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Underwater Photography Tutorial, Tips, Tricks from Outex Underwater Housing Systems

Underwater Photography and Cinematography Tutorial, Tips, Tricks

History of Underwater Photography and Filming

Underwater photography is not a new phenomenon. In 1856 William Thompson build a metal box housing for a camera in Weymouth Bay, England, using 4” by 5” glass plates for exposure, and a remotely-operated shutter, activated by a line from the surface.

In 1893 Louis Boutan developed a crude housing for a small camera and captured the first diving photograph using a surface-supplied hard hat. By 1923, Botanist W.H. Longley and photographer Charles Martin used magnesium-powered flash to capture the first color underwater photos. They photographed corals, anemones and sea fans. And in 1927 Longley’s photos were published in the July issue of National Geographic magazine. 

Here are examples of Bruce Mozert in 1938 using an underwater housing to photography Pin Up Girls in Silver Springs, Florida. The concept of water housings stayed unchanged for years, mainly in part because of the use of film and until the advent of digital and the microprocessor revolution.

Capturing the Imagination of the Mainstream

By 1950 Georges Beuchat, an avid diver, produces Tarzan, the first commercially available camera housing, which is designed by French underwater photographer Henry Broussard for the French Foca camera (seen on the right below). Jacques Cousteau was a pioneer underwater explorer, and is widely recognized not only for innovating when it comes to underwater photography, but also inspiring others’ curiosity about discovering it for themselves. Jacques pushed several boundaries not only in still, but also moving underwater filming. 

For a long time, underwater photography required extraordinary equipment, expertise, time, and operation, putting it out of reach for most people.

Today’s Underwater Housing Options

Fast forward to today. There are several options to capture light underwater. 

Bags - on one end of the spectrum, there are solutions that are categorized as bags. They are inexpensive, and allow you to seal your SLR camera inside to make it waterproof. They are fast to install and often accommodate multiple camera makes or models. Accessing functions of the camera can be difficult, with a feel similar to using oven mitts. Optical results are usually suboptimal to say the least. This is in part because of the materials used, and also ability to control the camera’s functions. 

Hard cases - on the other end of the spectrum, you have solid-state cases that cost thousands of dollars, are made to accommodate specific cameras, and limit operational function. They can deliver professional results for specialized needs such as surf or diving. They are usually heavy (5+ pounds), bulky, impractical for above the surface use and expensive to upgrade (when you buy a new camera or news and to transport, often requiring a "case for your case"). With all the expense, most only offer plastic or acrylic ports.

GoPros and cell phones - these are good alternative options, but extremely limited in their optical, zooming, aperture, shutter speed, and other controls professionals would prefer.  They are a good addition to your image-capture arsenal. 

Outex Competitive Advantages

1. Universal compatibility - cameras and lenses; DSLR, mirrorless, film, medium format, etc.
2. Professional results - glass ports & domes, control over all settings, tripods, flash, even underwater tethering
3. Complete control - all camera and lens functions, even on manual mode
4. Upgradable design - grows with your needs over time that can be added modularly
5. Travel-friendly - lightweight and compact design
6. Affordability - at purchase, for upgrades, and for travel

Outex is meant to be a waterproof camera housing solution but is not designed to protect against impact. 

Shooting Underwater

Shooting underwater is a whole new world. Principles of lighting, composition, movement, color balancing, etc, are all different from shooting above water. There are also differences between environments since you cannot control the outdoors in the same way you control a studio. Conditions vary, depending on whether it's a swimming pool, spring, river, or the ocean. These differences, along with temperature, buoyancy, and the subject’s comfort in that environment make it a challenge when compared to "normal” photography or filming. But that’s also what makes it so wonderful. It’s a liberating, ever-expanding art form with limitless opportunities for discovery. 

Underwater Factors

Buoyancy - float control means you can shoot the subject from almost any angle, with lighting coming from different directions. The water also allows the subject’s dress, hair, and movement to become a different/new component of your framing expectations and objectives. It’s a much more three-dimensional canvas for creative expression. Several of our professionals offer different styles, practices, suggestions, and even mentoring in the form of articles, classes, etc. Outex allows you to regulate how much buoyancy you get by squeezing out (or not) excess air from within the housing cover just before you seal it. More air means more float, and vice versa. 

Movement - everything is always moving underwater, so don’t try to fight it. Embrace the natural movement. Learn to understand it. Use it to your advantage. Consider wearing a weight belt if you’re trying to stay put – such as in pool photoshoot. Or, master your swimming skills to optimize your comfort in the water. 

Visibility - you will need goggles (swimming goggles or a scuba mask will do, depending on preference.) The more comfortable you are in your environment the better. Get fins or a wetsuit as needed, but remember to match your subject’s comfort if you’re shooting people. Not being able to relate to what they are experiencing makes it less obvious in directing them.

Environmental Conditions

Plan for the elements, such as temperature, current, lighting, and wildlife. Open water can be unpredictable since you may be dealing with currents, tides, waves, or other moving parts in or on the water. Become familiar and explore your environment as much as you can so that your image capturing in the main/sole focus when you’re ready to shoot.

Framing Composition and Water Properties

As mentioned above, movement and buoyancy will also influence your framing and composition underwater. Take that into account by rediscovering your thinking and desired outcomes when framing, and compose your captures accordingly. Water properties and conditions not only affect light as it crosses the surface, but behave differently underwater. Depth, opacity, time of day, and other elements in the water such as chlorine, sand, dust, dirt, algae, etc., will influence lights reflection against surfaces, refraction through the water, and all of the aspects of your image capturing. 

In general, you want to be close to the subject. Water density and opacity quickly dissipates light over shorter distances, and can reduce image resolution, contrast, and color balancing, as your distance from the subject increases. Wide-angle lenses are recommended to facilitate that proximity and all of its benefits. More on that later.

When capturing wildlife, try to become one with the environment. If you move quickly or frequently, you’re likely to scare/disturb natural wildlife behavior, as well as potentially worsen the movement of particles in the water. For example, fish will swim away from you when you move towards it. Be still, and let them come to you instead. This not only improves your chances of a natural framing/composition, it also enable you to capture a wider variety of angles and perspectives of the subject matter.

The images below are such examples. Notice the different colors of light created by refraction through the water. Some of these effects would be nearly impossible to recreate above water without using software like Photoshop or Lightroom. These are excellent illustrations of using the background, lighting differences, and natural environment toward rethinking your framing and composition for shooting underwater.

Lighting and Colors

Use light as it travels into and through the water when deciding how to frame your shot. Rays of light can be as beautiful and relevant in your shot as the subject itself. The background can steal the show. We suggest you think three-dimensionally. You don't have to face the subject or be in the same plane to capture the desired light or effects. Use the water to explore your ability to shoot up, down, or across to create new and different effects to your image. 

The water is a natural filter towards the direct sunlight, and helps enhance the naturally occurring contrasts of color both in and above the water. Below are some examples.

Gear Selection

Cameras - it doesn't matter which you use. Cameras don't behave any differently above or below water optically. You can use any of your favorite cameras for underwater photography to take advantage of your favorite characteristics below water just the same.

Lenses - similarly, it doesn't matter in theory your choice of lens. However, lenses, unlike cameras, are designed specifically to capture light under different sets of circumstances. So, while you can use just about any lens underwater, we'll focus on some general rules of thumb. Because of water opacity, and the light travel differences mentioned previously, we'd recommend you use wider (below 35mm) lenses for underwater photography. Their ability for close proximity to the subject reduces light loss and optimizes clarity, sharpness, and precision affected by water opacity, debris, etc. In the end, all photography is subjective, so utilize and play with tools that achieve your desired outcome. For additional help, contact our tech/support team.

Split-Level Photography

Split-level photography is a term that describes images framed both above and below the surface of the water.  This is a complicated topic because the camera and lens are trying to capture light as it travels through both environments at different speeds. This light refraction is one of the reasons dome ports (domed or curved lenses) are so useful underwater and for split-level image capture. They help correct the different types of distortions that occur in these situations.

Here's a summary, exemplified by the image below:


1. Refraction - image is not as magnified due to refraction of light in the water. Refraction is the visual bending that results from the change in density and therefore change in light speed as it crosses from air to water. Refraction occurs when light changes speed when it enters a body of water, causing it change direction. The subject becomes 1/4 closer and 1/3 bigger.
2. Sharpness - improved color and sharpness retention since you’re closer to the subject (less distortion). Flat lenses create a progressive distortion away from the center of the image as they do not address the progressive refraction near the edges. That also means a dome port makes it easier to find focus throughout the frame. 
3. Aberration - less chromatic aberration (color fringing), as the same refraction impacts not only light, but as the light separates into the color spectrum’s component colors. Dome ports help correct light dissipation over distance, helping ensure a more evenly sharp, focused, and color-correct image. For additional information on domes, visit our FAQ entry specific to domes.

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