5 Basic Composition Tips

Composition is the building block of great photography, helping portray the scene to the viewer in the most interesting manner. Nearly all underwater photos incorporate the same general principles, which we’ll review as 5 basic composition tips.

This article and video tutorial are presented by:

We call composition the first step in shooting photos because other elements of the image are considered after the composition is planned, including lighting, subject behavior, and settings that deliver creative effects.

Advanced shooters may take this a step further and revisit composition after experimenting with something like lighting, or even break these fundamental rules. But for now, we start with learning the basics.

Video Tutorial

This video tutorial discusses our 5 Basic Composition Tips in detail.

1) Fill the Frame

A good marine life photo includes a subject that fills all or most of the frame. This is especially true for macro and super macro images.

Filling the frame is beneficial for several reasons. First, you make the subject larger in the frame so that the viewer can enjoy the details.

Second, as you make the subject larger in the frame, you’re reducing the often-cluttered background. Getting rid of this extra background puts more focus on the subject, making it stand out more, and drawing more attention as a result.

Third, in order to fill the frame with your subject you need to move closer to the subject (or add a macro diopter). When there is less water between the lens port and subject, you’ll have a clearer image with more vibrant color and contrast.

Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) filling the majority of the frame. Shot with the SeaLife DC2000, SeaLife 0.5x Wide Angle Dome Lens. Lit with single Sea Dragon 5000F Light.

2) Face Your Subject

This basic composition tip seems like a no-brainer but is often overlooked by new photographers. After all, we’re experiencing an incredible underwater world on a life support system – it’s very easy to get complacent about our photo composition.

The greatest thing we can do for our subjects is to shoot them from the front – from their face. Think about the difference between a fish face on the reef and a fish tail swimming away. We’d all much prefer that cute fish face!

It’s best not to just swim over your subjects snapping away, but to pause, look where they’re moving, and position yourself to capture them from the front.

Spanish Shawl nudibranch (Flabellinopsis iodinea) in a face-forward composition. Shot with the SeaLife DC2000 and Sea Dragon Universal Flash.

3) Eye Contact

The eyes are the windows to the soul and a powerful way to establish a connection between a viewer and your animal.

When an animal has noteworthy eyes, your composition will become stronger by making the eyes prominent in the frame and pointed at the camera.

As humans, eye contact triggers subconscious reactions as we try to establish a connection with the other being. This visual element is one of the many ways to hook a viewer into spending more time trying to understand and admire a photo.

This does not mean that both eyes need to be pointed at the camera, but that at least one eye should be establishing that connection.

4) Swim Space

This basic composition tip is closely related to the famous Rule of Thirds.

The rule of thirds dictates that the subject or anchor of your image be situated on one of the thirds lines of your image, like with the cenote diver below.

Thirds lines laid over a diver and cenote scene. Shot with SeaLife DC2000 in ambient light.

Swim space is a very similar concept. You want to have open space in front of your subject where they can swim, breathe, or just look with their eyes. Even if your subject isn’t places on a thirds line, you should always have swim space in front.

This diver is carefully places on a third line in the composition, but also has 2/3 of the frame to swim into. Shot with the SeaLife DC2000 in ambient light.
This fish portrait, while centered in the frame, still has swim space in front of its face – important to avoid tension in the composition. Shot with the SeaLife DC2000 and Sea Dragon Mini 1300 Spot light.

5) Review Your Images

Digital cameras provide us with instant feedback on our images. USE IT! If you’re not reviewing your images every night on a dive trip, you may be making the same mistake all trip. If you’re not reviewing after every dive, you might make the same mistake all day.

I highly recommend reviewing your images as often as every frame when you’re shooting. Use the playback (triangle) button to do this. Then look for any imperfections in the image. Is it sharp? Is the exposure accurate? Is the lighting nice? Did the subject turn suddenly? Is there any backscatter in the frame?

RELATED VIDEO TUTORIAL: Understanding Exposure & Your Histogram

When you take the time to review your images during the dive, you can correct mistakes and surface with better photos on your memory card.


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Brent Durand

Professional writer and underwater photo instructor. Brent is an avid diver and surfer, and has led many intensive photo workshops around the world. BrentDurand.com.