5 Tips for Fast Subjects

Underwater photography is challenging enough when subjects sit still. I feel that every camera is capable of shooting nice photos of these subjects, both wide-angle and macro. But with fast subjects it’s a different story. Fast subjects will test your photo skills, diving skills and even the abilities of your camera.

I’ve produced the video below with 5 tips for capturing underwater photos of fast subjects. Enjoy!

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5 Tips for Fast Subjects

Study the tips below so that you have them top of mind before your next dive with subjects like sea lions, dolphins, hunting octopus, humphead parrotfish and other speedy marine life.

Keep in mind that this tutorial is written for intermediate and advanced shooters and assumes that you’re comfortable using manual camera settings. If this is still intimidating, check out the tutorial below:

Basic Underwater Camera Settings

1) Increase Your Shutter Speed

A fast shutter speed is critical to capturing sharp images of a moving subject, since the longer a shutter is open, the longer the opportunity for the subject to move before the shutter closes. This rule applies to sports, family, pets or even trees branches on a windy day.

Underwater photographers apply this concept but with strobe light in mind. The benefit of using a strobe is that it can freeze the action of a very quick subject. The weakness is that you are limited by a maximum shutter speed and the distance the light can travel. A subject that appears bright and sharp in close might appear darker and more blurred at an extra meter further away.

We need to apply the benefits of both a fast shutter speed and strobe light when shooting fast subjects underwater.

To do this, I shoot at or below my maximum sync speed. This is a shutter speed of 1/200 or 1/160 on my DSLR. At 1/160 you still receive plenty of light in the camera while helping freeze more motion when the subject is further away (where the strobe has less power and less ability to freeze motion itself).

A sea lion darts through a bait ball at Los Islotes in Baja California Sur. ISO 200, f/13, 1/200.
See all my underwater photo gear.

2) Continuous Autofocus

Continuous autofocus allows the camera’s autofocus to track a subject, keeping it in focus even when you’re not shooting images. The benefit is that the camera will achieve focus immediately when you push the shutter.

If you’re not using continuous focus and push the shutter, then the camera’s autofocus system activates and may rack back and forth while hunting for the subject, causing you to lose the photo opportunity.

Learn all about these settings in my Camera Autofocus Tutorial Video.

3) Back-Button Focus

Back button focus allows you to activate the camera’s autofocus system through the AF-ON button while removing autofocus function from the shutter button’s half-depress position.

The benefit is that you can ergonomically hold the back button down to track a subject, then push the shutter to shoot without missing a beat. Of course, this relies on using continuous autofocus mentioned in tip #2 above.

Watch my Back Button Focus video tutorial and read the companion article.

4) High Speed Shooting (Drive) Mode

If you follow my underwater photo tutorials, you know that I always emphasize slowing down and thinking about each frame before you shoot. Well, with fast subjects you need to blast away. There are two ways to do this.

Experienced shooters who can ‘feel’ their underwater strobe recycle speeds based on power level can set their camera to the high speed drive mode and blast away, sensing the height of the action and when to start and stop shooting (in order to avoid dark frames as the strobes recycle).

The rest of us can just push the shutter a few times during the height of the action, say a sea lion swimming by. This way you can precisely control the frames you’re shooting and the timing in order to avoid those dark frames.

If you’re shooting in ambient light without strobes, then blast away, since you don’t need to worry about strobe recycle times.

5) Review Your Images

You guys had to see this one coming! As with most shooting tutorials, my last tip is to review your images in between bursts of action. Scroll through the images, study composition, zoom in to check focus and backscatter, toggle to the histogram, and look for any other imperfections in your shots.

If you stay on top of reviewing images, you’ll improve the shots, and hopefully come home with photos you’ll hang on the wall!

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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.