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 can 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.). I use these defaults as a starting point for every image and would go so far as calling the settings a ‘mentality’ that once mastered, will allow you to create great images with any camera.

With this in mind, I’ve broken down these 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.

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 tutorial video 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.
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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

Exposure and Your Histogram

This VIP Members video discusses the elements of exposure and how to use your histogram while underwater to ensure your images are properly exposed. LCD screens can be really tricky, especially while night diving, where the images appears brighter than it actually is (due to your dark surroundings).

The histogram shares image data… and data doesn’t lie. Members have access to HOURS of videos, but you can also watch this video (with unlimited streaming) a la carte.

VIP Member Video

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Ambient Light Camera Settings

Once you have the basic settings for underwater photography mastered, it’s time to start looking at settings for very specific shooting situations. One of the most common is shooting in ambient light.

Ambient light can include static subjects like shipwrecks and whales, or fast-moving subjects like dolphins. The video below discusses the best camera settings for shooting in ambient light.

VIP Member Video

This video is part of a two-episode series on ambient light photography.
Be sure to watch Part II:
Ambient Light – Lenses & Dome Ports.
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Autofocus Camera Settings

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

I’ve put together a video tutorial miniseries for VIP Members to learn everything about using autofocus settings underwater. You can watch these videos a la carte, or subscribe to become a member.

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Autofocus basics – how your camera’s autofocus works.
Autofocus drive modes and when to use each.
Autofocus area selection, manual vs. automatic point selection, and AF point groupings.
This final episode explains focal plane and hyperfocal distance – two concepts we need to understand to help maximize our camera autofocus performance.

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. Watch my full video tutorial and read the article How to Create Black Backgrounds.

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… 

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!

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.