Diving the California Oil Rigs

A wide-angle underwater photography tutorial
By Scott Gietler

The Southern California Oil Rigs have long been a hidden gem for California's underwater photographers, but the word is slowly leaking out. With sea lions, mola mola, cormorants and huge schools of fish visiting at different times of year, the Oil Rigs can rival some of the world's best dive sites on a good day.

I'm going to show you some classic underwater scenes from the Oil Rigs, and share some times for getting good color, composition and exposure.

All photos taken with the Nikon D810, Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens, Zen 4-inch glass dome port, dual Sea & Sea YS-D1 or YS-D2 strobes.

Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
F11, 1/100th, ISO 250. Using a fisheye lens is a must for large subjects, if you want good colors. It lets you get closer to the subject. I use a 100 degree diffuser with my strobes. Keep your strobes wide, get low, get close, shoot up. My 180 degree viewfinder helps me compose carefully.


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
Sea Lion and diver. When shooting sea lions, I wait until the very right moment to take a shot, and try to follow the sea lion around with my eye on the viewfinder. Having a camera with a low shutter delay really helps. On the rigs I usually do not have to shoot blind, because I can get below the subjects.


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
F10, 1/80th, ISO 250. I always try to remind myself to shoot vertically (portrait style) 50% off the time. I need to do it more. To get fish in patterns like this, you often have to wait until they are being chased.


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
F10, 1/160th, ISO 320. I always try to get different compositions of subjects - the whole body, close-up of the head, far away, and top-down.


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
F9, 1/100th, ISO 250. Cormorant trying to catch a fish.


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
F13, 1/80th, ISO 250. The closer I get to my subject, the more I stop down my aperture so the photo will be sharp. I was lucky that F13 allowed me to get the octopus and Garibaldi in focus, any closer to the octopus and I would have needed to be at F16. Pull your strobes in and point them straight instead of outt when switching from schooling fish to close-focus subjects. Although I pulled my strobes in close, with close-focus wide angle shots like this you may still have dark areas in the lower center of the photo - the adjustment brush in Lightroom will help brighten these up.


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
F10, 1/125th, ISO 200. It always helps to have a diver in the photo, try to encourage your dive buddies to come into the picture. Read out underwater dive model tips


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
F9, 1/80th, ISO 320. Who says you have to shoot up? Here are more composition ideas


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
F13, 1/40th, ISO 200. When inside a school of fish, I try to breathe slowly or not breathe at all, and move very slowly, so the fish gradually get closer and closer to me. Here are more schooling fish tips. 


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
F14, 1/100th, ISO 320. My dive model and I took turns taking photos of each other, and I stopped down to F14 to get the foreground and background in focus. I also had to pull my right strobe in close, to light the starfish which was close to my port.


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
F9, 1/125th, ISO 250. When shooting schools of fish, you often have to wait for the right moment when something scares the school, creating a sense of motion in the photo.


Southern California Oil Rigs
F10, 1/80th, ISO 250. Exposuring silvery fish properly can be very difficult, I try to take a test shot at a very close distance to the fish, and then I'll usually turn my strobes down 1 or 2 notches until the photo looks good. Taking all photos at the same (close) distance is key. I keep my strobes wide and pointing out slightly for silvery fish.

wide angle underwater photography oil rigs
100% crop of above photo


Diving California Oil Rigs - underwater photography
Mola mola and diver, with a D7000. Mola mola need to be approached slowly and carefully, or they will quickly flee.


Email me if you enjoyed this article, or to find out our Oil Rigs trip schedule. Also check out our international underwater photo trip schedule.


Further Reading


Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. Bluewater Photo, based in Culver City, CA is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious underwater camera stores, serving many thousands of customers each year, where nothing is more important than customer service. The Underwater Photography Guide is the world’s first website to feature free tutorials on underwater photography, and has become the most trafficked resource on underwater photography worldwide. Bluewater Travel is a full-service dive travel wholesaler sending groups and individuals on the world’s best dive vacations. 

Scott is also an avid diver, underwater photographer, and budding marine biologist, having created the online guide to the underwater flora and fauna of Southern California. He is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, has volunteered extensively at the Santa Monica aquarium, and is the creator of the Ocean Art underwater photo competition, one of the largest underwater international photo competitions ever held in terms of value of prizes. He lives in California with his wife, newborn girl and scuba-diving, photo taking 4 year old son.

Follow Scott on Facebook or Instagram.


The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear


Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips


Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.