Equipment options, weatherproofing standards, lighting tips and advice for shooting underwater at different depths.

Dedicated waterproof camera gear is needed for shooting underwater, although it’s often possible to take pictures in tidal pools and shallow waterways with a regular camera that has adequate weatherproofing.

A compact waterproof camera can capture good quality photos and videos while you’re snorkelling. (Source: OM Digital Solutions.)

Water is death to electronics, which is why ‘weather resistance’ has become so important in the marketing messages of camera manufacturers. But the term can be ambiguous because most manufacturers don’t quantify the level of weather resistance in their equipment.

Weatherproofing standards

The International Standards Organisation (the same group that’s responsible for sensitivity standards) has two specifications covering weatherproofing: IPX1 and IP53. There are significant differences between them although, in both cases, the protection is provided by flexible seals around removable items, such as lenses, along with tight construction standards and sealing along major joins.

IPX1 only rates for protection against ‘vertically falling droplets, such as condensation, sufficient that no damage or interrupted functioning of components will be incurred when an item is upright’. Most equipment falls into this category. You can normally see and feel the narrow rubber flange around the lens mount in IPX1-protected lenses.

This illustration shows the locations of the weatherproof seals in the IP53-rated OM-1 camera and M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO II lens. (Source: OM Digital Solutions.)

IP53 rates the product as providing: 1) Partial protection against dust and other particulates, such that any ingress will not damage or impede the satisfactory performance of internal components; and 2) Protection against direct moisture spray at angles up to 60° off vertical. The rubber flange around the lens mount is wider in this equipment and other joints are more tightly sealed.

At the time of release, only OM Digital Solutions was applying the IP53-rated system to its cameras and lenses – and only some models in the ranges were IP53-rated. For active outdoor photographers, the differences between the ratings are significant. Neither rating claims to provide any protection if the camera and/or lens is immersed in water.

How deep do you want to go?
Unless you’re using an artificial light source, it’s best to stay within five metres of the surface since that’s where there’s likely to be enough light to ensure colours remain reasonably accurately reproduced. More than 50% of the light intensity is lost within the top 10 metres of the water – and red light can only penetrate a metre or two, even in clear tropical waters.

This means underwater photographs have an increasingly blue cast the deeper the pictures are taken. While you can buy filters to bring out reds in underwater shots, they won’t do much to counteract the loss of light as you dive deeper.

Underwater lights are required for depths of 10 metres or more.

This illustration shows how light intensity is attenuated with depth.


There are plenty of options for cameras that can be used underwater, starting with action cameras and including specially-designed compact cameras and housings for interchangeable-lens cameras. GoPro’s Max and Fusion cameras are waterproof down to five metres, while the Hero models can be taken as deep at 10 metres. GoPro also sells a Standard Housing that allows them to be used at depths up to 40 metres and a  Dive Housing that can go down to 60 metres. Most other brands of action cameras are waterproof to between five and 16 metres.

GoPro’s action cameras can be used underwater in shallow areas where there’s plenty of available light. Image © Benson Aryana. Taken with GoPro Hero3 Black Edition. (Source: Camera House.)

Compact underwater cameras are convenient and readily available, many with ratings down to around 15 metres and resolutions between 16 and 20 megapixels. Most are versatile enough for everyday use and popular with outdoor photographers. These cameras have integrated zoom lenses with a relatively short zoom range, although some manufacturers offer screw-on wide-angle and telephoto lenses to extend the camera’s range. Ring lights are also available for adding light, particularly when shooting close-ups.

The Tough TG-6 camera, shown with available accessories, which include screw-on wide-angle and telephoto lenses and the add-on FD-1 Flash Diffuser and LG-1 LED Light Guide. (Source: OM Digital Solutions.)

Underwater housings are also available for many regular interchangeable-lens cameras and also for some smartphones and video cameras. Leading manufacturers include Sea&Sea, Ikelite, AOI, Brinno, Fantasea and Aquatica. They are usually sold through dive shops, although some camera stores stock them and staff can advise on what’s available for your camera.


Always snorkel or dive with a ‘buddy’ and make sure you’re properly clad before entering the water. Stinger suits are required in tropical waters at certain times of year, while wetsuits or dry suits are needed in colder waters.

Check local weather and water conditions and make sure you comply with any local regulations. Obtain permits before taking photos in protected areas. Keep a fair distance between you and your subjects and never touch or provoke marine wildlife.

Check your camera’s waterproof seals before you take it into the water and remove any filaments of hair, sand or any other foreign matter that may be lodged in them. Make sure the O-rings are clean and lightly greased and use the supplied tool or a blunt object like a credit card if you need to remove an O-ring from its housing.

Rinse off your camera with fresh water after each dive or snorkel. Then operate each control lever and button to dislodge any residual salt crystals. Dry your camera carefully with a clean, soft lint-free cloth or towel and store it in a low dust and well-ventilated environment.

Shooting tips

The underwater world is quite different from our normal environment because water is much denser than air. Water is often in motion and atmospheric conditions can dictate both its turbulence and the clarity of the water. The following tips help you to capture good, clear shots of underwater subjects.

1. Clear water gives you the best chance of getting good images. Avoid periods after heavy rain when the water can be full of stirred up sediment and other matter that reduces clarity of the light.

2. If you don’t want to become a shark’s snack, keep out of the water during sharks’ feeding times at dawn and dusk. It’s also wise to avoid swimming in the midst of a shoal of bait fish – for the same reason.

3. Get close to your subjects. The more distant your subjects, the greater the risk that your images will turn out dull, blurry and with a blue-grey cast. The closer you are the clearer, sharper and more colourful your images will be.

A giant cuttlefish photographed in shallow water off Fairy Bower in the Sydney suburb of Manly with a Canon PowerShot D10 underwater camera. This picture shows light-scattering due to particles in the water. Image © Kieran Larkin.

4. Although pointing the camera downwards or straight ahead can often be easier, especially for snorkellers, tilting your camera upwards at a slight angle can produce more interesting results.

Framing the shot from below the subject can create more eye-catching images than shooting with the subject straight ahead. Image © Marcus Rodrigues. (Source: Camera House.)

5. When taking close-ups of sea creatures, always focus on the eyes. The continuous AF mode usually yields more in-focus shots because it’s better at handling the motion of you and your subjects underwater.

A compelling close-up of the giant cuttlefish with the focus on its eye. Image © Kieran Larkin.

6. Have your camera prepared before you enter the water. Use the menu to set the ISO limits, select the appropriate focusing mode and AF/AE priority settings. Don’t waste time once you’re in the right place; take as many shots as possible, shoot quickly and worry about composition in post-production.

Underwater lighting
Once you venture below a depth of about five metres, additional lighting is usually required. There are plenty of options available in the form of underwater flashguns and LED lights.

Ring lights can be great for shooting close-ups and it doesn’t matter much whether you use flash or LED light for stills. LED lights are needed for recording video.

The main potential problem associated with add-on lights is their tendency to emphasise backscatter. This is created when light is reflected back towards the camera from tiny particles suspended in the water. In cloudy water, there’s little you can do to prevent it.

Add-on lights only really work with close-up subjects because of the way water attenuates light. If you want to capture a wider scene, make sure all lights have been switched off.

Post-capture processing

Most underwater photos require some editing to bring out the essential characteristics of the subject or scene. Capable image editing software enables you to correct the colour balance, adjust brightness, contrast, colour saturation and/or vibrance and fine-tune image sharpness. You can also suppress backscatter and crop your images to create better composition.

Post-capture editing can often improve your underwater photographs, although it’s usually quite difficult to suppress the diffusing effects of tiny particles in the water that scatter the light. Image © Kieran Larkin.

Useful links

Scott Portelli underwater profile

Al Mackinnon surf photography

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Nature Photography pocket guide

Pocket guide Partner: Camera House