Travel Photography Masterclass: How To Take Underwater Photographs

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Underwater specialist Steve Benjamin has some tips on how to take spectacular underwater photographs.

Photography is about creating an image that portrays how you feel about the world, and convincing the viewer to feel the same. In the end, when someone looks at your image, are they able to relate? Can you make them care about what you are showing them?

There are many elements and aspects to think about when trying to create a captivating image underwater. Here are a few to help you tell your story.

Remove The Water

It might sound odd, but water is your worst enemy. It will rob your images of detail and feeling, which means you need to get close, removing as much optically distressing water as possible.

A Bull Cape Fur seal defends its territory by blowing warning bubbles, Duiker Island Hout Bay, Cape Town.
A Bull Cape Fur seal defends its territory by blowing warning bubbles, Duiker Island Hout Bay, Cape Town. Sony A7SII with Sony 16-35mm lens, Nauticam housing, 1 x Nikonos SB105 strobe (aperture priority: f/18; 1/50 sec; ISO 100)

The closer you are to your subject, the brighter the colours, the crisper the details and the less backscatter you’ll get.

By using a wide-angle lens, your subject will appear normal while you are close. Remember though, the subject’s welfare is a priority – don’t disturb an animal just to get a photo!

Add Motion 

Photographic images are a frozen moment in time, a slice of the past. It’s an art to be able to capture motion in a frozen image, so choose a subject that naturally has a lot of movement.

Using a slow shutter speed, you can create the blur of the speed while freezing the details that give the image its identity.

Try to capture a crisp eye or head while the rest is in motion. The technique leads to many bad images – but the ones that work are worth the effort.

Shoot In the Light 

By using strobes and shooting into the light source, you’re able to expose the shadows that would otherwise be black in a photo. Light rays in the background add an interesting element.

Box Jellyfish aggregate in the kelp forest near Duiker Island, Hout Bay. Cape Fur seals swim gracefully above careful not to get stung.
Box Jellyfish aggregate in the kelp forest near Duiker Island, Hout Bay. Cape Fur seals swim gracefully above careful not to get stung.
Nikon D70 with Tokina 10-17mm lens, Sea&Sea housing (aperture priority: f/7.1; 1/160 sec; ISO 200)

Create Depth 

Look for a foreground and a background, and for elements that create layers in your image, such as the water’s surface or other animals in the distance.

Practice Locally 

Photograph local subjects that you have access to every day. Nothing beats experience, so don’t wait for a holiday in some faraway place to learn – get in the water and practise often.

A Blue shark swims in the afternoon light offshore of Cape Town.
A Blue shark swims in the afternoon light offshore of Cape Town.
Nikon D70 with Tokina 10-17mm lens, Sea&Sea housing, 2 x Nikonos SB105 strobes (aperture priority: f/16; 1/50 sec; ISO 200)

Understand Your Subject’s Behaviour 

Through learning and observation, you can predict what an animal or environment will do. Pre-empt the situation to get in the best position to create the image you have in mind.

This might be leaning over the side of a boat to get a low angle on a penguin’s release, or swimming ahead of a whale shark and trying to understand where it will feed next. Observe, predict … and be there.

***

The Pro: Steve Benjamin 

Steve was worked with many filmmakers and photographers, assisting on shoots for <National Geographic> in the Seychelles, Mexico, Peru and the Galapagos, as well as on the BBC series <Nature’s Great Events> and <Blue Planet II>.

He strives to add motion and character to his images to evoke an emotion: “I want the viewer to feel something when they look at my images – wonder, terror, beauty or awe!” Steve also runs Animal Ocean, a business that focuses on snorkelling with Cape fur seals in Hout Bay, Cape Town.

Insta: animal_ocean

Words and Photos by Steve Benjamin 

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