Great Underwater Photos Without A Strobe

Getting the most out of your compact underwater camera
By Scott Gietler

Lately many people have been complaining about the underwater photos they are getting with their compact cameras, and that they are thinking of getting an external strobe. But if you aren't getting good photos without a strobe, buying one may not help your underwater photography. In this article I discuss how to get the most of your compact camera, and how to know when you are ready for a strobe.



If you are using a compact camera without an external strobe, you must focus on these two types of shots:


Part 1: Using the Internal Flash 

  • Your camera must be in "forced flash" mode, "macro mode" for close-ups

  • Get within 12 inches of the subject

  • Adjust your settings to block out ambient light. F8, 1/60th, ISO 100 will work in all but the sunniest of conditions. If you only have "auto" mode, see if your camera defaults to F2.8, 1/60th. If this is the case, you are in trouble because lots of ambient light is getting in your photo. So if you only have "auto" mode, for good photos you need to photograph at night, down deep, or in shadowed areas. Make sure your camera is using ISO 100 on these shots underwater.


underwater photography example

Fuji F11, F8, 1/60th, macro mode, Internal flash



digital underwater photography

Fuji F11, internal flash, F8, 1/60th, macro mode



Part 2: Taking underwater photos with natural light

  • You must be in shallow water, 30ft or less, preferable 20ft or less. Read about loss of color at depth.

  • The water should be clear and sunny, with the sun behind you, unless you are going for a silhouette.

  • Your camera should be taking photos at 1/60th of a second or faster. If not, you may see some blur in your photos.

  • You must use custom white balance. Most cameras support this function. Bring a white dive slate with you to white balance your camera.

  • Using a red filter can add even more colors to your photo (actually, it subtracts some wavelengths). Again, you need to use custom white balance and follow all the other rules mentioned.

  • These photos can usually benefit from a small contrast and color adjustment in Photoshop using the levels tool, but don't over-do it.

reef fish underwater, bali

Reef fish, Fuji F10, F3.6, 1/200th, ISO 200, Natural light, Custom white balance


schooling salema underwater

Schooling Salema, Natural light, Fuji F11, custom white balance


Understanding the two types of light in your photos

When using a flash or strobe, the light in your photos comes from two sources; the flash and the sun. The light from the sun is called ambient light, or natural light, and will be poor in color. Even when using a flash or strobe, if your camera settings are allowing too much ambient light, the color of your photo will be poor.


Why are my underwater photo colors poor?

Either you are using natural light and did not follow all the rules in Part 2, or you tried to use your internal flash but too much ambient light is in the photo. This can happen for two reasons:

  • The subject is more that 12 inches from the camera, so the internal flash suffers from light falloff.

  • Your settings are letting in too much ambient light. F2.8, 1/60th in shallow, clear water lets in too much ambient light. Unfortunately, exposure compensation on compact cameras usually only works with the flash off, not with the flash on - so on underwater cameras with no manual settings (i.e. - "auto" mode only), F2.8, 1/60th is all you are going to get - which is really not good!

underwater camera example photo

Underwater photo with some backscatter and poor color. The subject was too far for the internal flash to be effective, and the settings let in too much ambient light. Fuji F11, F2.8, 1/100th, ISO 800. 


Why is my photo blurry?

Two possible reasons:

  • It is out of focus, usually as the result of incorrectly being in or out of macro mode

  • Your shutter speed is too slow. Increasing the ISO can alleviate the problem. When zoomed all the way out, you'll need 1/30th at a minimum to photograph a still object, 1/60th for slowly moving fish, 1/125th for objects moving at a normal speed. Double these speeds if you zoom in. Of course, if an object is mainly lit by your flash/strobe, then the strobe is freezing motion and the shutter speed doesn't affect the results.

purple rhinopia underwater

Rhinopias in Lembeh, F8, 1/60th, Fuji F11 compact camera, internal flash


When am I ready to purchase an external strobe?

An external strobe is a great way to advance your underwater photography, I highly recommend them. But before purchasing one, you may want to wait until both of these are true:

  • You are able to get good close-up photos with the internal flash

  • Your camera supports aperture priority or manual mode, or you have some way to block out some ambient light with your settings. For example, my Fuji F11 and F30 default to F8 on macro mode, which helps a lot. Otherwise, a camera with only auto mode is very limited with a strobe. Think about getting a better point and shoot camera.


And any of these are true:

  • You want less backscatter in your photos.

  • You want to try more creative lighting than front-lighting

  • You are thinking of getting a wet-lens for wide-angle photography and need to light up a larger area

  • Your housing is partially blocking the internal flash


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.

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