Follow These Tips and Shoot Beautiful UW Photos with Just a Camera and a Housing
An external camera strobe is an important part of the professional underwater photographer’s arsenal. External strobes and video lights are arguably the key piece of photography equipment that could take your amateur underwater photos from good to great, or from great to excellent.
But what if you’re just starting out? Or you don’t have a strobe set up? Or you can’t justify the expense?
Maybe you enjoy dive travel and underwater photography with your compact camera and marine housing just fine, and really don’t want or need to make a huge investment of money, maintenance, luggage space, or weight to keep going with your vacation hobby?
Should you just give up? (No!)
Can your images ever really be good enough? (Yes!)
Plenty of recreational scuba divers who become underwater photographers are out there taking awesome underwater images with just a camera and housing. No muss, no fuss.
But you do need to practice and hone your skills.
Keeping some of the following things in mind can help you as you’re starting out, or even raise your dive photography game while still sticking with a nice, simple set up.
*For the record, all of the photos in this article were taken using either the Olympus TG-5 or TG-6 camera and the Olympus PT-059 marine housing, and that’s it. You can see the TG-6 bundle details here.
So we’re here to reassure you, again: No Strobe? No Problem!
Focus on the Fundamentals
When you’re a beginner at any skill, it’s important to learn to walk before you run, right?
In the case of underwater photography for beginners, you’re not only learning about creating images in the underwater environment, and all of its different spatial and lighting considerations.
You should also be pairing that with what are already hard-won scuba diving skills. And the most important scuba diving skill of all, of course, is mastery of your buoyancy control.
If you are still learning the sport, and your buoyancy needs work? That’s fine! But do yourself a favor, acknowledge it and focus on that part first.
It’s going to be nearly impossible to take really good pictures underwater until you are a pretty solid diver. You’re moving around, the fish and animals are moving around, the lighting is different, the current factors in, you use more air…chances are the images (and the reef) will suffer.
Once you have your diving buoyancy under control, then there are some photography fundamentals you may already know from taking pictures above water. And if not, now’s a good time to brush up on them.
Things like: How to best compose your shot? What is the rule of thirds? Whether to try for ambient lighting or using your on-board flash? What are the best settings for action photos? And so on.
There are several great articles on the internet, and right here a blog about setting guide for Underwater compact cameras tips, so start here – perhaps with this post filled with some easy resources to get you going quickly.
When you decide you’re ready, there are also lots of ways to get your feet wet (pun intended) with diving photography without spending a ton of money – see this related post on that subject.
Choose the Right Camera and Housing
Improvements in compact cameras and marine housings in recent years have given the recreational diver amazing abilities to capture beautiful underwater photographs without the use of external strobes and other accessories.
Divers can take wonderful images with just their camera and a marine camera housing.
This is especially true for mid-range to narrow-angle shots and macro subjects, as long as the housing case allows for use of the camera’s internal flash function. (Note: some underwater housing models assume you will attach a strobe, and therefore physically block your camera’s onboard flash. Avoid those.)
And the best part is, if you plan well, that same equipment can grow with you if you do decide to add lights or other components later on.
For great advice on choosing your first camera set-up, check out our related article, right here.
Embrace Macro Subjects
Many might say you’re “limited” to macro photos if you stick with the compact camera rig but take it from me – and a thousand of my new (Instagram) friends – underwater macro photography is where it’s at!
The better you get at diving and the more you explore the coral reefs, sandy sea floors, and fields of marine ‘grass’ and algae, the more little tiny critters you’re going to start to see (and the predators who love them!)
Some of these sea snails, juvenile fish, nudibranchs, blennies, tiny crabs and shrimps (and on and on and on…) are easier to capture than others. Some also ‘spook’ much faster than others – this is yet another reason to really appreciate your good buoyancy skills and dive mastery when learning underwater photography.
In my home base of Cozumel, MX, the best dive sites are full of all kinds of species, including turtles and sharks, but also many juvenile fish, blenny-fish, sea slugs, and if you’re really lucky, rare treats like this Gaudy Clown Crab, seen here:
There’s nothing like seeing your first few good, crisp macro shots of a critter so small you can hardly find it, only to capture the amazingly intricate anatomy, colors, and markings that can be seen when enlarged on a big screen. And also bear in mind, with a nice small camera set up and good diving skills, you can often get closer to your subjects and in and under smaller coral and rock formations to capture things a huge housing and dome rig just couldn’t do (at least not without damaging the surrounding reef).
Using the Sun and Ambient Light
Most of the shots above use the camera’s flash, but often shallow diving offers an amazing amount of natural light. There’s something so beautiful about underwater shots that don’t employ artificial light at all, but they are hard to pull off, especially in the beginning.
Mid-Wide Range Subjects:
Natural light with no flash is much better for capturing some of our favorite mid-large sized marine life, without getting the “noise” or “backscatter” from your flash.
When you make that mistake, you’ll realize it quickly – all you’ll see in the frame are brightly lit specks of “dust,” rather than that amazing shark or stingray in the background!
So, when you go for a turtle or a ray, for example, be sure to turn the flash off, and position yourself to take best advantage of the sun, and let it work its magic.
In my opinion, the coolest example of this is when an animal has amazing camouflaging biology.
A couple favorites that exhibit this are the flounder fish and file fish – especially the juveniles of each species.
You really have to look to find them, and they don’t sit still, so a well-timed, natural-light photograph just underscores their amazing blending qualities.
These little creatures really do “hide in plain sight”, and often the use of natural light emphasizes that.
Subtle Details of Anatomy and Atmosphere:
Ambient light can also offer quiet, soft, backlit details when captured just right – and a more natural, “I was there” feeling to the image, as well.
Expense, Ease and Versatility
A big part of my decision to forgo adding strobes and lights comes down to pure practicality.
I like the lower cost, the lighter load, the relative ease of maintenance, and the versatility that a compact camera and housing provide. I also appreciate the lessened potential damage I might inflict on the natural environment, and sometimes my fellow divers.
Just make sure to get one with built-in flash and diffuser, for sure.
And if you think you may expand in the future, talk to the camera professional so you can choose a base model that can grow with you, and/or accessories that will hopefully still fit any future photography gear.
Get Training and Enjoy Loads of Practice
Finally, before you ask someone, “what kind of camera are you using?” Think for a minute.
It’s not really about the camera, but who is using the camera that counts. The best photographers could pick up a dusty old Polaroid camera and likely still create more intriguing images than you or me.
Remembering the importance of fundamentals, starting with a good, basic camera forces you to really look at the marine life, find compelling subjects and backgrounds, and compose your shots.
It also takes time to build on your spatial awareness underwater and to learn the typical behaviors of the marine life that you’re hoping to capture.
Getting good at using ambient light underwater is not easy, but it is full of cool contrasts, backgrounds, natural shadows to play around with. Knowing when (and when NOT) to add the camera’s internal flash strobe also comes with practice.
Sometimes too much light could blow out the details of your subject, other times it’s essential to capture the true colors and delicate details.
At the end of the day, most of us just want to get down there and dive, have fun and see what we can find. And if we come home with some cool shots we can share on social, use for our computer wallpaper, or create some framed art for the home – that’s the icing on the cake.
Know what your goals are and remember that in this hobby, practice really does make perfect – both for your diving skills (first) and your eye and skill for photo subjects underwater.
But that just means more diving! Win-win situation.
It’s also well worth considering a photography course, photo-based trip, or a weekend workshop, like the ones offered at Cozumel Underwater Photography School. This not only gives you more knowledge on fundamentals, but expert feedback on your work, and the chance to touch and sample various cameras and types of equipment.
Limitations of Shooting without External Strobes
Of course, there are limits if you don’t have external strobes.
Some of the stunning wide-angle images we’ve all seen of more specialized environments of underwater photography (think crystal clear caves, ice diving images, wreck sites, etc.) require professional-grade cameras, special lenses, and an amazing array of lighting to get those astounding shots.
When you see breathtaking wide shots of underwater landscapes and expansive shipwrecks, you should give primary credit to the artist. But also assume that there’s at least a relatively extensive camera and lighting set up involved, as well. And probably a team at work behind the shot.
None of this added equipment is necessary, though, if you are looking into underwater photography as a fresh beginner, as an amateur who is starting to pursue the hobby seriously, or just as a seasoned recreational diver who wants some cool vacation shots to have framed – or make your coworkers jealous.
You can get a lot of mileage and satisfaction from a good quality compact camera with underwater capabilities, and a good quality underwater camera housing, specifically designed for that camera. And you’ll get it by spending several hundreds of dollars to start out, rather than several thousands.
P.S. If you ARE interested in more articles for underwater photography, check out some of these:
Ultimate Guide to Underwater Strobes
Getting into UW Photography without breaking the bank