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Underwater Photography for Everyone!

Do you dream of taking great underwater photographs but feel disappointed that you haven't managed to get hold of that winning lottery ticket yet to buy a decent camera and underwater lights?  
Well, maybe you don't need to wait for that ticket after all.  Thanks to the recent digital revolution over the past few years, underwater cameras are becoming more compact, lighter and with the ability to take amazing photographs underwater and at a much more affordable price than ever believed.  So what does a beginner in underwater photography have to do to take beautiful images underwater? Can a beginner with a compact camera really take great shots?  The answer is a definite yes.

First things first, a camera and a good housing are, naturally, the key essentials to this art.  There are a range of superb cameras which will do a great job such as Sony's Cybershot range, the Olympus SP 350 series as well as the Canon Powershot range.  And Fuji have recently launched a great little camera, the F30 which copes remarkably well in low-light conditions.  Check to make sure that the camera can manually white balance as this will really put the colours back into your underwater photographs.   One of these little beauties can get you started on this addictive hobby at the mere cost of around £380 for both the camera and a camera housing to take you down to depths of 40 metres if you so wish.  Compact cameras really are a beauty and great fun to dive with, nice and light with no worry as to weight restrictions on the plane, and they can be clipped onto a BCD to make sure that they are safe during your dive. So what are the golden rules for taking great pictures with these compact cameras?  Surprisingly enough, the rules are exactly the same as for taking photographs with their big brother SLR model counterparts.

Getting close is golden rule number 1 for taking any great picture underwater. If you think you are close, think again and get a little bit closer; but do not use this as an excuse for hanging onto the reef, breaking off bits of coral and annoying the reef fish, especially triggerfish, as they will get their own back by attacking not just your camera but you as well!

Great buoyancy is paramount to good pictures and these two rules really go hand in hand to secure consistent great images.  Too much water in between yourself and your subject will cause your photographs to look extremely blue and leave you wondering where on earth the 'critter' was that you were trying to take a photo of!  Getting close to your subject, usually within a foot or so, and using that built in flash on your camera, really will bring back all those beautiful colours, textures and details and really pack a punch into your underwater photography.  

And the third rule is a huge dose of good old-fashioned patience.  Torpedo divers be warned! Shooting and coming back from a day's diving with fantastic photos means that you need to find an equally patient buddy, plan your dive and dive slowly, thinking and looking for great subjects.  When you find that perfect subject to perfect your photographic skills underwater, this normally means that another 20 minutes will be spent observing it, letting the fish get used to you and choosing your background carefully.  Always shoot upwards (it is such a common mistake to shoot down when you are diving) and make good use of the beautiful blue background that the Red Sea is world-renowned for.

So what is the best type of photography to start off with?  Always start with the small subjects first, such as Macro or Close-Up Photography.  Here you can use that built in flash on your camera to light up your subject dramatically. All compact cameras have a Macro Mode built into the cameras which ensures that the camera can get a magical 4 cms or so to its subject (camera dependant).  This ensures that the camera's built in flash will bring out the colours of your subject beautifully.  Always make sure that the fish is looking at you, that eye-to-eye contact with the camera is a special moment of harmony between you and your subject, and will make the resulting image all the more special. The beautiful wrecks of the Red Sea are the most perfect photographic subjects for any beginner in underwater photography with a compact camera.  A simple attachment of an extra wide angle lens on the front of these cameras, such as the fantastic wide angle or fish-eye lenses made by Inon America, will make a huge difference to your wreck photos by being able to get closer, reducing the water column between you and your subject and fit the whole of the wreck in the photograph, not just a part of it.  

The optics of these lenses are undoubtedly the best in the world for compact cameras and anyone can come home with photographs to be proud of after any day's wreck diving.  One of these accessories retails at around £329, a fair price, but still a small one to pay in comparison to a larger piece of underwater photographic equipment. Naturally, they are still beautifully compact to be able to dive with, simply screwing onto the front port with an extra bayonet adaptor.

A huge problem encountered by compact cameras underwater is the problem of “backscatter”, or white blobs in the picture's background.  This is always caused by the camera's built-in flash going off when the subject is too far away and particles suspended in the water are accidentally lit.  These can always be deleted with a touch of Photoshop magic, but the best thing to do is to always leave the flash off when you are more than 4cms way from your subject.  Or of course alternatively you can use a larger flash gun which you can attach to your camera. Light is absorbed by water and naturally the deeper you go, the darker it gets.  An external flashgun attached to your compact camera will give you a much wider area to work with, when it comes to illuminating your subject and bringing back all of those beautiful colours and textures underwater.  An underwater strobe needn't be expensive, an Inon Z2000 which was used to take this stunning image of a Spanish Dancer by night by Sarah Lambert during a photo safari run by Ocean Visions and Emperor Fleet earlier this year, left us all dumbstruck with the great results it gave on its first excursion underwater.

Always remember to have your flashgun at a 45 degree angle to the camera on it's left-hand side, using the golden rules of getting close, looking for your subject and angle carefully and staying perfectly still to ensure shake-free shots. The ability to manually white balance underwater is another way to greatly improve your underwater photographs and to show off colours underwater that would otherwise have been hidden and make anyone think that a flashgun had been used underwater.  This is easily done by the use of a white slate underwater; the white balance is set by the push of a button and “voila”, beautiful wide angle pictures to reflect the beautiful underwater topography of the Red Sea, all with amazing colours to impress your friends and family.

Thanks to these compact cameras, underwater photography has never been so much fun, or so easily affordable for people of all ages and even junior divers can now take part in this addictive hobby.  And thanks to digital, of course, there are no worries about the price of film either. Simply shoot, look at the photograph and if necessary, shoot again!

The underwater photographer's learning curve has just got a whole lot easier for everyone, so why not come and join us during a fun-filled week on a liveaboard to the breathtaking areas of Fury Shoals which are perfect for beginners with beautiful shallow, sandy bottoms, stunning caves to explore, as well as wrecks and endless stretches of hard and soft coral “Disneyland” gardens.  That's the great thing about the Red Sea, it's impossible to come home without good photos! Wishing you lots of Happy Snapping and hope to see you soon!


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John Kean is author of 'SS Thistlegorm, The True Story of the Red Sea's Greatest Ship Wreck'. He is also a board member of Sharm El Sheikh's SSDM

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