second strobe. This will add a whole new light to your outlook. (Pun intended.) Look through your file again and find some photos that would look better with a second strobe. On your next dive trip, work to get the types of photos you planned.

Study your photos. Too many photographers look for improvement the wrong way. They just shoot a lot of photos, without taking advantage of their digital screen. You need to critique a specific technique, (boy, that’s a tongue twister, say “critique a specific technique” four times fast, how about two times) and make a change and shoot again. If lighting is your problem, study the effect of the strobe placement, move the strobe and shoot again. See where your shadows fell, look at bright areas. Take a moment and look at your LCD!! If blue backgrounds are your problem, change the shutter speed, and see how that looks. If focus is an issue, magnify the image on your LCD screen and make sure it is sharp. Take a moment and look at your LCD!!

Visit a new locale. This goes without saying. Putting a whole new array of subjects in front of your camera lights up anybody’s day!!

Add a model. Find a dive buddy who is willing to work with you to make a better photo. Talk over how you want your diver to look, and tell them to get into your photo. Show them the image on your LCD (see “3D” above) and have them try again.

Sometimes you hit a plateau because you have done all of the easy stuff, and now the more difficult stuff is elusive. It can get you down at first, but it IS more difficult, so, by definition, you will have a harder time of it. When shooting, take a basic photo first, so that at least you have the documentary style on file. Then get more creative, a little at a time, making more and more extreme changes.

Get proficient at photoshop. Now the options are endless.


4. Using TTL in upward bright sunlight

  • When using TTL while aiming up at the bright sunlight overhead, the sunlight can be so intense that the TTL sensor of the camera may register the sunlight as strobe light and shut the strobes off prematurely. If you see or hear your TTL signal even though you are at or beyond your full flash range with the strobe, then the sun is fooling the sensor and you should switch the strobe from TTL to full power. You will see that this has happened when your upward photos have very little bright strobe color in the foreground. Another solution is to recompose so that the sun is not in the lower center portion of the Nikonos V. If you are holding the camera vertically, don’t forget that the lower center is now to the right (if your viewfinder is on the left and vice versa). With SLR cameras, the five segment TTL sensor can also be fooled by intense sunlight in any of the five segments, so in this case switching from TTL to full flash may be more important.
  • If you had a full flash signal during your upward photos, and your photos show that there is not enough strobe color in the foreground, then you did not have enough strobe power for the aperture used (or you are aiming the strobe incorrectly.) Switching to full power in this scenario will make no difference. If you consistently get the full strobe signal, move the strobe in or open the aperture. If you are struggling with controlling bright sun, use a higher shutter speed (if possible) to allow a larger aperture for the weaker strobe. This is one advantage of SLR systems – you can set the shutter speed up to 200 or 250, (or even 300 with the F5 at the expense of some loss of strobe output) while leaving the aperture more open for the strobe exposure.
  • The point of this “tip” is that when set for TTL, you must pay attention to the TTL signal. Similar results, i.e. dark foregrounds in upward photos, require different solutions depending on whether or not you noticed the TTL quenching signal. It was not until I switched to a Sea and Sea YS120 strobe several years ago, that I caught up to the problem of dark foregrounds with upward photos. The YS120 has an audible signal, and I kept hearing it when I shouldn’t have. With many other strobes you may not notice the quick recycle and lack of a full-flash signal.

How do TTL and sunlight metering systems differ?

  • The sensors for the TTL system and light meter systems in most cameras are separate systems.
  • In the Nikonos, e.g. the metering system for the sunlight is lower center weighted. Thus, the lower center portion (followed by the area further from the lower center, and then the lower corners) contributes more to the meter reading than the upper right and left corners. The area that determines the reading in most digital and SLR cameras can be varied from a spot reading in the center, to center weighted, to matrix. (Matrix computes the light in each of the four corners and the centre and whichever area by itself has the highest average amount of light determines the exposure.)
  • The TTL systems have a completely separate reading area. For the Nikonos it is only a center area of about 12 degrees. The Nikon systems have a fixed five-sensor area that is independent of the settings chosen for the light meter.

5. Using depth of field

The basics

A standard lens (on a fixed mount parallel to the film) can focus at only one exact distance; anything closer or further than that distance becomes progressively out of focus or blurry. Depth of field (d.o.f.) is the area in front of and behind the actual focus that is not too noticeably blurry. It is not “in focus” as many camera manufacturers would like to imply, nothing can be “in focus” from, for example, 2 to 8 feet. Three things increase depth of field; increase in picture area, increase in focused distance, and decrease in the size of the aperture.

D.o.f. and wide-angle near/far photo:

With wide-angle lenses, you have a greater depth of field at any given distance than you would have with a narrower lens. However, as you focus closer, this depth of field can diminish to a few inches. When shooting a near/far scene with a wide lens, you must know what the depth of field is so that you can include both the near and the far subject. With the old Nikonos 15mm lens, the moveable pinchers were a good guide, we could use the d.o.f. rather than simply setting the lens for the nearest focus. Now, we must guess. At the closest settings, even the widest lens has only a few inches depth of field. Nudge the focus out slightly, and the d.o.f. increases greatly. Don’t forget that d.o.f. is a gradient, not an absolute; i.e. something just inside the d.o.f. range is almost as blurry as something just outside the range of d.o.f.

D.o.f. and SLR cameras

Digital cameras and underwater SLR cameras do not have d.o.f. scales or preview buttons that are available in a housing. Thus, you have to study your lens manual; make a note of the distance and f-stop settings you must use to get a depth of field that includes your distant subject or infinity. For example, focusing the lens for three feet may almost include infinity at f5.6, but if you focus closer at 2 and 1/4 feet, you may need an f/8, and if you focus closer yet at 1 and1/2 feet (.5m) you will need f16 to have enough depth of field to reach infinity beyond your close subject. At closer focused distances, the d.o.f. may not even include two feet. At minimum focus and f22, you have only two inches of d.o.f. with a Nikon D70 and 10mm lens with a 180 degree (diagonal) acceptance angle.

Make a chart showing the d.o.f. for 1, 1.5 and 2 feet, for f/8 and f/16. Assume no d.o.f. for anything closer, and lots of d.o.f. for 3 feet or more. You can easily interpolate the changes for other f-stops, or if you have enough room on your chart, include your most commonly used f-stops for this type of photography. When in doubt, focus a little further away whenever the background subject is important. If the foreground subject is being brightly lit, and if you do not have enough depth of field, you may have to back up slightly until both the foreground and background are within the d.o.f. Don’t allow a brightly lit subject area to be unacceptably blurry. Working with depth of field, instead of just setting a focused distance on the closest subject will help you produce sharper images. I hope that this helps you get even more wonderful photographs underwater.

6. Help me choose a digital camera.

How do you adjust exposure controls?

  • Many people buy a digital camera first and then investigate how they can house it for underwater use afterwards. Unless the camera turns out by luck to also be great underwater, it is better to plan the camera and housing purchase together.
  • Many cameras will suffice for point and shoot photography, as long as the housing works comfortably in your hand and you can add an external strobe. All you really need is a +/- exposure compensation feature, a minimal lag time (common on most of the newer, better point and shoot cameras) and an easy-to-understand menu.
  • But if you want more control, choose one that allows manual exposure control with at least the equivalent of f/8. Check that you can use fast shutter speeds with the strobe turned on. You will need at least a 1/500 second.

Can I access full TTL controls?

  • Make sure that you have the option of using TTL underwater. Most compact, mirrorless and DSLR cameras have a built-in flash. Choose a housing that allows you to attach a fiber optic cable to the housing to catch the light output signal to activate a slave strobe. The new fancy Sony, and the high-end Nikon D4 do not have built-in strobes. Rarely are the TTL converters the best answer. We all prefer using manual exposure modes for most of our better underwater photos, and to not have TTL is just a great loss of a simple tool that can vastly improve your odds of the getting that perfect photo!!

Can I access the controls that I need

  • When choosing a camera that allows you to control f-stops and shutter speed for optimum exposure, ask how the aperture and shutter speed settings are actually adjusted underwater: do you need to use two hands, does it require toggle buttons first, can it be done at all?
  • I cannot give you a complete survey of every digital camera, but below are some reviews of common cameras that represent the things you should know in advance of your purchase. In an effort, perhaps, to make a camera look easy to use, many manufacturers are reducing the number of buttons. In reality, of course, it is more difficult to use as many buttons serve more than one purpose. Unless fatal, these issues should not prevent you from buying a camera that may otherwise better suit your other needs (including budget) than any other.
  • Cameras like Olympus , Nikon and Sony use simple buttons and dials. But the increased cost of the Nikon and Sony do not balance with the lower cost Olympus that also has an incredibly fast lens. Check that the camera you choose gives you a meter reading in advance to let you know what your ambient exposure is all about. Sitting at my desk, I do not know if the Sony does this. The Nikon has a scale, even though it is quite small.
  • Some cameras, such as the much older Canon S20, allow you to change the f-stop above water by moving a rocker arm up or down, but the push button in the housing could only move the rocker portion in one direction, changing the f-stop upward but not downward. To my customers who want to set their own f-stops for better photos, this would be a fatal flaw. (Don’t forget: using program, aperture or shutter priority modes underwater does not provide the full control that you must have when shooting underwater.)
  • I hope that this gives you an idea of what to look for so that you end up with the camera that best suits your needs.
  • If you are coming to Grand Cayman, of course, visit us for the best prices on the best cameras to use underwater, and all sales come with FREE INSTRUCTION. You can’t beat the prices of our Nikon and Olympus equipment picked up in Grand Cayman. It is so low, we can’t ship it to you in the US, sorry.

7. Avoiding floods

  • If the o-ring of the back door of your camera housing sits in a groove that is open at the top all round, it can jump out without your knowing it as you close the housing. Barely grease the o-ring. Place the o-ring on the top of the groove and pat it down all round at one time. Don’t slide it from one corner to the other so that it is tight on one side and loose or bulging as you finish the other side. Keep the tension even all around. Test it by catching it with your fingernail and see if it pops out easily. If there is any unusual tension on the latches after you close the back door, check that the o-ring has not jumped out. With clear plastic housings, especially those with two o-rings, look at each o-ring separately. Look from the front all around and then from the back side to check the second o-ring.
  • Always, always, without exception, test your camera system in a tub or pail of fresh water before submerging it on your dive. If the o-ring has jumped out, it will produce an immediate, major flood. If you react quickly to a problem discovered in the fresh water tank, you will avoid harm to the camera. But if you discover it as you start your dive, the flood will be fatal to any digital camera.
  • Use a good light and a magnifying glass EVERY time before you close up the housing. A single eyelash caused a very sad flood for my dive buddy in the Solomon Islands.
  • Several housing manufacturers now offer vacuum sealing systems that provide a nice alarm light if the seal cannot hold. While these add a set of chores you must complete, it does provide a nice sense of security to see the green light still glowing as you prepare to descend with your housed camera.

8. Basic settings for digital cameras

  • Set your time and date, because this information is recorded permanently on hidden data with every photo you take. Far into the future, you can look up the photo data for each picture on your computer and know when the photo was made. Don’t set the camera to print this information onto the image, unless you want it to appear there.
  • Format your media card as soon as you put the new card into your new camera. Format it every time you are finished downloading your images to your computer or when you change the card from one camera to another. The card will now function better and be more reliable. Formatting will erase all of your images, so do this only after you have copied your images for storage.
  • You can recover erased images as long as you do not take another photo on top of the erased ones. If you do not have the software to recover your photos, take it to a camera store such as Cathy Church’s.
  • Set your camera for the highest quality. Many cameras are pre-set for a medium quality setting. This allows you to take more photos on your memory card, but it would be a better investment to get a card that is large enough to take the number of photos you need while set on the best (Raw, Super fine, etc.) quality. Avoid normal, basic, standard, etc.
  • Use RAW if you have it RAW if you have it and if you do not mind adjusting the photos a bit in a photo editor. Setting your camera JPEG setting for a little vivid, a little added contrast and a warm color balance will produce great photos right out of the camera. RAW, on the other hand, gives you more options to make the adjustments especially if you make a big mistake on exposure. With most cameras you can shoot on both RAW and JPEG so that you have the small file ready for Facebook and if you want to make a large print, with some gorgeous adjustments, you can do that, too. Don’t shoot exclusively in RAW until you know that your computer can read the RAW file specific to your camera. You can still download the photo and wait until you get the up-to-date plug in, but you cannot see the photo in the meantime.
  • Use the cloudy setting on the white balance for long shots (and even closer photos) to add a little snap to the pictures. If you shoot in green water, try the fluorescent setting.
  • Keep your quality setting as high as possible. Use RAW whenever you can.

9. Focusing with digital

  • Focusing is a challenge so make sure that you know what your “in-focus” indicator looks like. On an Olympus, a green dot in an upper corner stops blinking and stays solid. In some cameras, the focus area indicators change color, usually to green. In Nikon SLRs a green dot stays solid in the data display area in the viewfinder.
  • Find your signal. Aim the camera at any object and press the shutter release part way. Notice when the indicator tells you the image is sharp. Get closer and closer, releasing the shutter button and then half-way depressing it to re-focus at each distance. What is the closest your lens will focus? Underwater this will be your minimum apparent distance – the object will actually be 30% further away than the distance you are measuring above water. Do this test with all of your lenses.
  • Next, aim your camera at a subject without detail, such as the smooth side of a filing cabinet and see how much detail your camera needs in order to focus.
  • Notice that even if the “In focus” signal is on, if you change distance and take the photo without re-focusing, the photos will be out of focus. Practice holding the button down, changing distance and then moving back until the image looks sharp and shoot.
  • Learn how to magnify the playback image in your LCD so that you can check the focus of small areas.

10. Strobe techniques near bright sand

To adjust exposures

  • With TTL strobes, the camera shuts the strobe down when enough light to make an average exposure reaches the camera sensor. Often, you may prefer the bright sand to remain light. In this case adjust your TTL for +1 or +1.5. To do this with an Ikelite or some older Light and Motion TTL housings, simply adjust your housing TTL controls for more light.
  • With a compact digital camera or an SLR with built-in flash, (whether it is sTTL or eTTL does not matter) you can adjust the amount of light that the TTL allows with your flash +/-(EV) control that looks like this: Not all cameras have a separate flash control so you may not find it.(They virtually all have the ambient light EV control but it will not have the lightning bolt flash symbol in the icon.) In many cameras, the flash +/- control is in the camera menu. If you wish to easily adjust the light output of your TTL strobe, add this control to your short keys in the set-up menu. Some cameras remember your last menu inquiry and will go back to the same place whenever you touch the “OK” button or the menu button.
  • If you are using manual strobe exposure, you have the opposite problem – too much light. Now you must reduce your f-stop, reduce your strobe power setting, or move the strobe further back.

To avoid hot spots on one side of the photo

  • With either manual or TTL, move the strobe further away from the scene. If the edge of the sand bottom is much closer to the strobe than the center, it will appear much brighter than the center. To make the light more even, hold the light higher off the bottom, and make sure that it is aimed at the real, not the apparent, subject. If you need side lighting for texture and shadows, hold the strobe as far away from the side as 30 to 50% of your subject width. For example, if you are side lighting a scene three feet across, hold the strobe at least one to 1.5 feet from the side of the picture area.

To separate your subject from the sand

  • If you are working right on the sandy bottom, and want to highlight or separate your subject from the sand (especially if the subject looks a lot like the sand) set the strobes on the sand, well to the sides, and tilt them upward far enough to reduce the light hitting the sand, but no so much that you do not hit your subject.

11. Study your photos underwater

  • Virtually all digital cameras allow you to enlarge the image on the LCD screen during playback. Practice doing this through your housing so that it is easy. For example, with most compact digital cameras, simply put the camera on playback to view your image and move the zoom control. With Nikon SLR cameras, press the enter button on the lower left, then follow the guides in the LCD. Usually you will hold down the “image size” button (marked by a checker-board pattern) and turn the main command dial. Use “enter” to return to full screen image.
  • You should do this regularly underwater to check for details that would be hard to see in the small LCD screen. You can study your focus or see if you have eye detail. I have used it just to enlarge tiny subjects that I am having trouble seeing underwater. A tiny goby an eighth of an inch across, shot as close as my 60mm micro Nikkor lens will focus, can now show up an inch across in the enlarged image. It is fun to see.

12. Working with digital LCDs

If seeing your compact digital LCD screen is a problem for you, consider getting an SLR or a mirrorless camera with an add-on 180º viewfinder. Otherwise, try the following:

  • The screen is obviously easier to see in dim conditions, so look forward to those cloudy days and deeper dives.
  • Use the shade if there is one made for your housing or use your hand or a slate to shade the screen.
  • Learn where your screen brightness setting is so that you can adjust it when you need to underwater so see if it helps. If you are using the screen to judge your exposures return the screen to a darker setting when you are in normal (i.e. darker underwater) conditions. Underwater, your eyes adjust to the darkness. When you look at a bright or even a normal screen, it will appear quite bright and that will make you think that your photos are much lighter than they are. You will respond by making the next photos darker. If your photos turn out to be underexposed when you see them on your computer later, even when you are certain that they looked great underwater, set your screen for one or two settings darker than normal. Your dark-adjusted eyes will now think that the darker screen images are just right and the photos the screen represents will be just right. Otherwise, there is not a lot you can do about seeing the LCD in bright conditions. Cameras vary considerably, so perhaps a different model may be better.

To judge exposure from the LCD:

  • Practice turning the histogram on and off. Take some photos above water on program mode and look at the histogram. See how the major bulge on the curve is near the center of the graph? Many of your proper strobe exposures should be similar. However, this is just an average. Histograms can be confusing. For example, the histogram for an upward silhouette would be the opposite with peaks on the left and right and low in the center. But if all of the peaks are well to the left and there are few or no bars lit on the right, you can usually assume that the photo is underexposed.
  • Use your highlights setting. Many cameras have a feature called highlights. Any part of the photo that is fully over-exposed, i.e. pure white, will blink white and black (or white and orange) during playback. After to take the photo, a quick glance at the playback will easily let you know if you have a significant area of over-exposure. Adjust your exposure and if the photo is clearly visible on the LCD but there are no blinking areas, then you are fine. A few small areas may be acceptable, but an entire fish, or the whole top of the sunlit background will not be good. You cannot fix pure white overexposure as the details are completely gone.
  • If you are shooting in RAW, even moderate underexposure is no problem. Just use a RAW file program such as found in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, and adjust exposure or shadows. This is much easier than attempting to fix large overexposed areas with some sort of cloning.

13. Does your photo encourage your viewer to look immediately at your main point of interest?

When a person looks at a photo, their eyes are first drawn to five aspects:

  1. The brightest
  2. Most colorful,
  3. Most contrasty,
  4. Sharpest areas and
  5. If the subject has eyes, it is drawn to the eyes
  6. A great photo is often one where most or all of these aspects converge at the main point of interest. A distracting photo is one where these areas conflict and there is not a clear majority found at the main point of interest. For example, if the blurry foreground is also the most brightly lit by your strobe, you don’t know if the bright area is the main point of interest. Your eye is drawn to the bright part but you quickly find that the attraction was a false lead – it is blurry. You now have to search the darker areas for what you assume should be the main point of interest. Or, is the more colorful red sponge background more important than your black nudibranch. And so on.
  7. Look at your photos and ask yourself for each one – where are the eyes, and the bright, colorful, sharp, contrasty areas. Do they lead you to what you feel should be the main point of interest? If there is no bright, colorful, sharp, contrasty areas or eyes, is there some other feature or pattern that makes up for that? It is hard for a photo to be great without some or all of these aspects.
  8. Give a vote for each part of the subject that has one of these aspects. If each aspect is in a DIFFERENT part of the subject, it creates too much confusion. If the main part of the image gets three votes or more, it has a better chance of being a good photograph.
  9. There are many other elements to a great photo, but, disregarding the rarity of the subject, tying these areas together will give you a starting point on evaluating a good photo and to help you improve the next one you take.

14. How to quickly evaluate your photo to choose the best one

Here is a quick tip on how to evaluate your own photos for stunning appeal. In the days when I judged slide contests, I would place the slides on a light box flat on a table and eliminate all of the ones that were too technically flawed to compete. Then I would walk around to the other side of the table and look at them upside down from a few feet away. The ones that still stood out with an obvious subject, and clear composition, were likely to be the best photos. These were sorted out. Then, a really close look at the remaining ones to see if any still had good composition but the main points of interest were more subtle. These additional ones went to the next stage of judging. The photos were now looked at closely to track the lines of interest from the main point of interest to other supporting points of interest in the photo. The main point is generally defined by the area that is the brightest, most colorful, sharpest, has the most contrast, and if the subject had eyes, then the eyes pretty much have to be the start of the main point of interest. So your eye starts there, then leading lines take you to the secondary, then the third point and eventually, hopefully something leads you back to the main point. None of this is black or white, it is all shades of judgement, which is why this art is so much fun. Those are the keys I used to evaluating a great photo.

Walk through those five characteristics as you look at your photos and ask yourself for each photo, is my main point of interest well defined so that my viewer does not have to search for it. The hard part is to remember that degree of difficulty has nothing to do with the beauty of the image unless the degree of difficulty itself is a part of the image — like a hiker out on a lone precipice high above the valley. But just having a hard time getting to an underwater subject does not make it beautiful. It is the underwater photographer’s dilemma. No one appreciates what we go through to get the simplest of photos, let alone the extremely complex ones. That reason alone is a factor in the low price we can command for our best work.


15. Should I purchase the angled viewfinder for my SLR housing?

There are a few times when the 45º angled viewfinder is helpful but it can be a distracting hindrance the rest of the time. The biggest issues are when tracking a moving subject. It is almost impossible to look down into a viewfinder while aiming your camera upward or level to point to your subject. When shooting straight down on a tiny subject, it is again very awkward to aim quickly. If you don’t turn your viewfinder, you must “stand” on your head to look through the finder! If you turn it to aim toward the bottom of the housing, then your wrists may be quite strained to hold the camera with your finger on your shutter button. When supporting the front of a long macro port while looking from the side or the top can involve a long learning curve. Yes, there are pros who swear by them, but most people do not have the time during their one trip a year to get comfortable. Aiming straight through something is natural to us. Our hand/eye coordination is quick and accurate, just like aiming binoculars or even a gun (heaven forbid). If you have trouble finding a distant, small bird with binoculars, then definitely do not add an angled viewfinder between you and your camera.