Natural Light Underwater - Capturing the Surface

Natural Light Photography

By Scott Gietler



Sometimes our instinct when we dive underwater is to go deep. But sometimes we should come back towards the surface. Using the surface of the water in our photos is a great compositional technique that we all should try more often. Here you will find some photos, examples, technique and tips.



These shots can be taken with a dSLR, or a compact. Next time you are in the water, instead of heading deep, head for the surface, and incorporate surface textures, surface reflections, sunbeams, backlit kelp, and surface structures into your underwater photography compositions.


Interesting Structure


nautral light underwater photography

Canon 5D, Sigma 15mm FE, 1/200 at 4.5, ISO 160. Photo by Carol Yin. I think the surface reflections and the underwater structure really make this shot work. Carol says "The scene sometimes gets lost when using the fisheye lens, because everything looks so far away. This picture works for me because the spring was actually sort of small, and the reflection under the surface served as a visual ceiling to increase the sense of depth".


Oil rig beams and kelp come together to make a nice background along with the surface water. Photo by Mike Bartick, Oil rigs, Huntington beach, California.


Sunbeams through water with particles


Canon 5D, Sigma 15mm FE, 1/200 at f4.5, ISO 160. Photo by Carol Yin. Carol says "The sun rays in this image were so dramatic because we were so close to the surface, and the water was so murky that morning".


Light through the kelp and other interesting colors


Canon 5D with 17-40mm (at 17mm), 1/125 at f4.5, ISO 200, 15ft of water. Sunny Day at Anacapa island, California. Gettin a backlit surface covering half of your photo is a great compositional effect.


Nikon 300, Tokina 10-17mm lens. Shooting through the kelp, into the sun, trying to get the water on the surface into the photo. F11, 1/800th, ISO 200


Ambient Light Reef Shots


Reading the section on Ambient light and manual white balance underwater for examples of getting good reef and fish shots below the surface.


Photography Tips

  • Get within 10ft of the surface
  • turn off your strobes unless you have a foreground subject you need to light up
  • Hide the sun behind something if possible
  • Exposure properly so the texture of the water can clearly be seen
  • Fill 1/3 to 1/2 of the frame with the water / surface.


Further Reading


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