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Photography Tips from a Professional Underwater Photographer

2020-03-17

Underwater photography is more than just taking a camera down underwater and photographing away. There are preparations required, knowledge of animals and relevant photography skills needed to ensure the best quality in your underwater shots. Renowned underwater photographer William Tan teaches us how.

What are the camera modes and settings you most often use?
I set my shutter speed to the fastest recommended synchronising speed with external strobes, even though a shutter speed as low as 1/60 sec is already enough to freeze the movement of most fish. Now, although the 1/60 is the normal flash sync speed, some cameras, flashes, or strobes allow for “high-speed sync” which gives much higher shutter speed without cut-offs.

For instance, a shutter speed of 1/250 sec or faster would be needed to capture sun rays passing through the water's surface, as the light is constantly flickering and refracting due to the water’s movement and uneven surface. The fast shutter speed gives the light rays a distinct shape, rather than a blurred look if a slower shutter speed was used.

Normally, I set my camera to the lowest ISO available for macro shooting for the best resolution, using mainly the strobes to illuminate the subject(s). When shooting wide-angle, I want my image to be lit by natural light, hence a higher ISO. The only function of the strobes in wide-angle photography is to bring back the colours of the subject(s).

What are some of the Do's and Don'ts in underwater photography?
Do have a respectable control of buoyancy before attempting underwater photography; do read your camera manual to fully utilise all the available functions on your camera; do research on animal behaviours. With knowledge, you not only know how to approach your subject, but also recognise which unique features of the animal to showcase in your final image.

Don’t expect success to happen overnight. Don’t harass the animals you are shooting, which will agitate the animal and make shooting more difficult. It might also hurt the animal physically in ways not obvious to you. Don’t manipulate the animal and set up a shot. When an animal is put on backgrounds alien to them, or their behaviours altered due to your disturbance, your image might add questionable “facts” to science.

In your opinion, what are the camera equipment most suitable for underwater?
I love my Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and EOS 5D Mark IV for their superb resolutions and focusing speed underwater. I use the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM or Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro lens for all my macro subjects. The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L III lens is perfect for shooting animals the size of sharks or dolphins, while the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L USM Fisheye lens is normally used for reef scenes or large whales.

Does equipment differ based on the depth of the water? If so, how?
As you go deeper into the water, the surrounding light will get weaker. At depth, a camera and its attached lens’ ability to autofocus in dim light is of utmost importance.

When do I use strobes? Can I do without?
We use strobes to bring back the colours underwater. However, in Malapascua, strobes are not allowed when you are shooting thresher sharks, neither are they allowed in Oslob for whale sharks. It is important to follow these rules strictly.

How do I make sure that my subjects are sharp (especially when they are swimming around)?
Under the Servo AF Mode, Canon has a unique Single-point Spot AF that lets you set very accurate focusing on slow-moving subjects. In contrast, the AF point expansion consists of a manually selected AF point fusing with its surrounding AF points to form a larger focusing area, allowing easier tracking of faster-moving animals. Understanding and shooting within the limits of the lens' sweet spot will also help make your images crisp sharp.

Where are some of the best destinations for an underwater shoot?
It depends on what animals you fancy. Sri Lanka and Tonga for whales; Fuvahmulah Maldives for tiger sharks; Malapascua for thresher sharks, Tubbataha for whale sharks, Bali, Komodo and Raja Ampat for mantas; Anilao, Ramblon and Lembeh for all kinds of small critters; and the list goes on…

In what ways can underwater photography help the environment?
I was in Australia doing a series of talks with David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes last May. They showed many absolutely stunning images. Two images made a big impact on the audiences, including me. An image of a vibrant and healthy reef was first shown, followed by a second image of the same reef shot years after from almost the same angle, the corals totally dead. Images like these prompt us to really think just how much damage we are bringing to our environment…

To learn more about underwater photography, check out the following articles:
How to Set Up a Mirrorless Camera for an Underwater Photoshoot
4 Important Things to Remember When Photographing Underwater
Beginner's Guide to Underwater Macro Photography
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV: Conquering the Elements Underwater

Download a copy of this infographic here.