Here’s a question I’ve received a number of times, in various forms:
“When I look at published photos by professional underwater photographers, they look vibrant, with the ocean a rich, natural blue, and colors that pop. My wide-angle photos, although I’m pretty good at finding nice scenes, just don’t look like that, but seem kind of flat and thin, with no rich colors and little contrast. I use decent equipment and an underwater strobe, so the secret can’t be the camera gear. Is there anything you can suggest I do that might make a difference?”
The first thing I would try is what I’ll call “Taking Care of the Blues”. One of the first “secrets” to professional-looking underwater photography is to build your exposure around the expanse (or bit) of water that shows in the background of your image. This seems simple enough, but it won’t happen without some attention. The first point is that when shooting underwater, especially in bright shallows or when aiming generally upwards, an automatic or otherwise ‘normal’ exposure doesn’t typically give the rich, deep blue water background you are talking about. Instead, that blue will usually be thin and pale. And, when you put flash onto the subject matter close to you, it doesn’t create vibrant colors, but instead tends add very little color or even create a washed-out look.
To finish out the pale, thin image building up here, there will also likely be too little contrast and the scene can become flat and rather monotone.
Depending upon your equipment, there are various easy ways to overcome this. If you can shoot manual exposure with a strobe, it’s the most straight-forward. Take a meter reading on the most prominent blue water that will show in your image. When shooting from under an overhang, for example, this might just be a small portion of your frame , or, if on an open reef, it might be the majority…regardless, consider it the first most important part of your image. Get that water the perfect deep blue, which is going to usually happen at between about 1/3rd to 2/3rds of a stop underexposed – that’s where the rich blue (or green, as the case may be) background comes from.
Then, light up the near surroundings with your flash. If using TTL, experiment with your strobe to see if it tends to go hot, just right or under-exposed at a normal setting. But, once you have it dialed in just a little, this technique becomes very reliable in “normal” shooting conditions and sets. If you have a manual, non-TTL strobe, then you’ll just have to experiment a bit to get used to what power setting works best at what distances. And, regardless, be sure to bracket as well (“film” is especially cheap these days).
If you shoot on an automatic exposure mode, start with exposure compensation of minus 2/3rds of a stop and add flash as per above, and bracket. It won’t take long to find the range.
If you aren’t using flash, stay more bright and shallow, and try an u/w color correction filter at 1/3rd a stop underexposed, with bracketing.
I believe you’ll be surprised at what this simple approach – taking care of the blues – can do for your images.