Basic Settings for Underwater Photography

As new underwater photographers, it’s often best to get used to our camera while using automatic settings.

During our first series of dives, we get comfortable with our gear, make buoyancy second nature and then finally start devoting mindshare towards creating images. This is when it’s time to switch to manual and learn the basic settings for underwater photography.

Each different camera and lens combo, particularly as they relate to sensor size, will use slightly different default settings for wide-angle (divers, reefs, big animals) and for macro (small nudibranchs, fish, crabs, etc.).

Underwater Camera Settings – Your Starting Point

The basic camera settings can be thought of as defaults – a starting point for shooting every image. Once you have this starting point in mind, you can experiment with different settings while always able to “find your way home.”

The more you practice and gain an understanding of adjusting your camera settings, the more you’ll find yourself adjusting settings and light positions even before composing your shot. It becomes second nature.

I’ve broken down the basic settings for underwater photography into groups based on sensor size, which I feel is more accurate than grouping camera bodies into their traditional categories of compact, mirrorless and DSLR.

Remember that these settings are merely a starting point, and that they will vary depending on depth, water clarity, sun and clouds, strobes and constant lighting, wet lenses and more.


Want to go In-Depth? Let’s schedule a Virtual Photo Lesson via video chat to talk specific settings for your camera and lighting setup. Fun, friendly, easy and the best way to improve your photography.


Basic Settings Exposure Goals

Wide-Angle

Wide-Angle photography portrays large scenes that will almost always include a  portion of the water column. In general, we want to expose for the background and then use our strobes or lights to light the foreground. Learn all about this in my video tutorial on Underwater Strobe Positioning

Our basic settings goal for wide-angle uses ambient sunlight to achieve a nice blue water color, creates enough depth of field, and freezes most movement within the scene.

Macro

Artificial light from a strobe or video light plays a huge role in underwater macro photography. Because of this, our shutter speed rarely changes while the aperture determines our depth of field. The artificial light plays the largest role in controlling the exposure after you have aperture dialed in for the desired bokeh in the shot.

PRO TIP: If you’re ever having trouble exposing an image, take a breath, clear your head, and start again with the default settings outlined below. 

wide-angle image shot with basic settings for ambient and strobe light
A diver hovers above the reef on Apo Island, Philippines. Learning the basic settings for your camera helps to adapt to changing shooting situations like what we see in this photo: shallow water plus cloud cover.
Canon 5D Mk IV. ISO 400, f/11, 1/100.
See all my Gear.

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How to Choose an Underwater Camera

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Best Underwater Strobes of 2020

2020 underwater strobe comparison

Underwater Settings for 1” Sensor Cameras

(Most newer compacts)

Wide-Angle

ISO: 200

Aperture:  f/4.5

Shutter Speed:  1/125

Autofocus: Single Point 

Macro

ISO: 100

Aperture:  f/11

Shutter Speed: 1/200

Autofocus: Single Point

Underwater Settings for Micro 4/3 Sensor Cameras

(Mostly Olympus and Panasonic Mirrorless)

Wide-Angle

ISO: 200

Aperture:  f/5

Shutter Speed:  1/125

Autofocus: Single Point 

Macro

ISO: 100

Aperture:  f/18

Shutter Speed: 1/200

Autofocus: Single Point

Underwater Settings for Crop (1.6x) Sensor Cameras

(Most DSLRs and Sony Mirrorless)

Wide-Angle

ISO: 250

Aperture:  f/8

Shutter Speed:  1/125

Autofocus: Single Point Grouping

Macro

ISO: 100

Aperture:  f/22

Shutter Speed: 1/200

Autofocus: Single Point

Underwater Settings for Full Frame Sensor Cameras

(Pro-Level DSLRs and Sony’s a7 series Cameras)

Wide-Angle

ISO: 250

Aperture:  f/9

Shutter Speed:  1/125

Autofocus: Single Point Grouping

Macro

ISO: 100

Aperture:  f/22

Shutter Speed: 1/200

Autofocus: Single Point


Autofocus Camera Settings

Autofocus is another group of underwater camera settings that are very specific to each camera and each subject we’re shooting. Some subjects move fast and require more general tracking, while some subjects remain still and require pinpoint accuracy.

Dive into Autofocus in my MasterClass Video Series with 4 episodes (23 minutes) all about Autofocus for Underwater Photographers.

Watch the Preview

Autofocus Series Episodes

  • Autofocus Basics (4:40)
  • Autofocus Drive Modes (6:28)
  • Autofocus Area Selection (6:21)
  • Plane of Focus & Hyperfocal Distance (5:39)

Settings for Black Backgrounds

The black background is a great exposure trick used to make your subject really pop from an otherwise cryptic or distracting background. It complements nearly all the colors of the macro critters we find underwater, making the subjects really POP.

I’ve filmed a full tutorial and written an article explaining how to create a black background in your underwater photos – even in the middle of the day. Check it out!

How to Create Black Backgrounds Underwater

how to create black backgrounds
(video + article)

Quick Tip to Master Your Basic Camera Settings

Like most hobbies, those who continually practice underwater photography will excel. And don’t worry, I know very well that big week-long dive trips can be few and far between.

Practice changing settings and using your camera at home. Shoot photos of the salt and pepper shakers, the dog, your kids, a flower in your yard, the street at night… 

Below are two different YouTube videos I created on how you can practice while at home, inspired by the worldwide coronavirus dry spell.

Practice UW Photo at Home Part I

Practice UW Photo at Home Part II

The more you practice shooting, the better you’ll become. You’ll change settings faster and your muscle memory will build. If you practice shooting in many different situations, you’re essentially practicing ‘settings problem solving’, which you’ll use every time you shoot manual settings underwater. So get out there. Shoot more photos!


Keep Learning


5 Basic Composition Tips
5 Underwater Composition Tips

Master these 5 underwater composition tips that will leave your viewers mesmerized.


3 Unusual Macro Photo Tips
3 Unusual Macro Photo Tips

Go beyond the basics. These 3 tips will change the way you shoot macro photos.


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.