Create amazing underwater photography on a budget

Create amazing underwater photography on a budget

I’ve always been drawn to underwater photography, even before I began my journey behind the lens. I love the ethereal beauty, mystery and movement found only in underwater photos. Many years ago, I discovered the work of Lia Barrett and I daydreamed about someday shooting underwater. Then I saw the work of Summer Murdock and I knew I had to find a way.

Last summer, I started researching housing for my camera but it wasn’t in my budget. I also didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something that I had never tried before. What if I hated underwater photography? I mentioned this to my family one afternoon and my brother-in-law offered to loan me his GoPro Hero4 Silver that was gathering dust on a shelf. I immediately purchased a Dome Housing ($80) for the GoPro so I could take split water shots. From the moment I hit the pool, I was hooked.

boy swimming towards camera in an underwater photo
Mom holds a little boy swimming at night in an underwater photo

Using a GoPro for underwater photography

Last summer, I returned the borrowed GoPro and purchased my own for $290. I decided to get the same model (Hero4 Silver) even though newer models were available. Some newer GoPro models have the option to shoot raw, but after a lot of research I decided that the older model GoPro works for my needs and budget.

With the GoPro Hero4 Silver, I use a feature called Protune, which gives me additional camera setting options (since my version of GoPro doesn’t have manual controls). I usually keep the maximum ISO at around 400, but in low light situations I will bump it up to 800. I use single mode at 12 megapixels wide with spot metering and white balance set to around 4800K or 5500K.

Unfortunately, you don’t have any control over the shutter speed, which will be slow. When you go to take a shot under the water, stay still and wait for the beep. You need to compensate for the slow shutter by not moving too quickly so you don’t add additional blur to your photos.

GoPro underwater housing and accessories

I use both the waterproof case that came with my GoPro and my Dome Housing for split water shots. If I want to go deep in the pool, I use the small waterproof case because it doesn’t float and I can maneuver it better. The Dome Housing wants to float so it is harder to stay deep underwater with it. I usually keep it in a position where it’s half under the water so I get the split water/land type of shot that it’s known for.

Pro tip: Never set the Dome Housing down on the round plastic side because it will scratch. I keep mine in the packaging it came in to keep it protected.

Pay attention to lighting and composition.

There are so many things to think about when you’re shooting underwater. In addition to camera settings, staying under the water and holding your breath, you need to remember that the basics of photography still apply. Without good lighting and composition, your underwater photos will fall flat.

Lighting

Good lighting is especially important in underwater photography, because it helps with image quality. On sunny days, I like to look for rays of sunlight and have my subject swim towards them. Or, I have my subject go underwater facing the light. I have taken amazing photos on cloudy days too, I just have to edit them a bit more and they aren’t quite as sharp. With backlighting, your subject will have blurred facial features and the images will require additional editing.

It’s also really fun to to use the pool light underwater at night. This creates a really dynamic and dramatic look. At first, many of your images will be blurry because of the low shutter speed, so don’t get discouraged if you take a hundred low light photos and only five are in focus. Those five will be worth it!

Composition

When it comes to composing an underwater photo, I often use the rule of thirds. I also love to use center composition, because my image won’t get distorted if I apply a lens correction in post processing. The way I compose an underwater photo really depends on where the light falls inside the pool. I prefer to shoot in the deep end because that’s where the sunlight filters through the water, and I like the shadows and darkness at the bottom of the pool. I often lay at the bottom of the pool in the deep end and shoot up at my subject. This enables me to capture part of the sky, which adds a pop of color and interest.

Night photography underwater image of boy swimming in pool
A little boy's legs in front of a light in an underwater photography session
Underwater photo of boy swimming in rays of light
Underwater photography of boy swimming in pool

You don’t need expensive dive gear.

I use goggles that I bought at the grocery store (nothing fancy). Ideally you want something that doesn’t fog up, but to be honest, if the sun is bright, I’m often shooting blind in the pool anyway! I don’t currently use any weights or or flippers.

Tessie’s editing workflow for underwater photography

When I edit my underwater photography, I use both Lightroom and Photoshop. I start my edits in Lightroom, take them over to Photoshop for cloning and skin tone corrections, and then finish them in Lightroom.

My workflow looks something like this: First, I look at the “enable profile corrections” option to see if I need to fix any distortion. I usually don’t use this for the pool I shoot in, but I did use it recently at an indoor hotel to fix the distortion of the columns lining the pool. Next, I finalize the crop of the photo and bump up clarity, contrast and highlights. Then I play with the color sliders for hue, saturation and luminance. I’ve noticed that all underwater photographers are unique in their color preferences. I like deep blue-green water and bright yellow sunlight.

When I have my basic edits done, I import the image into Photoshop and clone out distractions like filters, dirt, etc. I usually dodge highlights and burn shadows to enhance the light. I also do a peach solid color layer, which I invert and brush over the skin to warm it up. If the skin is really green, I might do a color balance layer and increase the reds and then brush those on as well. When I have my image looking good, I bring it back into Lightroom for final edits.

unedited (SOOC) image for boy underwater
Unedited image
underwater photography edit of boy sitting in pool
Final edit

4 Tips for shooting underwater

1. Stay close to your subject. You lose detail when you swim far away.

2. Make sure the water is clean where you’re shooting. Dirt and debris can add interesting details to the scene, but they can also decrease the clarity of your subject.

3. When using a GoPro, your shutter speed will be slow, so make sure to stay as still as possible.

4. Your white balance will depend on the light and pool color. Higher kelvin temps will make the skin tones warmer for editing but the water will be more green.

All photos by Tessie Wallace

About the Author:

Tessie a lifestyle and documentary photographer who craves color, light, magic and exploration. While her favorite subject is her family and taking underwater photos of her son, Tessie also enjoys photographing clients (fresh 48 and L&D are her favorites). In addition, Tessie works as an artist-blacksmith/welder and spends her days working alongside her husband in their Appalachian forge. Visit Tessie Wallace online.
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6 Comments

  1. Sopo April 7, 2018 at 8:21 am - Reply

    Thank you for this priceless information! Wow, that before and after is amazing, I didn’t realize how much of the final look of an underwater photo depended on editing. You’ve opened my eyes!

    • Tessie April 11, 2018 at 12:25 pm - Reply

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! Thank you!

  2. Britt April 24, 2018 at 8:25 pm - Reply

    My husband has a GoPro and I was convinced I needed something better to try underwater photography. I’m glad to know that I don’t, because that is many years away from being in the budget!

  3. Renee Stengel May 10, 2018 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    Love this article! Thank you!! I ran out and bought the April issue so I would be able to soak this article in and keep it on hand – I was so disappointed to find it wasn’t in there! I was happy to see a small mention of UW photography – but looking forward to more articles like these on UW in the print issues in the future 🙂

    • Tessie Wallace June 7, 2018 at 6:32 pm - Reply

      Aw that’s awesome! I would love to see it in print too 😉 I’m so glad this article was helpful!

  4. Chris June 12, 2018 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    I appreciate this article so much, I am in Hawaii and have been wanting to add underwater maternity to my arsenal but didn’t know where to start! I am leaping into it and feel like now I have what I need information wise to get going!

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