Nikon D800 & D810 underwater settings

Getting great underwater photos with your full-frame Nikon dSLR
By Scott Gietler

The Nikon D800 and D810 have the capability to take amazing underwater photos, if the settings, composition, and lighting all come together. Oh - and you have to be using the right lens. And you thought underwater photography was easy? In this article, we try to help with one part of the equation - settings. For more info, I highly encourage you to read my full Nikon D810 review.

Lot of the advice in this article are my long-developed secrets, so please don't tell anyone about this article or share it with anyone - this is secret advice just for you and your immediate family. 

Disclaimer - these settings are only meant as starting points. Depending on the subject and conditions, you may have to vary these settings greatly. These settings assume you are using strobes.

Macro - nudibranchs

F16, 1/250th, ISO 100, strobes pointed inward to side-light the subject

Nikon D810 best underwater settings

Macro - small fish

F8, 1/125th, ISO 200, strobes pointed outward to reduce backscatter, spot focus

Nikon D800 best underwater settings



F29, 1/250th, ISO 100, strobes pulled in close, spot focus

Christmas tree worm underwater

Wide angle - sharks

F10, 1/125th, ISO 200, strobes pointed out, don't breathe, hold your fire (thanks Kadu)

Close focus wide angle

F14, 1/250th, ISO 200, strobes carefully adjusted to light the subject evently (can be difficult)

Nikon D810 close focus wide angle

Large schools of fish

F11, 1/200th, ISO 200, strobes turned down and pointed out

Schooling fish


F22, 1/320th, ISO 100, get close to the subject, point strobes at subject. If you are deeper or the sun is partially blocked, open up aperture to F14 - F20.

nikon d800 settings for underwater photography

Split shots

F22, ISO 800, adjust shutter speed as needed for proper exposure - slightly under exposure the photo, focus on the underwater subject.

Focus settings

I don't like using AF-S mode because it sometimes prevents me from taking a shot. I use AF-C mode, focusing by using the shutter halfway (the default) for macro & fish. To switch between AF-S and AF-C mode, you hold down the front left button that is inside the AF/M switch, then rotate the rear command dial. Rotating the front command dial lets you switch between "S", "D 51" and "Auto". 

You can move the focus off the shutter to the back focus button (AF-ON button) when shooting pelagics to prevent your camera from hunting in the blue water. Change menu item A4 to "AF-ON Only". In addition - I highly recommend getting a viewfinder - they are expensive but help immensely.

This article is an excellent read in explaining focus modes - a must read.


Flash settings

IF you shoot with sync cords, a flash trigger, or an optical TTL converter - you will be very happy when shooting action shots that you can shoot quickly. If you are using the pop-up flash, and you are NOT using your strobe in TTL mode, set your flash setting to manual flash power, 1/80th power, for faster internal flash recycle time.

Misc settings

I like to shoot in JPEG + RAW, auto-white balance, metering on center-weighted. Make sure you turn the AF-assist light off (very important!)

Menu items to change:

E1: FLASH SYNC SPEED - 1/320th


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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