Underwater Photography 101: “Composition-All About That Base!”

When I was a new scuba diver, everything I saw under the water was new and exciting to me.  I wanted so much to share it with others, that I took a snapshot of every creature I saw.  In the beginning, my underwater photographs were like a travel log with a picture ID of each fish, snail and crab.  This is very common for new photographers, and if you fall in to this category, don’t be alarmed.  It will pass and as your skills improve, you will begin to think about the composition of your images more than the subject your are shooting.

The base of every good photograph is composition.  Composition is a broad subject to cover in just one post, so here, I will discuss five tips that are easy to learn and fun to practice.

Tip #1:  Rule of Thirds

rule of thirds

The “rule of thirds” is guideline that artists use to make their images pleasing to the human eye.  We like to see things off center, usually about a third of the way down or up or to the side.  If you divide your image into thirds, the places where the lines intersect are appropriate places for your subject.  In the image above, you can see that the diver is on one of those intersecting lines, and the fish are opposite, in the spaces surrounding the intersecting lines.  This makes the image well balanced from corner to corner.  It has the main subject (the fish and reef) taking up the bottom right third of the frame, with the secondary subject (the diver) on the top third.

Tip #2:  Diagonal


This is one of my favorite compositions.  A diagonal composition simply has the subject running from corner to corner.  In the image above, the fish’s eyes are on the bottom and right intersecting third of the image, while the fish themselves are on a diagonal.  The image below is another example of using diagonal composition.


Tip #3:  Fill the Frame

Some of the most interesting images are when the subject completely fills the space.  This scorpion fish has very interesting features on it’s face, and by isolating the face in the frame, those features become more prominent.


Tip #4:  S Curve

This is a composition that can be a little harder to achieve, but it is something that appears in nature quite often.  Look for things that curve in the shape of an “S”, still keeping in mind the other composition rules.  In the image below, the pipefish is somewhat in the shape of an “s,”  It is on the diagonal, and the eyes fall on the bottom left intersecting third of the frame.



Many critters, such as this fireworm, some nudibranchs, and seahorses have a natural “s” shape to them.  You can use that to your advantage when composing your shots.

Tip #5  Space to Move

Whatever composition you choose for your subjects, if there is an animal in it, it should have space in the frame to move forward.  The pipefish above is a good example.  There is plenty of space in the frame in front of the fish’s head.  It’s tail has very little space behind it, giving the impression that the fish is moving toward the bottom left corner. The sea lion image below is an interesting composition because of the reflection, but the sea lion has no place to go and is really too close to the bottom of the frame.


An important thing to remember, is that the tips outlined above are not hard and fast rules.  They are more like a base;  guidelines for things that please the human eye. Following them can help you achieve stunning results, but composition is subjective, and sometimes, breaking the rules yields the most interesting images. Use your imagination!  Let yourself be creative and you might just come up with an award winning photograph for thinking outside the box!

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.
My photographs are taken with a Nikon D7000 in Sea and Sea Housing using two YS-D1 Strobes.
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