Quick Tips for Underwater Fish Photography

Underwater image of brown trout and fly fisherman with net by AdamBarkerPhotography.

Good times on the water yesterday. Once again, I can’t bring myself to pass up an opportunity to shoot some imagery underwater.

For the most part, the fish were somewhat uncooperative yesterday (can’t really blame em’!), but this healthy brown trout posed for the camera for nearly a minute after its release. This lighting conditions and exclusion of most of the angler lend a mysterious quality to this image. It begs the viewer to study it for a moment. Upon further inspection, it all comes together–fly fishing, small creek, catch & release, nostalgic moment, etc.

There certainly is a learning curve to shooting UW photographs. It’s taken me some time to dial in my methods, and I finally feel like I have a routine under the water, just as I do above the water. Two of the key steps in my UW approach:

1. Shoot in manual mode and pre-adjust your exposure before shooting. Most of the time, I point my camera down in the water and set my exposure for the UW light reading. If I’m shooting half in/half out shots, I may underexpose for UW by 1/2 to a full stop in order to maintain detail above water as well. If lighting conditions are just right, the two environments will actually balance quite well in terms of dynamic range.

2. Utilize your camera auto AF selection mode. This is a big one. One of the hardest parts of UW photography (without looking through the viewfinder or at the liveview display) is ensuring proper focus on the parts of the image that you want to be sharp. I’ve found the easiest way to do this is to let your camera select the focus zones, as opposed to pre-selecting a focus zone and trying to place the fish (or more precisely, the fish’s eye) in the perfect spot. This is literally the only time I ever use this function on my camera, as I generally want to have say over what the camera focuses on.

If you happen to venture into UW photography, the above tips should be useful. Most importantly, shoot a lot of images–the throw-away to keeper ratio is significant…

The Over/Under: Quick Tutorial to Underwater Fly fishing Photography

Angler Geoff Mueller sizes admires a bonefish caught and released on the fly at Abaco Lodge, Bahamas

As skinny as it comes!
And I’m not talking about the fish here. In saltwater flyfishing, shallow water is commonly referred to as “skinny” water. Let’s just say this stretch of water at Abaco Lodge, Bahamas was on a tidal diet on this particular morning.
Underwater photography is unpredictable and challenging, but that all contributes to an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction when it all works out.

Over/under shots like this are heavily dependent on the right equipment, knowledge and always a bit of luck. It’s key to have a legit housing with a dome port. If you don’t have a dome port, you can still pull these types of shots off, but it’s much more difficult. I always spit on the dome glass and rub it around before getting it wet–this keeps the water from beading up on the part of the glass that remains above water.

Ideally–you will set your exposure just before shooting the sequence (on manual mode, of course). It’s always an approximate guess on lining up all the elements and shooting away. Here, I am kneeling down in the water, holding the housing at waist level or so. Obviously, there’s no looking through the viewfinder, so you need to understand very well what your chosen lens will include depending on where you hold the camera. Pointing and shifting the housing slightly up or down can drastically affect where the dividing water/air line will be in your frame. Experiment each and every time until you start to get a better idea of where that line will fall.

Note that even if you’ve put that line right in the middle of the dome port, it may not be dividing your image in half. Water moves up and down very quickly, and you’re much less steady than you think when holding the housing.

Two last tips! Get a diopter to place on the front element of your lens (before it goes in the housing). This will help mitigate the softness on the corners that is a constant issue when shooting through domes and it will also decrease your minimum focusing distance for your lens–which is key when trying to fill the frame when shooting.
Annnnd, shots like this benefit from front and/or sidelight to properly expose the image both above and underwater. Obviously, the brighter the ocean/river bottom is, the better it will balance with the sky.

UW housings are pricey, but they’re worth every penny. Rent one for a day from manufacturers like AquaTech and see if it might be a good fit for you. Have fun!