How to Get Started with Underwater Documentary Photography | Fearless and Framed

How to Get Started with Underwater Documentary Photography

Let’s begin my disclosure of sorts: in no way do I consider myself an expert in underwater photography.

It’s not anything new, per say. However, one of the main reasons I wanted to pursue it was because, at least in my market, no one was doing/offering it. No one was taking the underwater photographs that I wanted to take for my client’s. I purchased my underwater housing last summer. The goal was to be the first and of course the best underwater kids photographer in my area over the long haul. Well, now it seems like ages ago as I’ve now had the privilege to photograph quite a few kids underwater since.

Admittedly, I sort of took to it pretty quickly and am thrilled beyond measure to have been able to achieve the look and style I desired very early on. I’m honored to be here today helping those of you who may want to try your hand at underwater photography. I’m still learning with every single session I shoot, but I have a few tips and thoughts to hopefully help you get your feet wet…literally. Hehe.

Underwater Documentary Photography

Most of these tips did I utilize myself when getting started, but after you’ve done something for a bit, it is easier to understand what would have been helpful to do before.

To quickly reference back to this post, pin this image:


First and foremost, just like with any new thing, the best way to be better is to do what works best for you. Coming up with your own tricks that help you do things better. What works for me may not work for you. Practice is the number one way you will succeed.

Second, you must be able to compromise a little when it comes to perfect color and perfect focus. You’ll also need to come to terms with a little bit (or sometimes a lot) of noise. It will kill your soul if you don’t allow yourself some leniency when it comes to these three things. Because here is what you are dealing with:

  • You are shooting through several feet of water which even in the cleanest of water will never be completely ‘clear.’ Skin tones in the deeper, more blue water can be a bear in post processing. That is an entirely different conversation… editing these photos. That is a discussion for another day. Let’s stick to the basics today!
  • Your subject is likely moving which means that hitting your focus point spot on every time is basically impossible even for the best of the best. It simply adds more challenge especially because you are shooting through water. Particularly when you shoot in the deeper water, there is much less light available and can be an extra challenge to work with.
  • Not only do you need to track your subject who is moving, but there is simply no way that you can be completely still in the water. Basically, both you and your subject are always moving making spot on focus as I said, basically impossible for every single shot. Let us not forget you being able to hold your breath for pretty extended times and while holding your breath, being able to move around and follow around your subject to get different angles and such. A big tip for being able to stay under is to blow out as much air as humanly possible! Do not ‘hold’ your breath the whole time. Exhale! Blow out every bit of air you have and then more! It also helps you stay under! Holding your breath and not breathing out will make you float…and while floating is okay sometimes, you want to be fully submerged most often for these photos.

underwater portraits

underwater documentary photography

I think you are beginning to see only a few of the biggest obstacles in underwater photography. I’m here to tell you though that it is still very possible to do! It’s just not going to be ‘easy.’


get started photographing underwater

Amy Vecchio

underwater shooting

baby water photography

water photography

how to get started photographing under water

underwater bokeh and light


Camera Setting Tips for Underwater Shooting

Getting your camera to focus where you want through water can be a challenge. It is a lot of hit or miss. Enough light can be an obstacle as well. In order to keep my shutter speed where I need to freeze motion, I most often have my ISO on 1000-1600. Yep… for many, you cringe as I say this. Yes, you will have some noise, but I’d rather that that motion blur, which can be cool in some pics I suppose, just not in mine. I try to keep my shutter speed pretty high too. Most often 1/1000 or faster. Again, these are just what I use and what works for me. You’ll need to play around and find what is best for you and what works best with your equipment. Like I said, accepting that these photos will not always be ‘perfect’ is key. Yes, you want them to look awesome, but I’m just saying to cut yourself a little slack and don’t be to hard on yourself.

Consider the entire image, not just if you have a technically perfect image.


Gear Suggestions for Underwater Shooting

I feel that equipment selection is the least of your worries. There are many different housing units on the market for SLRs and also a good selection of point and shoot underwater cameras to choose from.   I’m not savvy on all the equipment and do not feel equip to go into your options. I can tell you that I shoot with my Nikon d700 in the EWA Marine housing with my Nikon 20mm 2.8 lens. Wider lenses are best. I like the 20mm because it has very little distortion, but still wide enough to get awesome pull backs. I shoot between 2.8-4.0 aperture most of the time. My equipment is very simple and works for me for the time being. I’m sure in the near future, I will invest in a hard case housing because they allow for more easily accessibility to your settings, but for now, I’m enjoying my soft housing.

Again, the equipment is truly, in my opinion a very minor thing. There are so many other variables that are as important. Possibly one of the most important pieces of equipment in addition to your camera and housing if applicable is a good pair of goggles! Seriously…do yourself a favor and get good ones with the nose cover. Nothing is worse than having to worry about water up the nose and shooting photos.


photographing in a pool

black and white under water photography


Underwater Shooting Tips

1. Holding your breath and being comfortable… and I mean very comfortable in the water is really step one!

If you can’t fluidly move in the water basically one handed because your camera will be in one hand, then you may want to practice using your phone in a waterproof housing first for a while. You need to get used to going under, staying under while framing and taking photos with one hand.

2. I have found that it is vital that your subjects be able to go underwater unassisted at least 10-12 times during a session in order for me to get the photos I want. 

Most of the times, they go under more like 25-30 times or more. Each time they go under, I may get lots of shots or I may get none. Maybe the pros can achieve a more consistent or greater percentage of keepers, but for me I have to take a lot of photos to get a full gallery that I am happy with. You need the physical stamina to go under and be on the move with your subject if you want to get the most variety of photos.

3. One tip is that I have my subjects often wait for me to go under and get my bearings first.

A few seconds does the trick. It offers me just a moment to prepare myself and get my camera ready. Then my subjects go under or jump in and I’m ready for them. They go in many times before me too, but I prefer myself being under first. So I try to make sure that is the process more often than not. It really helps a lot.

4. While I have many ideas that are in my head before and during a session, I will be honest and tell you that when dealing with children in the pool, it is more often the case that what you have in mind is nothing what you actually get.

You must allow for lots of flexibility during these sessions. You have to take advantage of every single time your subjects go under. You must be ready for anything. So often they will give you something unexpected and it will be better than you imagined. And at least from my experience, requesting a ‘can you do that again’ may work on land, very rarely happens underwater.   Maybe when you are dealing with professional models, which I am not. 😉

5. There are pros and cons to shooting shallow and pros and cons of shooting deep.

I feel like when you shoot shallow, post-processing color is so much easier to tackle and hitting focus is easier because water is clearer and subject is typically closer to you. However, to get the deeper blue water, you must get in the deep. But when your subject is farther away and you lose light making it more challenging to focus and such. However, I personally feel that if you are charging for these photos, a complete gallery, at least in my opinion will include shallow and deep images. Therefore, I highly recommend practicing both! At first shooting in different lighting can be also be difficult, but eventually, you will have settings that will work almost consistently with each.

Under Water Photographer

Under Water Family Photography

amazing underwater photo light


Just like with everything else, it just takes some time figuring out the best settings for you to not only get the shot, but also to offer you the ‘look’ you want in post processing. Underwater photography has it’s challenges and obstacles, but what doesn’t? Eventually, with practice, you will find your groove. I promise.

Writing and photographs contributed by: Amy Vecchio

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