Underwater Portraits – Tips & Tricks

A great portrait captures the essence of a marine life personality. The subject may be timid and small in size or might be a fast apex predator that wants everyone to know. Underwater portraits create a strong connection between the viewer and the animal, which can really make your photo portfolio stand out from the crowd.

Below are a few of the techniques I keep in mind when shooting marine life portraits.

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Strong Eye Contact

Eye contact is everything in a strong portrait photo. Some say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and whether we are shooting a whale or a shrimp, the eye contact will help convey the personality of the subject. You will notice a true connection with the subject when it is looking directly into the camera lens and you have achieved sharp focus on the eyes.

Different compositions will dictate where the eye falls in the frame, but the key is to make sure the eyes are well lit. If the eye falls into shadow then it will not stand out as much to the viewer.

You can also experiment with portraits where the animal is staring off into the distance, which makes them feel observant and stoic. And as many of us know, when shooting nudibranchs we must treat the rhinophores as the eyes.

Learn More: Strobe Positioning Tutorial Video


underwater portrait lionfish juvenile
A juvenile lionfish (Pterois miles) looks up towards the camera while hunting. Anilao, Philippines.


underwater portraits spanish shawl nudibranch
A spanish shawl nudibranch (flabellina iodinea) has great rhinophores that serve as the “eye” of the subject. Note that these nudis do have black eyespots under the rhinophores. Malibu, California.


Emphasize Important Features

A great way to show a subject’s personality is to emphasize something that makes it unique. A rhinopias has an interesting nose, sea lions have very animated puppy dog eyes, dolphins appear to smile, and blennies have a very surprised expression. It’s important to develop a composition that highlights one of these characteristics, allowing it to help define the personality of the subject.

Don’t be afraid to break the basic rules of composition in order to do this. The rule of thirds is very important in photography, but sometimes you may need to center a linear subject. Some animals, like a hairy frogfish, will benefit from the precise lighting that a snoot provides. If you can compose the image to make the features stand out, then that is the difference between an average portrait and a contest winner.


underwater portrait of a bottlenose dolphin
This bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) portrait shows the dolphin’s entire body, with tail positioned in corner and swim space in front, emphasizing its freedom to move. Bimini, Bahamas.


underwater portrait of a nembrotha nudibranch
This nembrotha nudibranch (Nembrotha milleri) has a rippled velvet texture and huge branchial plume (gills). Composing the shot in this manner allowed me to show off both features. Anilao, Philippines.


Fill the Frame with Your Subject

Filling the frame with your subject’s face creates a more intimate image with much more detail and depth. When you eliminate the background or even the body of the subject, you are left with the important features that provide a sense of personality. This is a portrait – not a scientific ID shot.

Getting very close to your subject will provide much more detail than cropping. The photo will appear more crisp and vivid with much better color across the dynamic range of the image. The subject will be larger in the frame, creating a more personal and intimate impression on the viewer.

You will also have finer control over the lighting and shadows as you get closer to your subject. The small features on the face (lips, bumps, eyes) will create their own highlights and shadows, making the subject appear more three-dimensional and lifelike.

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macro portrait of a banded sea krate (sea snake)
Working to fill the frame with a subject can be challenging, but will almost always result in a powerful portrait. Here’s a banded sea krate (Laticauda colubrina), or sea snake, from the Lembeh Strait, Indonesia.


Bonus Tip: Be Creative!

As a photo editor, I have reviewed tens of thousands of underwater images. A great photo is always nice to view, however a creative portrait that is shot in a unique way will always stand out. One trick is to shoot a standard portrait first, then study the subject and see if you can capture a portrait-style shot while the subject is engaging in a unique behavior. This might be swimming, feeding, signaling or any number of different postures and expressions. Once you understand the subject’s personality and behavior it will become natural to photograph an intimate portrait using the techniques in this article.

Let’s all be respectful and have fun out there!



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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.