The underwater portrait photographer vs the sightseer

About a week ago I organised an underwater adventure for scuba diving and of course underwater photography at the North Solitary Island.  The North Solitary Island is located about a 4 ½ hr drive south of Brisbane in the state of New South Wales, Australia.  It is then a 13km boat trip offshore from the small town of Wooli (popular for its Goanna pulling championships – see   The island forms a part of the Solitary Islands Marine Park and offers some very spectacular diving.  There are many awesome diving sites located in the area, though some of them are quite difficult to access due to weather and/or currents.

On this particular occasion the weather was extremely overcast with drizzly rain and the best visibility was about 12m on the second day of diving with a lot of particle scattered in the water.  Unfortunately, due to the weather our dive site possibilities were very limited. The underwater conditions were very surgy with some currents at times. The dive site was new to all of us except myself and there were two of us loaded up with our underwater camera housings and DSLR’s looking a little like Christmas trees underwater.   All the photos during my dives were shot with an Olympus E3 and ikelite housing, with dual Ikelite DS161 strobes and a 50mm, f/2 macro lens due to the visibility – when the viz is poor I prefer as little water between the camera and the subject as possible.


Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/8 and 1/125 through underwater housing


Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/16 and 1/160

The first dive of the weekend saw us covering a lot of ground looking for a cave and carrying heavy cameras.  I tended to be more like the sightseer on this dive swimming all over the place.  As a result I took very few photos and of those that I did take, there were few that I found acceptable to show others.  I also tended to use a lot of air and was totally exhausted at the end of the dive.  I can’t say it was the most relaxing or enjoyable dive I had done at this location but I did get wet.

The next dive I decided to try and enjoy a little more so rather than swim everywhere looking for things I settled on the bottom, checked my gear and camera settings and deliberately photographed below the boat at a spot called the elbow cave.  This was a much better dive and I tended to bring back photos that I was happier with.  I also did not consume as much air, which meant more time to focus on ensuring I had some great shots.


Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/9 and 1/100

Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/16 and 1/250

Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/16 and 1/200 (click to zoom in and see the really small fish that swam into the picture)

During the second day of diving I decided to do the same style of diving, except I did spend some time on the second dive of the day looking for and finding the bubble cave, but I ensured that I did not spend my whole dive swimming here and there, randomly snapping photos.  Given the poor visibility and the large amount of particles in the water I was able to grab a few decent shots and spent the last 20mins of the dive taking it easy in about 6-8m of water.  One of the other underwater photographers sat out on the last dive due to an unpleasant previous dive that involved an encounter with a sea urchin.


"Bubble Cave Entrance" Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/9 and 1/100

Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/16 and 1/250

Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/9 and 1/250

Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/8 and 1/160

Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/16 and 1/160

During the weekend of diving we had the whole dive boat to ourselves, which was great – shame about the weather.  During the weekend, we had some good fun and some great conversations (oh and a couple of sea urchin injuries) that got me thinking about how we photograph underwater and the purpose of our dives especially when we carry so much underwater photography gear with us.

I tend to think of the underwater photographer fitting into a couple of main categories – the underwater portrait photographer and the underwater sightseeing photographer and sometimes a little mixture of both.


The Sightseeing photographer (or the tourist)

This is what I term the underwater photographer that wants to see everything a particular dive site has to offer and spends a large amount of time swimming around and briefly stopping to take a quick photo or two of a particular subject before quickly moving on to the next.  I find many of the photos taken by these divers are poorly composed or have other technical issues (over or under exposed, out of focus or strobe lighting not correct) due to the rushed nature in which the photos are taken. This style of photography means that you can cover a large area and take in the whole dive site, as well as get a few very good shots - sometimes more than the person who has just spent the last 20 minutes photographing the one nudibranch which has previously been photographed in exactly the same way by other divers (they don’t move that fast).  There are many photographs where the subject has often been photographed from above and looking down.

The one issue associated with this style of photography is that associated with the weight of the camera underwater.  Carrying a DSLR camera in an underwater housing and 2 strobes can be quite heavy both in and out of the water.  When you then decide to cover a large area trying to hold the camera in front of you or to your side with one hand you then start to see your air consumption increase and tiredness kick in.  Exertion is something you do want to avoid underwater if you want to conserve your air. With the exertion also comes the tendency for your camera housing to be scratched or knocked up against coral or reefs, which is something that you want to avoid.

The underwater portrait photographer (or the local)

This is what I term the person who does not generally swim that far, but spends quite a large amount of time composing their photo.  Another name for this person may also be "the local" as they have dived the particular spot often and want know what they want to do before they get wet. It is where they have thought about how the subject will be photographed, considered the lighting and tried to ensure optimal conditions are present.  In many cases they have thought about their shutter speeds and aperture settings to ensure they capture that particular subject the way they have envisaged it.  This particular type of photographer also tends to find many more subjects in the one area that the sightseer has often missed due to their quick movements.  It’s in some ways similar to night diving where you only see what your torch beam is focused on.

Sometimes this type of photographer is so fixated on a particular subject or area they miss what is happening around them.  I am sometimes guilt of this and find myself looking up only to see the tail end of something interesting swim past me.

The best strategy

I don’t think there is a best strategy, but I do think you need a plan before you jump in the water and you need to consider how you photograph.  I also think you need to feel comfortable with your gear and the environment.  If there is limited viz then using a wide-angle lens may not be the most appropriate.  If there is a lot of surge or current then swimming long distances is only going to tire you out and use all your air.  Communicating your plan with your dive buddy (if you are diving with one) is essential.  If you are looking for something in particular on a dive and swimming large distances in the process, you both need to know when you will give up if you are having difficulty finding it.  Perhaps you might decide not to bring the camera with on a dive and just enjoy the wonders of the dive site (though I always tend to regret that move when I do it – a bit like wishing you had a different lens with you).

Sometimes it is important to just be there and react quickly and I know some people often refer to the rule of “f8 and be there” meaning that being there is more important than not being there.  It also means that you do not worry about the technical details you just take the photo. The same rule can apply underwater and often I have taken some of my best photos while doing my safety stop in 3-5m where I have turned around and encountered something awesome and just pressed the shutter button.  In many ways, underwater photography is a little like taking that perfect street photo – if your not actively taking photos than you will miss out on that perfect photo, even if that perfect photo takes some time and in this case many dives.  The following photo of the mantis shrimp was taken on a previous dive (about 2 months ago) at North Solitary Island but it was the first Mantis Shrimp I had found fully in the open over the last 22 yrs of diving. Sometimes just being there enables the photo that you want.  The intermediate sea urchin below the mantis shrimp was also a first.

Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/18 and 1/200

Olympus E3 50mm macro lens @ f/16 and 1/250


A good read on a rainy Sunday night! Fishing trip to Teewah cancelled due to 30 knot winds so dreaming of diving instead. Being a non-photographer (not by choice) I am guilty of being a ‘sightseer’ in my short history of only 45 dives. It wasn’t until last weekend when I chose to refocus my field of vision on the smaller things in my underwater environment that I now kind of understand how your theory works.

By taking a closer look I have discovered the diversity of life that can be found in such a small area- I agree that you don’t have to go far to stumble on something amazing (like that Black and Gold Cyerce nigricans Nudibranch I found but managed to lose again). I love how you’ve composed the photograph, sorry, portrait (just teasing) of the Risbecia godeffroyana Nudi. You have managed to capture its lilac highlights which are accentuated by the similarly coloured soft coral behind it.

Looking forward to seeing some more amazing pics!

By lauren (not verified)

Thanx Lauren - hopefully a few more nudibranch pics coming soon. I always find it easy to take a photo of a nudibranch but to take one well composed and in an interesting position is more difficult. I find lionfish, stonefish and nudibranches don't really move too fast.

By Shaun

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