Freediving photography opens up a new world of fun underwater. It can be just as much fun to create artistic freediving shots as it can be to explore reefs, spot/shoot marine life and view underwater geographical features. Freediving photography can look very realistic, or can be taken to the other extreme of looking out of this world combined with plenty of editing.
Types of Cameras
First of all, let’s look at the different types of cameras on the market. There are 4 basic types of cameras, the action camera, the compact camera, a mirrorless camera and DSLR cameras. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages.
The action camera is very small, portable and hard wearing. It causes little hindrance to your diving, with little drag and being very lightweight. These cameras are great for video, with modern GoPros (and similar cameras) being able to shoot in 4k with automatic white balance correction. For photos, they have their limitations. It is not possible to control these cameras in manual mode and the size of the sensors are not as large as bigger cameras, therefore meaning they capture less information.
The compact camera is a great option for someone who wants more professional looking photos without having to spend a lot of money on a mirrorless or DSLR camera. Modern compact cameras now have sensors up to 1” in size. This is as large as many mirrorless cameras and only slightly smaller than top of the range cameras. Many compact cameras can be used in manual mode for best results, as well as having the ability to shoot in 4k.
Some compact cameras are waterproof (down to 15m or so) so do not require any housing. This is an advantage in terms of price, as well as ease of use. You won’t have to take the camera in and out of the housing or rinse the housing thoroughly after use. Some compact cameras require additional housing to be used underwater. The housing is often more expensive than the camera itself, as fewer items of housing get sold compared to the amount of cameras that get sold. For example, my housing was made to order in America and there is currently only one brand who makes suitable housing for my camera.
Mirrorless cameras are the next step up from compact cameras. With mirrorless cameras, the light goes directly into the sensor. DSLR cameras have a mirror which reflects light into the sensor. This means that with mirrorless cameras the viewfinder is always electronic and will have some processing occurring before you see what the camera is aimed at. One disadvantage of mirrorless cameras is the autofocus. It is traditionally slightly slower on mirrorless cameras than on DSLR cameras. It is worth noting that the sensors on mirrorless cameras can be the same size as that of DSLRs.
DSLR cameras are generally the top of the range options. They have large sensors, fast autofocus and many options for interchangeable lenses. The disadvantages are that they are bulky, heavy, expensive and often have slower continuous shooting speeds. Underwater housing for these cameras are very expensive.
Let’s now have a look at camera settings. Firstly let’s look at the aperture. Aperture is the hole in which light travels through to reach the camera’s sensor. This hole can be changed in size, allowing more or less light to enter the camera. Aperture on cameras can range from f/1.4 to f/32. Now this is the confusing part, f/1.4 is a wider aperture than f/32. Underwater, we generally want a wider aperture as we are dealing with slightly lower light situations. Most of the time I am shooting with an aperture between f/2.8 and f/5. It is important to note that wider apertures have a shallow depth of field. This means that only the object that you have focused on will be in focus, everything in the background and foreground will be blurry. This can be an advantage artistically, however if you are shooting a subject with another subject in the background that you would like to be in focus, a narrower aperture is needed.
Shutter speed is the amount of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light when taking a photograph. A longer shutter speed leaves us with a long exposure, vice versa for a shorter shutter speed. In photography, a fast moving object will need a shorter shutter speed.
Underwater, a fast shutter speed can be an issue due to letting less light into the camera, resulting in a darker image. One way to counteract this is by using a wider aperture to let more light in. For fast moving objects underwater, I would recommend no less than 1/125 of a second. For slow moving/stationary objects, I would recommend no less than 1/60 of a second. Burst mode?!!!
ISO is something which can be very confusing to understand. Put simply, it is a setting on the camera which can brighten or darken your photos. Changing the ISO can allow you to be more flexible with the camera’s aperture and shutter speed settings. Higher ISO settings create brighter photos. So, why not have a higher ISO setting whilst taking underwater photos? The higher your ISO, the grainier your photo. I would recommend keeping the ISO as low as possible whilst still achieving a bright enough photo.
Let’s now have a look at which file formats can be used in photography. The most common formats are .RAW and .JPEG. RAW photos are basically digital negatives. They are unprocessed data from a camera’s sensor. Because of this, they need processing before printing or sharing. Because they are unprocessed files with all of the data received by your camera’s digital sensor, there’s more scope for a greater dynamic range when processing; you can play more with the highlights and the shadows and often get better results with colours. This is particularly important when shooting underwater, as colours get lost as you dive deeper.
JPEGs are processed by the camera itself and therefore don’t necessarily need any post processing. RAW files are much bigger than JPEGs, which is one reason why people don’t use them as much on land. Underwater however, they are very commonly used as it is important to get as much information as possible with limited light situations.
Composition is very important for creating good photos. Composition is how the elements in a photo are arranged. The composition can be made up of several elements of just a few. It is important to arrange the elements in a way which makes the photo flow and be aesthetically pleasing. There are a few rules/grids which can help when taking a photo, one is the rule of thirds. This is where the photo is divided into thirds using a grid. The idea is to place the subject on one of the lines or on a cross section. This works well because the human eye gravitates towards points just beyond the center of the image.
Another grid is the golden ratio. This is very similar to the rule of thirds however it uses slightly different proportions. This ratio is found in nature and has been used across many different art forms, from architecture to Beethoven’s 5th symphony. It is also known as the Fibonacci spiral or the divine ratio. Examples of the golden ratio can be most commonly found in seashells and flowers.
Framing subjects is very important in photography. By this I mean it is important not to cut off any of the subjects, such as the hands or feet (fins). In some cases, cutting off some of your subject can lead the viewers’ attention away from where you intended the focal point of the composition to be. Sometimes it can be nice to use natural features to frame your subject.
Examples of this can be a cave, a coral reef or an underwater hoop.
Light underwater acts a bit differently to when on land, most noticeably, the colour. The deeper we get, the more colours we lose. This is why it is important to consider what you would like to take a photo of and whether it is possible to do this in shallower water. The first colour to disappear is red, therefore meaning we often focus on this when editing photos. White balance becomes incredibly important in underwater photography to solve this issue. If you are shooting in .RAW you can play with the white balance during editing. If you are shooting .JPEGs you will need to consider the white balance whilst taking the photo.
The position of the sun is also important to consider when shooting. Most of the time it will be nice to have the sun behind you, illuminating the subject. You can also play with placing the subject in between yourself and the sun, creating a silhouette. Other positions are fun to play with, creating nice shadows, especially when the sun is lower in the sky.
Another factor we have to consider is the buoyancy of ourselves and the subject. Shooting in shallower water means we are more buoyant. Therefore, we are likely to need more weight or to dive on an exhale to stay in the position intended long enough to take a photo (or multiple photos). This can become a safety issue and must be taken into account before the dives.
Multiple safety divers can be necessary for taking photos, especially when the photographer and the subject are both diving deep.
Finally, I would like to talk about editing. There are many different editing softwares, all with advantages and disadvantages. The most popular software for underwater photography is Lightroom (made by Adobe). There are many tutorials online for underwater photography editing.
First of all, I start off by correcting the white balance. The easiest way to do this is by putting the pointer on an area of the photo which you know has neutral colours, i.e white, grey or black. I often find a black wetsuit or a black mask is perfect for this.
From here, I look at adding blacks and whites to the photo to the point where they are just clipping. Next, I usually play with the hue of the blue and the aqua. This allows me to achieve a more realistic blue and takes some of the density out of the photo. There are many other parameters to play with from here, including contrast, dehaze, and clarity.
There is much more to consider when editing photos, however there is one more parameter I would like to focus on. The luminance noise parameter is very important when editing underwater photos. Luminance noise usually appears as grains or specs in the photo and can be very unpleasant to look at. Increasing the luminance noise slider will get rid of the grains, however by doing this the sharpness of the photo can be lost. It is important to get a balance between sharpness and the grains.