Editing Tips for Underwater Photographers

Editing photos can seem like a daunting task. Lightroom (or other editing software) has a plethora of different sliders, many of which appear to have very similar effects on your images. Talk to a number of underwater photographers and you’ll find that they will also have differing views on how to edit a photo and which areas to begin working first. But even with all this variation, I think all of us will agree that these 5 editing tips for underwater photographers are the foundation for all global image adjustments.

So how do I determine which 5 photo edits are the most important? First, we’re looking for global changes – settings that affect the entire image. Second, I’m assuming that we’re shooting in a raw file format and want to quickly adjust this dull and lackluster image into a more vibrant jpg-like image before digging into more time-intensive editing.

If you’re following my underwater photo editing tutorials, then you also will notice that I incorporate these editing tips into Lightroom presets (read How to Create a Custom Lightroom Preset) for quick application. You can also download my Free Lightroom Editing Presets.

Feeling overwhelmed by editing your photos in Lightroom? Email me to set up a one-on-one Skype session to learn Lightroom or to review your editing process.



The Top 5 Editing Tips

Lens Corrections

Generally we work left to right and top to bottom across the Develop module in Lightroom, however Lens Corrections are an exception. These are found in the 6th panel on the right hand side.

The first action is to ensure that ‘Remove Chromatic Aberration’ is checked. You’ll likely not see much difference in images shot with prosumer gear, as chromatic aberration is more apparent in lower-end lenses.

The second check mark is ‘Enable Profile Corrections,’ which will make (sometimes not so) subtle changes to adjust for barrel distortion, perspective and vignetting. Once this box is checked, Lightroom is generally able to read your camera and lens info from the file metadata and apply corrections that are pre-programed by Adobe. If you don’t see your lens auto-populate, you can manually select it from the dropdown menus.

I generally check the ‘Enable Profile Corrections’ box for macro photos, leaving the distortion and vignetting sliders at 100. For wide-angle and fisheye photos I generally leave this box unchecked, as the distortion and slight vignetting looks nice in many underwater photos. The subject is more emphasized while the edges of the image look less warped, since Lightroom’s corrections often make the corners look stretched and unnatural. That said experiment with different styles of wide-angle images.

Left: Raw file out of camera. Right: Lens corrections applied (notice the lighter corners and sides of the image). This is shot with my Canon 16-35mm f/4L and I generally don’t apply lens corrections for close-focus scenes on this lens. I did so here for demonstration.


This slider is found in the ‘Presence’ section of the Basic panel and adjusts contrasts at a local level. Increasing clarity will immediately give your image more Pop, especially underwater where crispness and contrast are often lost in the water between camera and subject. Your image will look sharper, although technically the clarity slider is not sharpening the image. Try pushing the clarity slider into the 20-40 range.

Lightroom Clarity of 25 has been added to photo on the right.


Vibrance / Saturation

These two sliders add more color to your image, which starts a little dull and grey as a raw file. Like most Lightroom sliders, it’s easy to overdo it here, so be careful. These days (using a Canon 5D Mk IV and Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes), I generally set the vibrance up around 16 and saturation around 4-6. Canon produces amazing color, so I find this combo to work well for my style of shooting.

A vibrance of 16 and saturation of 6 have been added to the photo on the right.



The blacks slider, found in the ‘Tones’ section of the Basic panel, creates stronger contrast in your images. Note in your Histogram (which should always be open!) that only the far left of the graph moves down as you increase the blacks. This is because you are adjusting the darkest portion of the images, drawing them closer to black in order to create more dynamic range and contrast in the image. For extra credit, check out the Ansel Adams Zone System.

Note that I refrain from using the Contrast slider itself, as it doesn’t provide as much custom control over the tone curve as when you individually edit the lighter and darker portions of the image.

Blacks of -9 have been added to the photo on the right. Note that I still have tonal adjustments to make in other areas of the image – this is just the blacks.



All raw images will benefit from sharpening. It’s easy to go overboard with this, so be sure to use the sharpening preview box and also zoom in on the photo in the main image window so that you can see the changes as you increase sharpening. Lightroom uses a default sharpening of 25, and I generally bump it up to around 40.

Note that Lightroom also allows your to apply sharpening when exporting an image. If you sharpen to the max in Develop and then don’t remove export sharpening, your image will be over-sharpened. I generally apply sharpening to 40 and then export with sharpening set for ‘Screen’ (or paper depending on client).

Sharpening of 40 plus export sharpening for ‘Screen’ has been applied to the photo on the right.


And there we have it: Editing tips for underwater photographers. If you’re not already using Adobe Lightroom but are committed to managing your photo archive, then I highly suggest checking it out.

We skipped over many other sliders for adjusting the dark and light areas of the tone curve, so I encourage you to experiment with those. Once you’re shooting consistent images, you’ll notice that most of these global edits remain the same for each style of shot.

One last takeaway – I’m a guy stuck in old school beliefs. I believe the best underwater photos are captured correctly in-camera, and not just pixels on a sensor then manipulated by a Photoshop whiz. If you’re composing, lighting, and shooting photos correctly for your camera, there’s not much editing you need to do beyond the 5 essential edits.



Underwater Strobe Positioning Tutorial

Best Underwater Cameras 2018


Left: Raw file before applying 5 essential edits. Right: Photo after applying all 5 essential edits.


Want to learn more about Lightroom or even review your underwater photos? Email me to set up a Lightroom workshop on Skype.


Read more Lightroom Editing Tutorials


Brent Durand

Professional underwater photography and ocean adventure writer.