Competition Shows What Photographers Can Do Underwater

Get ready to dive

Key Takeaways

  • You need the proper equipment to take a good photo underwater. 
  • More than that, you need to know what you’re doing. 
  • But, if you like taking photos and you like diving, it could be just for you.
An Underwater Photographer with an SLR camera approaches a coral reef with tropical fish.
richcarey / Getty Images

Underwater photography may be intimidating to some and certainly requires the right tools and skills, but those that do it say they love what they can create with some dive time and a digital camera.  

In an ocean photography competition, photos from around the world showcase what amazing work photographers can do underwater with just a small amount of equipment. 

Gaetano Dario Gargiulo started out diving and taking photos as a hobby, but his winning photo brings out the hidden colors beneath the waves of the pools of Kamay Botany Bay National Park near his home in New South Wales, Australia. 

"If you are just starting you may want to start with an action camera or even your mobile phone," Gargiulo, winner of Best of Show in the Ocean Art Underwater Photo Competition, recommended in an email to Lifewire. "You should be a good diver first. With good diving skills you will start to develop the need for a better tool to record what you see."

Photographers Share Tricks of the Trade

For the winning shot, Gargiulo used the Nikon D850 and a NIkon 8-15 fisheye zoom lens for a close-focus, wide-angle photo. 

He used powerful lights, two strobes at full blast, which certainly took some setting up. The whole set up weighed about 10 kilograms, he estimated. 

An underwater photograph of an octopus from below it, the first prize winner in the Underwater Photography Guide's Ocean Art 2020 Contest
Gaetano Dario Gargiulo / Underwater Photography Guide

Nirupam Nigam, editor-in-chief of the Underwater Photography Guide, said in an email to Lifewire that one of the challenges with underwater photography is that photos can look very washed and blue underwater. 

"Underwater photographers bring back the amazing colors you see in these photos with underwater strobes, which are basically very powerful speed lights," he said. "The key to underwater photography is balancing your strobe light so it adds color to the foreground while still giving you a nice blue, green or black background, depending on the environment."  

He said most photographers use the same camera above water as they do below, with one key difference. 

"You need an underwater camera housing which seals the camera off from the outside world with a series of O-rings and an aluminum or polycarbonate case," he said.

Most underwater photographers like using fisheye and wide-angle lenses for large scenes with a glass or acrylic dome or flat port to protect it. For small animals, macro lenses are really popular, he said. 

"If you are just starting you may want to start with an action camera or even your mobile phone."

"Of course high-end mirrorless and DSLR systems still have an edge, but as compacts continue to improve they are able to capture amazing images with modestly-priced systems," Mark Strickland, one of the judges who works at Bluewater Photo, a top underwater photo retailer, explained in comments made after the winners were announced. 

He advised young photographers to resist the urge to over-process. 

"We saw many otherwise great photos ruined by effects like vibrance, dehazing, and sharpening," he added. 

What Made the Winning Photo Special?

"I believe the interaction between the animal, me, and the camera, together with the human factor (my family in the background) contributed to me getting Best in Show," Gargiulo said. 

Gargiulo works as an associate research professor at Western Sydney University in Australia, and photography and diving are some of his favorite hobbies. 

"High-end mirrorless and DSLR systems still have an edge, but as compacts continue to improve they are able to capture amazing images."

"I merged the two in [19]98-99 when I was given a Nikon Nikonos V… I lost complete interest in spearfishing and started only taking pictures," he explained. "I learned to process pictures in the darkroom and Photoshop feels like a natural extension for that." 

For post-processing, Garguilo has two basic rules: 1) no cropping; 2) if it takes more than 3 minutes to post-process, it’s probably not worth keeping the photo. 

With nature photography, wildlife photographer Tony Wu, another judge in the competition, said that processing software like Lightroom and Photoshop can be great tools to better reflect the scene without exaggerating. The most frequent problem he sees, however, is the overuse of saturation. 

"Having multiple elements in a photo, like the Octopus photo had, makes for a great nature shot," he said in a statement afterward.

"The main subject is the octopus, but you don’t see the octopus, you just see the suckers and arm, the defining characteristics of an octopus. On top of a technically well-executed photo, there is a story there."

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