Underwater Photography 101: “Face the Music!”

One of the challenging things as an underwater photographer is getting your subjects to face the camera. Marine critters are inexplicably camera shy!  Most likely, it is because of the bright focus light you are shining in their face, but it could also be that your dome port looks like a big eye and that can freak out any little beasty. Luckily for photographers, there are some tricks we can try, and common sense we can apply.

Trick #1:  Red Light!

Underwater camera gear manufacturers are aware of the lighting issues photographers face.  On one hand, we must have enough light that our camera can focus on the subject and the thing we want in focus the most is our subject’s eye.  On the other hand, shining a bright light in our subjects eyes causes it to turn away before we can get the shot.  The solution to this is a red focus light. Several lights on the market have a switch that will turn the light red, a color that is theoretically not seen by marine animals.  The following image is a good example of critters that don’t tolerate light well. The pygmy sea horse has no eyelids and cannot shut it’s eyes.  Because it is so small, it is a challenge to focus on, even with good light, and the moment you get it in focus, it turns away.


However, with a red focus light, there is enough light for the camera to focus, but the animal is not as sensitive to it and it is more likely to face the lens, such as in the image below.  (Don’t worry about the red showing up in the image.  When your strobes fire, all the red will disappear.)

Pygmy Seahorse

Pygmy Seahorse

Trick #2:  Fake them out!

Another trick to help turn a camera shy critter toward the lens is to hand hold the focus light behind the animal, or have your dive buddy hold the light so that it faces the camera.  The animal will turn away from the light, toward the camera.  There will be enough light for the camera to focus, and walla!

Flamboyant Cuttlefish

Flamboyant Cuttlefish

Okay, on to using some common sense:

#3 Patience is a virtue

Sometimes you just have to wait for the critter to get used to you.  Most marine animals have little or no brains.  Instead, they have fight or flight instincts.  If you are not perceived as a threat, it only takes a few minutes for the critter to forget about you.  As far as it knows, you may have been a feature in it’s environment for months or years.  Give your subject time to forget about you, and eventually it may face the camera without being coaxed.  This goby and shrimp took only a few moments to forget I was there, and go about their business of shoveling sand out of their home.


This leads me to a cardinal common sense rule,

#4:  Don’t be a Predator!

Nothing is more displeasing to an underwater photographer than getting pictures of fish butts.  Sometimes we become so excited to get a shot of that rare critter, just to prove we saw it, that we sacrifice good photography.  The following image is of a goby on eggs.  I really wanted this image, but unfortunately, in my excitement, I was not patient, I did not use red light, and I stalked this poor fish.  The result is a fish facing away from the camera, eye blurred, and generally just an uninteresting photograph.


 Chasing the animals produces the same result.  This poor harlequin shrimp felt very vulnerable and could only flee from my big bubble blowing self.


 So remember, try red light, move your focus light behind the subject, wait for your subject to forget about you, and don’t be a predator.  Using these tips will help you get good “face on” shots.

Jawfish with eggs

Jawfish with eggs

 If you have suggestions for underwater photography tips, or questions, please feel free to leave comments below.

As always, if you enjoy my images please visit my website, waterdogphotography.com, or give me a like on facebook at Waterdog Photography Brook Peterson.
All images are copyrighted by Brook Peterson and may only be used with written permission.  Please do not copy or print them.  To discuss terms for using these images, please contact me

3 thoughts on “Underwater Photography 101: “Face the Music!”

  1. Absolutely agree. The red light is a good one, though sometimes my camera struggles to focus with it. And the patience tip is an excellent point that I need to work on! It also helps to be buddied up with another photographer or private guide who don’t mind you going really slow and hanging around at one spot for ages. If diving with non photographers I feel like I am holding the group back and often don’t take enough time on a subject for fear of being left behind – and I come back with photos I’m not happy with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comments, Emilie! In very low light (like night diving) it may take the camera longer to find focus. Some focus lights have a spot beam along with a wide angle beam, and switching to spot can help with the focusing issues. If you have this feature on your white light, but not on the red light, check to see if the manufacturer makes a red filter for your light. Light and Motion have some good products, and Backscatter has some good after-market filters. Your comment about holding the group up is valid! I have learned that I much prefer to dive with other photographers, or even solo. A private guide is a good idea, because they will find critters for you, and then happily hang out while you shoot to your heart’s content. Your blog is coming along nicely! For anyone else reading these comments, check Emilie out at greenbluesea.wordpress.com

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree. In my local, shallow dive sites that I know well, my photographer buddy and I sometimes split up and effectively end up doing a solo dive, and I find that great for photo concentration. But overseas it’s another matter, and I often end up with a mixed bag of divers! For the light, yes, it’s a very wide beam and doesn’t have a spot option, and yes, it’s on night dive that it sometimes struggles. Light and motion stuff is great but pricey! Another thing to add to my (long) gear wish list!
    Anyway keep the tips coming, I like how you demonstrate with examples of photos you took. Great stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

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