Getting Great Color in Your Underwater Photographs

Elevate your underwater photography to the next level
By Scott Gietler

Underwater photos that stand out usually have great detail and color that pops. In this article I explore how to get the best possible colors in your underwater photos, whether shooting with or without a strobe.


janolus nudibranch, getting great colorsmantis shrimp, better colors underwater



Underwater Photography With Great Colors

Closeup Texture of a Sea Star. Molokini, HI Canon 5DSr 100mm EF f/2.8L Macro Lens Dual Sea & Sea YSD2j Strobes

Tips for Getting Great Colors with a Strobe or Flash In Your Underwater Photos

  • Expose properly - many colors are easily blown out, especially reds. Slightly underexpose them.

  • Don't shoot with your subject more than 1ft (.3 meters) away. For macro, try to be less that 6 inches away. This helps ensure that minimal reds and oranges are absorbed by the water.

  • Make sure your subject is not already brightly lit with natural light. If it is, your camera settings must block out that natural light with a small aperture or fast shutter speed. Otherwise, the natural light will have many colors absorbed from it.

  • This is related to the above item - use manual mode if possible. When shooting a shallow, sun-lit subject in clear, shooting at F8, 1/100th will let in too much ambient light. You'll need to shoot at a faster shutter speed so only your strobe is lighting the subject. Do a test - shoot with your hand covering the flash. If the photo is still exposed well, your settings are wrong.

  • Use the proper white balance setting when using a flash or strobe, auto or sunny is usually correct. Using cloudy will usually make the photos look too yellow or orangish.


spanish shawl with nice colors

What Not To Do For Underwater Color

  • Using auto-flash instead of forced flash. Set your compact camera to forced flash, your internal flash goes off every time for added color.

  • Not getting close enough. Red color is quickly absorbed by water. If your photo subject is 3ft away, your strobe light is making a 6ft round-trip, the distance is more than enough to absorb a lot of the red color.

  • Shooting in auto mode or priority mode, instead of manual mode

  • Not using a strobe or internal flash. You can get decent color if you are very very shallow, but you really need a strobe or flash to get great colors underwater.

triggerfish with good color

Getting Vibrant Color In Wide Angle Shots

  • Shoot with the sun in front of you (sun behind the subject), so that the subject is dark and is mostly lit by your strobe. Use manual settings to underexpose the ambient light in the background.

  • Use a very wide angle lens, like a fisheye lens, to get within 1ft of the subject.

cuttlefish photo with great colors



How To Get Great Colors Underwater Using Natural Light

  • Use manual white balance and adjust every 5-10ft, or shoot in RAW and white balance in your raw editor

  • Shoot in calm, shallow, sunny water - preferable in less than 20ft / 6 meters.

  • Shoot with the sun behind you.

  • Use filters to block out some of the blue spectrum, like a magic filter.


Female Pencil Wrasse. Kona, HI  Canon 5DSr 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens with Ambient Light, 10ft deep

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.