Underwater photographer seems like the dream job for some, but there are many facets of this career. It’s also (for most) a long road of learning the skills, cutting your teeth, and becoming a master marketer. As a professional underwater photographer, the question I get asked the most (after “how much did my camera and set-up cost) has to be: “How did you get started?” For those of you interested in a career as an underwater photographer, I have put together a list of: “10 things you must know before starting a career as an underwater photographer”.
- #1 Decide what type of career you want to have in underwater photography
- #2 How can you make money?
- #3 You must invest in good equipment
- #4 Become a good diver first and get your solo diver certification
- #5 Training is essential
- #6 Accept that you will most likely suck at the beginning
- #7 Develop your own signature style
- #8 Become a social media wiz
- #9 Get ready to spend some money
- #10 Practice practice practice
#1 Decide what type of career you want to have in underwater photography
What exactly makes a “professional” photographer? There are many different avenues you can take as an underwater photographer. Some roads might be more appealing than others and how you approach your career moving forward might be different.
What are your main goals? Travel, conservation, documentaries, gallery shows… do you want to travel the world, dive in tropical locations and get paid for it?
You can break it down it a few different categories that will all have some aspects blending into one another.
Deciding which of these niches you’re interested in may be the first step you need to take, before evaluating how to move forward.
#2 How can you make money?
This is always the tough one. There is a big difference between friends and family loving your photos and “likes” on Instagram, Facebook, etc., and someone paying you real money (exposure bucks and free dives don’t count). The easiest and fastest way is to work with a dive center and offer to take photos of their students. Basically, you dive for free, take photos of the students, quickly edit, pray that they like them, sell them, and give the shop a commission. If you are really lucky, the shop will pre-sell the photos to their customers, and you will have a guarantee. This will allow you to dive, practice, and build your portfolio while also making some money.
Another way is to sell stock photography, with pay rates typically coming in somewhere around a whopping $0.10 per photo, with a ton of competition. Don’t plan on getting rich from stock photography, but it could be some extra income on the side to buy you a dinner every couple of months 🙂 If you are interested in selling stock, you can get started here: Shutterstock.
Other ways to commercialize your work:
You can sell your images directly to publications, especially if you have a knack for writing articles.
You can make prints and sell them online or at galleries; this is a great way for friends and family to support you.
You can enter photo competitions with cash prizes. This is also a great way to get noticed and add accolades (“award-winning photographer”).
You can work directly with a dive center or tour company on assignment to update their promotional material. Prepare to shoot more divers than fish.
You can teach underwater photography. As obvious as this one is, it is sometimes overlooked as an actual career direction for those who would like to pursue underwater photography full-time. This can come in the form of YouTube, on-location workshops, and publications.
Not to discourage anyone, but the bottom line is: that if you want to make money, it has to have value to someone else or help a business in some way. The reality is that not a lot of businesses care about fish portraits (and it’s a super-saturated market). The good thing is, if marine life is your goal and passion, while you are earning money you will have the opportunity to capture beautiful marine life photos for yourself and your portfolio.
#3 You must invest in good equipment
This doesn’t mean THE BEST or THE MOST EXPENSIVE, but for professional quality photos, a GoPro is not going to cut it. Print and publications will require good quality and a minimum resolution. Some will only permit certain types of cameras. Some high-end compacts such as the Sony RX100 or canon G7X series might make the cut, but you will be better off with a mirrorless or DSLR setup if you are interested in print quality.
Photos that might look good on a computer screen will show every imperfection of the camera and your editing once they are blown up and printed. If your goal is to be a professional staff photographer at a dive center, one of the high end compacts may suffice, as long as you can attach a wide angle lens.
#4 Become a good diver first and get your solo diver certification
Often, I see divers with pro level gear and wonder how they even passed their open water course. This shouldn’t even need to be said, but before you ever think of going pro (or taking a camera underwater), you need to have better-than-average diving skills for multiple reasons.
- You will be alone, away from a group most of the time. You need to know how to be self sufficient (see tip below).
- You will be getting closer to marine life and coral/rocks, etc., more so than the average diver, especially for macro shots. Don’t be that photographer who doesn’t have control of their fins and buoyancy and is constantly disturbing the bottom, touching and breaking coral with their equipment or fins. Not only will other divers hate you, you will be harming the very thing you are trying to document and promote. No photo is worth destroying / harming the marine life or environment, period!
- You will be focused on something other than depth and air consumption. Photographers are notorious for being the ones who keep hyperbolic chambers in business. Get a back-up computer to put on your housing so you always have it in front of you, integrated air for your
- Computer could also be a lifesaver. This way you can always see your depth, NDL and air without having to remember to physically check it.
As a photographer underwater (especially a professional), you will often times be alone or not within direct contact of another diver. This is especially true for macro shooter who might spend a whole dive shooting one subject in one place. Nobody will want to be your buddy. Since safety is the number 1 priority, it is a good idea to take a solo or a self-reliant training/course.
This course is invaluable and the skills you learn will make you a better, more aware diver and actually might save your life some day. Having the certification will also give dive centers confidence that you are capable of diving without the need for direct supervision.
#5 Training is essential
The training you can receive from someone who is already a working professional is invaluable. Their experience and guidance will save you so much time in figuring out not only the techniques behind the camera, but also how to navigate yourself through the maze-like world of being a professional. Training can come in many different forms; traditional paid training with a pro, interning with a staff photographer at a dive center, assisting (carrying equipment) a journalist or documentary filmmaker, etc. I have an article that touches on this a bit more here: (the best and fastest way to learn photography). Don’t be afraid to contact your favorite photographers on instagram, facebook etc., and ask if there is an opportunity to assist. What you will learn will be extremely useful; soak it up like a sponge.
#6 Accept that you will most likely suck at the beginning
When you first set down your path as a pro photographer in any field, you will be excited, and your friends and family will be amazed with your work…that doesn’t mean your photos are ready to be professional photos. I promise that after a couple years go by, you will look back at the photos you were so excited about and relative to your current ability will be surprised at how much you improved and… embarrassed about how proud you were of your first images.
Not to sound negative, but that is just the way it goes. The other side of the coin is: don’t get discouraged if you find you are not happy with your work, or not getting the attention you think you deserve from the images you take when you are starting out. Use it as motivation to keep trying new things and developing your style. This will be something you will keep adjusting for your entire career.
#7 Develop your own signature style
You are probably already aware of this fact, but underwater photography (most notably marine life photography) is quite over-saturated and very competitive. There are already 1000’s of photos of just about any creature you can imagine, ranging from horrible GoPro/dive+ photos to some of the most amazing images ever.
This is why it is very important to develop your own style and niche. It’s not enough anymore just getting the shot, you have to put some creativity into it. When people see your photos, they should know that they’re yours. Whether that means a specific look you try to achieve with your editing process, or a creative approach that you focus on thematically, shooting in a way that sets you apart can help you develop a brand that others will recognize. Otherwise, you may just get lost in the mix.
#8 Become a social media wiz
As much as some of us hate social media and this aspect of the job, unfortunately these days it is unavoidable that you will have to create and update some form of online presence. Especially at the beginning. This will be the best way to show off your new/best work and lets potential clients find you. Whether you do it yourself or hire / marry / birth someone who can help you, it must be done. Just use your own name or a variation, not a catchy monicker like @TheFishGuy123; this gets annoying for potential clients not knowing how to address you or refer to you, plus it’s just more professional. Create accounts on all of the major platforms and register your domain. Even if you aren’t ready to launch a website, it will be there for you and only costs around $8 (GoDaddy). Post regularly and interact with others in the community. There is a lot of “who you know” in this industry, even if only virtually.
#9 Get ready to spend some money
Aside from the cost of equipment, the road to getting paid to travel to exotic destinations and capture dream images of schooling hammerheads or humpback whales is a long one. If you really want to stand out, you will have to get there on your own dime, to begin with. Think of it as an investment in your career. Underwater photography is an equal mix of: skill, timing, being in the right location, and luck. Like any wildlife photography, you will have to be where the action is. If you want to shoot wild lions and elephants, be prepared to jump on a plane bound for an African safari. It’s not cheap, but, if you get good results, it will pay for itself in the long run.
#10 Practice practice practice
Pool shoots can be a great way improve, even when the ocean isn’t within reach.
Take any and every opportunity you can find to get in the water and practice. This will help you get better and create more content to promote yourself. If you don’t have easy access to the ocean, jump in a pool with a willing model.
Try and do this at dusk, dawn or nighttime, if you would like to practice using strobes and different lighting techniques.
Especially when first starting out, even practicing on land (with underwater settings and conditions in mind) can be a boon for your skillset–it’s a lot easier to experiment with different techniques in a controlled, terrestrial environment than it is underwater. Practice, practice, practice! But, maybe reserve the wetsuit for the water…
Remember why you got into it in the first place: taking photographs is probably something you enjoy doing. If you don’t lose sight of that, practice sessions won’t feel like work.
Every photo session will teach you something and be time well-spent. Don’t sit and wait for prime opportunities. Get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot!
Although it can be a long, tough road to having a full time career as a professional underwater photographer, it is possible. Don’t expect it to come overnight, but if you have the passion, dedication and patience, the payoff is one of the most rewarding jobs and lives possible (in my opinion at least, but I’m a little biased). The main take-aways are: be prepared to invest in equipment and training, be willing to sacrifice for a while, and keep progressing with your skills and marketing.