Lighting underwater photos

We see this happen all the time here in Hawaii: Tourists go snorkeling -- sometimes for the first time in their lives -- and they are excited by what they see. They decide they want to take pictures of all the pretty fishies and corals to show their friends back home. They buy a single use waterproof camera, they snap away, and they are sorely disappointed when they see the result. Most of the photos are blurry, and though they thought they were shooting in color, all of the images are monochrome -- blue monochrome.

For quite a few reasons, taking photos underwater is very different from taking photos on land. For one thing, you have to shoot through water which, as you know, is a much denser medium than air. The farther away you are from the subject, the less likely it is that you will get a clear, crisp image, regardless of what kind of lens you select.

The main difference, though, has to do with light. As sunlight penetrates water, it is gradually absorbed. The deeper you go, the darker it gets. The longer wavelengths -- the reds and yellows -- are absorbed faster than the shorter wavelengths -- the blues and greens. Things look bluer the deeper you dive, because the longer wavelengths are effectively gone.

Now, there are many instances in which shooting photos underwater in natural light can produce effective images, but even at very shallow depths in very clear water the result will be quite monochromatic. You can't fight with the laws of physics.

In most cases, lighting a photo subject artificially with strobes will be necessary in order to capture the colors and details. Here are some examples of sea turtle photos that will illustrate the above points.

This first image happened by mistake; my camera strobes failed to fire. This is a typical natural light photo at relatively shallow depth - the blue monochrome effect. Pictured is a rather elderly Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) sporting a Remora (Remora sp.) -- A.K.A. 'shark-sucker' -- on its carapace, photographed at Pulau Sipadan, Malaysia.


The second image also was shot in natural light, but just below the surface and at very close range. This Green Sea Turtle passed right beside me just as I began my descent from the surface. I had no time to do anything but aim and shoot, however since the turtle was so close to me and we were barely two meters deep, the details were captured reasonably well (including that gunk on the carapace). Notice, though, that the background is quite blurry and blue. This image was shot in Hawaii.


In the final example, another Green Sea Turtle at Pulau Sipadan was lit with a single strobe from the right side of the frame. The markings on the turtle are well captured, and the soft and hard corals in the foreground are well defined. The fishes in the background are fuzzy, which is typical for this kind of shot.


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Is the difference in apparent patterning on the shell in the first and third photos due to different lighting, or different individuals?

Judging by the pattern on the head, they're different individuals.

Also, while red and green wavelengths are overwhelmed by the blue, they haven't disappeared entirely. Judicious photo editing can help save some of those unlit photos. Here's what I came up with for the second photo:

I've definitely had that experience, where I thought my $10 disposable camera would capture all the amazing sights from a snorkeling trip. 24 exposures of gray specs on a blue background was all I came home with. I do hope at some point you explain a little about your equipment, too.

@ Christopher - Yes they definitely are two different individuals. I think the turtle in the first photo was a rather old female. It was much larger than most of the other Green turtles in the area (and BTW, many, many sea turtles reside at Pulau Sipadan). The carapace was covered with quite a heavy layer of algae/scum, so even if artificially lit, it would not have looked as pretty as that of the turtle in the last photo.

@ Doug - Interesting color edit. Thank you. I must admit, I don't do a lot of photo editing. Other than cropping, sizing, straightening, etc. about the only tweaking I ever do is to brighten some images a bit.

@ Dan! - Perhaps you'll feel better now knowing that you are hardly alone with that kind of result from that kind of camera. And yes, I will get around to talking about what equipment I have used.

I was a beta-tester of Fuji's Frontier printer, a wonderful commercial digital printer. It is totally possible to print images like these and reveal a great deal of the wonderful coloration of the fish and other undersea flora and fauna. Basically, even if you filter out a lot of the cyan, the background remains very blue, but you get rid of the cyan lying between you and the organism in question.

If you do your own printing, play with it, and you'll see it's quite possible. If you take your film or your digital media to a place where the printer doesn't care, you have only yourself to blame. The Fuji Frontier is even in some drugstores now, but you have to have an operator who pays attention to the printing.

If you get prints that are like the top one, refuse to pay until they replace them with ones using proper filtration.

Hi Diggitt - Thanks for the tip. I had never heard of that particular printer. Sounds like it might be worth looking into.

By the way, speaking of Fuji, all of the above photos were scanned from transparencies -- originally shot on Fuji film.

Wow...what a difference in the lighting. I have often wondered if the colors that we see in underwater photography are enhanced (via computer program). It was good to see the comparison of different lighting.
Would you recommend a certain camera over another for the average vacationer, or is it a lost cause with 'normal' cameras?

I just started taking underwater photos and a bunch of them do come out pretty crappy. But I started editing them in Picasa and they come out a lot better. Just hitting the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button will make it, usually, look better

@ BEC - The colors you see in underwater photos might be the result of digital enhancement during post-editing, but the use of flash/strobe light at the time the picture is taken is the best way of revealing the 'true colors' of critters in the sea.

Regarding a camera for the average vacationer, there are many, many choices, ranging from dedicated underwater cameras to waterproof and depth-resistant housings for cameras normally used on land. While many of these systems are quite costly, there are a few that are relatively in inexpensive. If you do a search on 'underwater cameras' you'll find the whole range! There are some older, but perfectly good models available in sites like eBay as well. If you buy a used camera or housing, though, make sure you have it checked out/tested by an experienced underwater camera technician before you use it. Nothing's worse than taking a camera system into the water for the first time only to see it flood!

@ Matt - I sometimes use Picasa for cropping, sizing, and straightening; I also have used it for adding a touch of fill light to terrestrial photos (flowers, birds, etc.). I've never used Picasa for color correction on underwater photos, but now I'm curious to see what that "I'm feeling lucky" button would produce!

I just started taking underwater photos and a bunch of them do come out pretty crappy. But I started editing them in Picasa and they come out a lot better. Just hitting the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button will make it, usually, look better