Editing Tips for Underwater Photographers

Editing underwater photos can seem like a daunting task. Lightroom has a plethora of different sliders, many of which appear to have very similar effects on your images.

Talk to a number of 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 tutorial series, then you also will notice that I incorporate these editing tips into Lightroom develop presets for quick application.

RELATED: Download my Free Lightroom Editing Presets

screenshot from adobe lightroom develop module

Top 5 Underwater Editing Tips

1. Apply 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 in the right hand column.

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 will 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 using the sliders to adjust the amounts of correction on different wide-angle images.

lightroom-lens-corrections-underwater-photography
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. I generally don’t apply lens corrections for close-focus scenes on this lens, but did so here for demonstration.
2. Increase Clarity

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.

clarity-lightroom-for-underwater
Lightroom Clarity of 25 has been added to photo on the right.
3. Vibrance / Saturation Adjustments

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 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.

RELATED: Check out my Underwater Camera Gear

Lightroom vibrance and saturation adjustment.
A vibrance of 16 and saturation of 6 have been added to the photo on the right.
4. Stronger Black Tones

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 independently edit the lighter and darker portions of the curve.

Lightroom blacks slider for underwater photos.
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.
5. Apply Some Sharpening

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 you 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 for magazine or other print requests).

sharpening-underwater-photos
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.

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Brent Durand

Professional underwater photography and ocean adventure writer.