A photographer’s guide to the reef

By Justin Walker 7 March 2017
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Diving the Great Barrier Reef is the best way to appreciate this natural wonder, but to preserve those memories, you need photos. Welcome to the challenge and the fun of underwater photography.

UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY USED to be the domain of the serious pro photographer who would be diving with heavy camera gear (film SLR contained in a bulky waterproof housing, and light strobes). Today, a large DSLR and waterproof housing is not the only option, especially for those snorkelling as opposed to scuba diving.  The advent of compact, waterproof/rugged cameras with reasonably strong flashes, adjustable ISO (film speed) and inbuilt macro lens settings has seen underwater photography become far more accessible.

This accessibility does not mean underwater photography is any easier than it was previously; budding underwater snappers still need to adhere to certain constraints inherent in their liquid environment, with the most obvious being the change in lighting. Water is far denser than air and this causes colour to be ‘pulled’ from the light spectrum, meaning that you have to get a lot closer to your subject to ensure the resultant image is clear, sharp and bright, hence why ‘macro’ mode on your camera will be your best friend – you’ll need to be able to focus very close and still keep the subject ‘big’ in your photo.

This lack of light below-surface also means you have to approach your subject slowly, so as not to frighten it off.  You will have to learn to swim/dive with your camera always at the ready, for this same reason. A wide-angle (or ultra-wide) lens is the other must-have to ensure that when you are nice and close to your subject, it all still fits in the frame.


Image source: TEQ

Down in the dark

Ever notice how dark it gets – and how quickly – once you dive deeper to try and photograph that particularly large parrotfish or section of coral? That is due to the water density filtering out the sunlight as you drop in depth, which brings up two important
factors to consider when looking at underwater photography:
lighting and water pressure.

Compact waterproof/rugged cameras generally include an inbuilt flash but even the most powerful of these really isn’t that bright. The small sensors in these compacts also struggle with low light photography, meaning you have to set your ISO quite high, which will increase the prevalence of ‘noise’ (the digital equivalent of grain in film).

It will depend on how keen or serious you are about getting that memorable shot, but when it comes to available light for underwater photography, more is better.  A strobe light (or two) is a great investment for your underwater camera kit; minimising the light-sapping effects of deep water means the brighter the better when it comes to additional lighting. We’d recommend two strobes. This ensures the expansive view from your wide-angle lens is sufficiently “covered” by enough light.

Under pressure

Most compact waterproof/rugged cameras are rated to a depth of 15–25m, which is probably at the limit of most recreational snorkellers. However, if your primary focus is scuba diving, you will go deeper, which means you will need a waterproof camera housing for your camera. Camera housings range from plastic sleeve/bag style construction, to hard plastic housings usually available as a branded accessory from camera manufacturers.

There are also high-tech (and high-priced) aluminium models with interchangeable lens ports that are bulkier and heavier, but more durable and allow full functionality, thanks to a host of buttons, dials and switches that are designed to provide access to your camera’s menus and controls. Camera housings are available for all camera types – from compacts through to the big pro DSLRs, but can be a big investment. That investment is sound though, when you consider the housing provides you with a camera that is fully functional, tens of metres below the surface of the ocean.

Camera options

There are cameras to suit most budgets and levels.

Go retro

Fujifilm QuickSnap Marine underwater camera

Fujifilm QuickSnap Marine

For the photographer who doesn’t want to spend money on a costly waterproof camera that may only be used once or twice a year at most, a cool option is a one-use-only camera, such as the Fujifilm QuickSnap Marine. Loaded with FujiColor Superia X-TRA800 colour film, ideally suited to low-light photography, this plastic-fantastic is waterproof to a depth of 10m and very easy to use with its simple manual controls. Provided you can get close enough to your subject, you may be pleasantly surprised as to the quality and colours of the processed print. 

Compact and capable

Canon Powershot D30 underwater camera

Canon Powershot D30

Fujifilm FinePix XP90 underwater camera

Fujifilm FinePix XP90

All the major camera brands produce a waterproof/rugged compact camera, with the Canon Powershot D30 and Fujifilm FinePix XP90 two popular models. These types of camera offer a tough, sealed body, a flash, easy-to-use controls and a zoom lens (generally in the 28–75mm range). The waterproof rating varies between each model and brand, but usually starts at about 15m and can go all the way to 25m. For those who will also do plenty of kayaking, swimming and canoeing, along with the occasional dive, these cameras are a great investment. Add in a small single-strobe light set-up and you have a capable underwater photography kit. The downside to these cameras are their small sensors, meaning that at high ISO settings (necessary for low-light) digital noise can become quite obvious. This is where the flash output and/or your additional strobe light can help by upping the available light and thus lowering the required ISO setting.

A legend reborn

AW1 underwater camera

Nikon AW1

Nikon’s film-based Nikonos cameras were the first choice for underwater photographers for decades before the arrival of digital cameras. With their O-rings and dedicated underwater-only lenses, they brought pro-level camera functionality to the marine environment. The company has since revisited the ideal of a waterproof/interchangeable lens camera with its AW1 camera . This robust rig uses an interchangeable zoom lens (there is also a prime lens available, and the camera can be fitted with other, non-waterproof, 1 Series lenses) that is of fully sealed construction (there is also an O-ring on the camera body). It also has a 1-inch sensor (considerably larger than sensors found in other waterproof/rugged compacts), along with Nikon’s pro-level autofocus system, and a depth rating of 15m. This author has used an AW1 for the past three years in all environments (from under water at the Great Barrier Reef to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro) and has found it near-bulletproof while producing high-quality results. For the casual to semi-serious diver, the AW1, combined with a twin-strobe, would be an affordable – and very effective – set-up for shallower depths. There are other large-sensor (1-inch to APS-C) compact cameras, such as Canon’s G7X and Sony’s RX100 III, and these also offer great image quality for underwater images – once you’ve encased them in a waterproof housing. Speaking of which…

Going the full monty

Nauticam underwater camera

Nauticam underwater camera

If you want the best underwater photography results – every time, at any diveable depth – then a DSLR encased in a waterproof housing, accompanied by two or more strobe lights, is the only option. With this system you gain the benefits of interchangeable lenses (including the option of ultra-wide and fisheye – and no, that’s not a pun), a large sensor for optimum image quality, and reliability in the form of the housing itself. We’d opt for a Canon EOS 5Dmk3 or Nikon D750, both of which use a full-frame sensor and have robust builds, then consult our bank manager before buying a tough, well-proved aluminium housing (and ports), such as the extensive Nauticam range . Then you’ll need additional waterproof ports for your other lenses (these ports are built specifically for individual lenses), and don’t forget to add in two (maybe three) strobes and a  separate light source. By this stage you will be a tad poorer, but significantly richer in regards to potential image quality.

There are cheaper plastic housings available on the market, but these can be more susceptible to fogging and are not as robust as the aluminium variants. Even though they can be twice the price of the camera they are housing, for the peace of mind that a solid chunk of well-engineered, ergonomically superior aluminium housing offers, we’d happily pay the extra.