Fix Your Underwater Image Problems

Simply putting a camera or smartphone in a waterproof case and snapping away while underwater doesn’t necessarily produce good results.

Amateur photographers have never had it so easy. With good cameras available at a fraction of the cost of only a few years ago, and decent cameras built into nearly every modern smartphone, it has never been easier to simply point, shoot and capture a lasting memory on vacation or elsewhere.

Underwater photography does continue to present challenges, however. Simply putting a camera or smartphone in a waterproof case and snapping away while underwater doesn’t necessarily produce good results. Often, photos appear darker than you remember the scenery, and all the colors have turned to blue. But with a few fixes, you can make your underwater photos pop. Here are five underwater image problems and how to fix them.

Problem 1: You’ve got the blues

Are the blue hues getting you down? Often, divers and snorkelers find that photos taken at any real depth take on a pervasive blue hue and lose the colors that so mesmerized us on the dive. This happens because of light and water’s density. Photography is all about light, but because water has a much greater density than air — about 800 times greater — not all wavelengths of light travel equally well within it. This means that as we descend, we lose the colors of the spectrum one by one, with red being the first and blue being the last to go. This is why underwater photos lose all the red and orange colors even at a fairly shallow depth and seem more and more blue as you descend. The simple fix is to add a red filter to your camera lens, which helps restore some of the lost color. You can also bring your own light, which leads us to…

Problem 2: Your pictures are underexposed

Water’s density doesn’t just mean that we lose individual colors, we also lose light overall, making our photos darker and darker as we descend. Of course, the fix is to bring our own light, which also helps restore colors, as mentioned above. Ideally, use an external flash or other light source, even if your camera has one built in, as a light source coming from directly above the lens will often add white specks in the photo, known as backscatter. The more particles, such as algae, sediment, etc., in the water, the more pronounced the effect, so the clearest water is best suited for a built-in flash.

Problem 3: The subject is still underexposed

Flashes and lights only reach so far, so the standard photography advice about getting close to your subject is quite relevant here. The best option, though not an inexpensive one, is to invest in a camera with a good wide-angle lens, which will allow you to come much closer to a subject. You can add wide-angle lenses to the camera inside the waterproof housing, or on the outside of the housing, so-called wet lenses, depending on your system. Some modern compacts, such as the GoPro, have a wide-angle lens as standard.

Problem 4: Not shooting in RAW (if you have the option)

Probably the single best piece of advice I was ever given when I started my photography career was to shoot in the RAW format whenever possible. All other formats, including the highest quality JPEGS, are compressed to some degree, meaning some digital information is left out. This is fine in most situations, as the discarded information isn’t noticeable. But underwater, the guesses that the camera’s computer makes may not be the right ones, resulting in strange-looking photos. But the RAW format is completely uncompressed and contains all the information that hit the camera’s sensor, much like an old-fashioned photo negative (it’s sometimes called a “digital negative”). While the RAW format requires a lot more space than a JPEG, it opens a whole world of possibilities when it comes getting the best out of your photos in post-production (see the next and final tip).

Problem 5: No post-production

Post-production sometimes gets a bad reputation among photo enthusiasts. Its other name — image manipulation — points to this bad rep, and there are plenty of cases of fashion models and actors and actresses being “enhanced” in Photoshop, sometimes to the extreme. But pro photographers do it all the time. In many cases, it’s a matter of overcoming the limitations of our cameras, however good they are. Our eyes and our senses outperform even the best of cameras, so post-production is usually simply a matter of making the photos accurately represent what we actually saw and felt when we took the picture. It can be overdone, by making pictures look unnatural, or by adding things to a picture that weren’t there, but just a few minor adjustments can really help a photo go from “nice” to “wow.” Adjusting the white balance, exposure and contrast, as well as removing noise are often the only needed tweaks. I’ll cover more on post- production for underwater photos in a future article. Until then, happy shooting!