When I set out 10 years ago to document life underwater, I never imagined I’d find the courage to photograph everything from sharks and crocodiles to orcas and humpbacks. However, with time I grew more and more confident, fine-tuned my skills, trimmed down my equipment, and learned to expect the unexpected. This work paid off this year when my photo of a Double-Crested Cormorant diving for its meal took the grand prize in the 2020 Audubon Photography Awards.
With nearly three quarters of the Earth's surface covered in water, taking a camera beneath the waves opens a whole new world of possibilities to bird and wildlife photographers—many of which are accessible and affordable with simply a mask, fins, and snorkel.
Read below to learn about some gear, training, and other considerations that'll help you get started.
There are many opportunities for photographing underwater marine and bird life from the surface and in the snorkel zone, but having scuba or free-diving training expands those possibilities. If you aren’t a diver, don’t fret—some of my best images were taken between the surface and five meters, and most of the time you can find me shooting above the 10-meter mark. The natural ambient light in this realm is magical, and it is also where a lot of the action happens, particularly with birds. If you are able and willing, I do highly recommend learning how to free dive—it can expand your options beyond what’s possible with snorkeling while avoiding the limitations of scuba gear.
The best way to find birds and other marine life is by knowing where to find their prey. Gannets tend to hunt in the open ocean while cormorants gravitate toward coastal areas. Whether you are photographing puffins plunging into Iceland’s seas or pelicans hunting in the Galapagos, it’s important to understand and be prepared for the challenges your environment presents. In the blue, you need to carefully watch your depth. In the shallows, be mindful of surge and disturbing the ecosystem with your fins and gear.
For the past few years, I've led groups to the southeastern coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico. It's an enchanting place teeming with marine life. But you don’t necessarily have to travel to far-off places to witness and hopefully capture amazing aquatic bird behavior. Back at home, months after creating the image of the cormorant diving in Mexico, I found and photographed cormorants plunging into the lake for fish right in front of my home. Of course, factors like visibility and accessibility play a major role in photographing any bird underwater, but you can capture magic locally and on a low-budget if you think creatively. If you can’t get in the water, try your hand with remote cameras or using camouflage from the surface.
The less gear you have, the more maneuverable you are in the water, and the more likely you can get into the right position at the right time to create a successful image. Don’t become caught up in having the “best” gear. If you are already birding with a camera that you like, there’s a good chance that same base equipment will work well for you underwater. Remember, award-winning images have been captured on GoPros.
You do need to protect your camera from the water. First check the specs on your own camera; it may already be waterproof. If you do need an underwater housing, these exist for most camera bodies. One-size-fits-all housings are a lot less expensive than custom housings and can be a good option if you aren’t sure how much use it’ll get, don’t plan to dive deep, or are on a tight budget. On the other hand, custom housings designed specifically for certain camera models are usually ergonomic and user-friendly but can weigh more and limit use with other camera bodies. The pros of a custom body tend to outweigh the cons, but they come with a premium price tag of several thousand dollars.
Before buying a housing, feel it in your hands first. Reach for the dials and make sure it feels right. Also think about what you will use it for. For example, do you want to photograph in cold water environments? You might want gloves, so make sure you can still turn a dial and hold the camera housing while wearing them. Do you want to dive? Consider the housing’s depth rating accordingly. Some manufacturers try to lure photographers in with their slick designs; but aesthetics aren’t important. Choose function over form!
It’s a good idea to future-proof your investment by considering what lenses, ports, and lighting options will work with it. I recommend starting with natural light and adding strobes one at a time. And while an ability to change lenses can be critical for many underwater photographers, if focused solely on birds underwater, you will almost certainly be shooting wide-angle in most if not all cases, so you might consider a quality compact camera that is specialized for such use.
My go-to interchangeable underwater lens is the Tokina AF 10-17mm fisheye. On land, fisheye lenses tend to be reserved for more specialized use due to their distorted effect; however, as the effect normalizes when shooting through the water column, they are the typical workhorse underwater thanks to their short focusing capabilities. If shooting shy animals from a distance, a rectilinear lens such as a 16-35mm might make more sense as the super-wide angle of the fisheye can have a shrinking effect.
When you photograph underwater marine life, there are a few techniques and settings to keep in mind:
- Shoot in Shutter Priority (if your camera allows it) and select a fast-enough shutter speed to freeze whatever motion you are trying to capture.
- Avoid shooting down unless you come across a unique pattern or composition—it can disorient the viewer. Typically, shooting up or at eye level, with a bit of the surface in the frame yields the best results.
- Look for a unique phenomenon known as Snell’s Window, which allows you to capture parts of the terrestrial world above. This can make the image much more interesting.
- Get as close as possible to your subject (without harassing the animal or endangering yourself). Generally, the less water you have between you and your subject the better
Capturing animal behavior makes images much more dynamic. But, when birds and other marine life are hunting, they move erratically. Spending time observing their movements and that of their prey can help you anticipate where your subject is headed. Try not to focus on where the animal is, but instead where it is going to be. That is how I approached my diving cormorant image as well.
When you’re out there, be smart, safe, and think differently. Remember, don’t get caught up in the flash of exotic travel and the plague of equipment envy, just have fun.
Joanna Lentini is an award-winning photographer and freelance writer based in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Her work revolves around our connection to the natural world through nature conservation and outdoor adventure stories.