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4 Important Things to Remember When Photographing Underwater


Underwater photography, like any other genres of photography, should be done with respect for the subject as well as its surrounding. Professional underwater photographer William Tan discusses about the ethical ways of photographing underwater animals and how to create a better environment for your underwater subjects.

What are the top 3 common mistakes made by underwater photographers?

Some underwater photographers may choose to cheat when pressured by deadlines, fighting for a spot in competitions, or struggling for ‘likes’ on social media. The three most common mistakes they make are:

  1. Manipulating the animals and their background for an easier photoshoot. Such practice, whether seen or unseen by others underwater, is wrong. Instead, try to “manipulate” the settings of the camera, strobe positions, or even during post processing.
  2. Not doing enough research on the subjects before a shoot. This results in one not knowing how to make use of their behaviours to get a good image. Some might even end up with images of animals in an entirely wrong background (background in this case means the host that the animal lives in; if one observes that the host is wrong, it means that the animal has been manipulated), as ridiculous as an image of a polar bear hunting kangaroos in the savannah grassland.
  3. I was once a judge on a competition and saw two identical images that are questionable. After speaking to the contestants, they confessed to me that it was the dive guide who convinced them to shoot that way should they want to win. Do not trust irresponsible guides. If they would manipulate an animal for you, they would happily do the same for the next customer, who is also willing to pay.

What should one do when one comes across a precious/rare sea creature?

Treat them as what they are… precious and rare! Give these animals the respect they deserve, the time and space to behave normally, and you will be surprised by how willing they are to perform in front of your camera.

What does one do when the area is packed with other underwater photographers and divers?

If you are shooting a fragile animal, and you feel that the animal should be left hidden and undisturbed from others, be discreet and leave the place as soon as you are done.

If you see a desired subject that is being shot by other photographers, patiently wait for your turn, or politely request to take a few shots if the wait is beyond what your remaining oxygen or bottom time would allow. However, don’t always expect to get a ‘yes’ for an answer.

Alternatively, you can choose to come back earlier the next day, or plan a return trip during a non-peak season.

When should one use flash photography and when should one not use it?
Every destination and resort has a different set of restrictions on flash photography. We want to follow these instructions closely. At places where strobes are not allowed, you can choose to either turn your strobes to face yourself (making a clear indication that they will not be used), or simply enter the water without them.
We do know that whale sharks are not quite bothered by strobes. However, in Oslob, strobes are not allowed to be used on them. Thresher sharks are deep-water species, and it is believed that their big eyes are sensitive to light. We have to respect these creatures by refraining from using flashes.

Thresher sharks are deep-water species, and it is believed that their big eyes are sensitive to light. So we should not use flash.

In Malapascua, flashes are also banned. When National Geographic photographer David Doubilet was in Malapascua, the dive operator decided that a person of such status should be allowed to use strobes. David declined, “If the animal is sensitive, and if this is how everyone else is shooting, this is how I will shoot too,” he said.

During your time spent shooting underwater, you will come across species that are sensitive to light. Do not put stress on these creatures by subjecting them to strong lights over a prolonged period of time. When in doubt, you can always choose to err on the safe side. To learn more about underwater diving news and tips, visit Underwater360.

Be ethical and work hard for your images. There is no shortcut for success. 

Download a copy of this infographic here

If you’re inspired to shoot more underwater photos, read these articles: 

EOS Canon 5D Mark IV: Conquering the Elements Underwater

5 Things to Note When Composing Your Shots Underwater

How to Create Proper Lighting for Your Underwater Shots

Here’s How to Achieve Black Backgrounds for Underwater Photography



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