If you’ve ever compared your underwater photos to those taken by more-experienced photographers and thought that yours lacked a certain “wow-factor,” you’re not alone. Most of the professional underwater photos you see have gone through some post-production editing, even if only a small bit. So how do you go about editing your photos to a higher standard? Luckily, underwater photo editing for beginners is quite simple. Even those with basic cameras and amateur photography skills can print photos that pop.
Four Basic Editing Functions
With so many cameras and editing programs to choose from, budding underwater photographers can end up with a real headache from pondering how to edit photos. Fortunately, you needn’t be a Photoshop guru in order to transform your snapshots into mini-masterpieces. Here I’ll explain the four most basic underwater photo editing functions in a simple way: brightness and contrast, saturation and color temperature, clarity and sharpness, and what I call a “fake fancy focus.”
Brightness and Contrast
First you’ll want to edit the brightness of your image. Using your chosen editing software, select a brightness or exposure tool. Every editing program has one or both of these tools. If your photo is blisteringly bright, tone it down a little to make your image easier on the eye. Likewise, if your shot is too dark, increase the brightness or exposure to add light. This may also help highlight details that were previously too dark to see.
The next step is the contrast tool. Contrast is an absolute must for all photographers, both beginner and advanced. Good use of contrast can make any photo — mediocre or magnificent — better. Upping the contrast in your image will ignite the colors, bringing out the bold edges and lines that define the subject. It will also highlight any small details. Be careful though, as adding too much contrast can darken the image and make the photo appear overly edited and cartoon-like. You want to edit, but don’t want your images to appear too modified. Adding a modest amount of contrast to your shot help will turn it into a colorful and bold piece of art while maintaining a natural appearance.
Saturation and Color Temperature
Let’s continue with color correction and modification. Saturation means quite basically the strength of each individual color in your image. If you increase the saturation, the colors will become stronger and bolder. Decreasing the saturation will remove color. This steers the colors in your photo toward the gray scale or, in simple terms, toward black and white. If you want the colors in your photo to be stronger, increase the saturation just a tiny — and I repeat, tiny — bit. If, on the other hand, you feel your shot is too bright and overly saturated, reduce the saturation to tone it down. You can even make your image black and white by turning the saturation down completely.
You may also want to use some color correction. As divers, we know that the red spectrum disappears and blues take over underwater. This is where the temperature tool comes in handy. If you increase the temperature of your image, you’re putting the red colors that are lost at depth back into the shot. This will help bring out your subject’s true color. Color correction also helps remove and tone down the overly powerful blue and green hues that can dominate and ruin the real colors of an underwater photo.
Clarity and Sharpness
Next, consider your image’s clarity and sharpness. Study professional underwater photos and you’ll see that the image is nearly always razor-sharp and clear. Although this is usually the result of an expensive set-up, you too can easily improve the quality of your photos by adjusting their sharpness and clarity. Every photo-editing program has a sharpness and clarity tool. Simply increase the sharpness and/or clarity of your photo until you feel that it has that professional quality that you’re aiming for. Don’t increase these too much, however, because doing so will highlight any imperfections in your photo, such as backscatter, and can make your image look grainy.
“Fake Fancy Focus”
Finally, the most difficult — but also one of the most rewarding — editing skills is one I call the “fake fancy focus.” Look at any professional underwater photographer’s highest quality images, especially those of macro or microscopic subjects, and you’ll see that the background is often blurred with a crystal-clear foreground. Wide-angle photos often feature this characteristic as well.
Applying in-depth photography knowledge, experience and practice, combined with professional cameras and accessories can produce this beautiful photographic result. But the casual photographer can also fake it with many editing programs. If you want to give it a try, just use a blurring tool on the background — subtly of course — and then use the sharpening and clarity brush tools to make your subject much clearer. While this is a bit of a cheat, it does work. I’ve won photography awards with my less-than-impressive compact camera, and can confirm that it’s worth trying in order to achieve that professional touch.
While this may all be a lot to take in for a budding photographer, by modifying these small but significant details in your underwater photos, you’ll produce better images in no time. Consider the brightness and exposure, contrast, saturation, color temperature, clarity and sharpness of your image, and if you want to take it to the next level, apply a blurring technique to your photo’s background. Take the time to master each editing skill slowly and surely. And remember, photography is supposed to be fun, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t produce masterpieces right away. It will take time and practice. The most important thing to remember is always to enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!