Underwater Imaging
Tips and tricks with Annie Crawley

Why is lighting so important to underwater photographers and videographers?

My favorite place is what I call the thin blue line of separation between our gravity world on land, and zero gravity underwater. Exploring this liquid world excites me just thinking about all the places to go as it’s a world we still don’t fully understand. I spend a lot of time near the surface of the water as I love how light dances over the surface. It’s here that you begin to understand the difference between underwater light. You can see light bend as it enters the water. We also lose light as we descend through absorption and refraction. The first color to go is red soon followed by all the other colors. When you carry lights underwater, you become a creator and paint the scene with the light.

What’s your advice on positioning and camera angle?
You must be a great diver to get great underwater images as we experience a fluid, zero gravity world. You have to become one with the water, especially when shooting behavior of animals. If you move quickly or breathe quickly, you become a bubble blowing monster and everything swims away from you. Just like lighting is everything on land, it’s just as important if not more important underwater. Break down the scene you want to shoot. If shooting macro, you must have stability, so carry a simple tripod underwater. If shooting wide angle, you need to make sure your lights are positioned correctly. You must know your camera and housing on land. If you cannot control it above the surface, you can’t expect to be able to shoot underwater.

Any tips to reduce/eliminate backscatter in the image?
 You need to test your equipment and perfect the positioning of your lights so that you are not illuminating the water between your lens and the subject. Know your port and how your camera/lens sees within your port. Look over your camera to see what you are illuminating. Pay attention to the full frame. Backscatter can be caused by the operator stirring up the bottom with their hands or fins as well! Understanding neutral buoyancy, how to use your fins, and being competent as a diver is the first step to underwater imaging. The golden rule for underwater imaging is that you need to be a great, safe diver.

When did you start shooting underwater? What sparked the interest in your life?

After college, I saved my money for a year then traveled the world. After two weeks into my journey I learned to dive and didn’t return home for four years. Previous to traveling, I was on the path to become a sports and travel photographer, but the ocean took hold of my heart and soul and all I wanted to do was explore our world underwater. Returning back to the US, I headed to California. A couple years later, I sold my car to purchase my underwater camera systems as I was planning on living and working on live-aboard boats as a photo/video pro. From the beginning I invested in two different camera systems; one for still images and another for video as no camera could do both at the time. We’ve come so far in the past 10-20 years of digital imaging. It’s crazy as we all carry a movie studio in the palm of our hands. For my first video set-up I invested in the new Light and Motion HID lights and have never looked back. I still have them complete with computer batteries, cables, and pods. Maybe I should trade them in…do you still have your trade in policy for upgrading? With the HID video lights, my world changed as they revolutionized shooting underwater video.

What’s your current camera setup?

Currently I shoot with a Canon 1DX Mark II with multiple lenses. I use a Nauticam Housing and ports as well as a plethora of Light and Motion Lights. On my camera, I usually attach four lights, and then prefer diving with buddies who carry lights as well. When shooting macro, I carry a series of different lights for spot beams and snoot shooting. I’ve not used strobes in 4 years and am able to shoot photo and video together with my set-up. After all these years, I still love creating both images and video to capture the underwater world. I’m in the market for a new camera, but have not made a decision yet. On another note, you do not have to use a professional kit to get exceptional images. I work with kids/teens in my community and brought in Olympus cameras and housings to teach them the art of image creation. I add one to two 3800s to their set up depending if we are doing macro or wide angle. I’m also a huge fan of GoPros as a second camera for a buddy

What’s your favorite subject to photograph underwater?
Whatever I’m diving in the water with. Seriously, whatever shoot I’m doing, I study the animals in the region so I know potential golden nugget shots when they unfold. Some of my favorites are big animals including the usual subjects like striped marlin, humpback whales, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and more. But I’m truly a behaviorist and love to capture feeding, mating, and camouflage behaviors. I spent more than 1.5 hours waiting for a moon snail to eat a clam and the experience was cold but epic. I just returned from the Galapagos, and filmed endemic marine iguanas in less then 15 feet of water feeding on algae. I was looking for a reveal shot, as the kelp unfurled in the swell, this beautiful beast was chomping on algae with a school of endemic black striped salemas behind it. In the shallows, the sun is very powerful so I always kiss my subjects with some fill light from under. This looks natural and fills in dark unwanted shadows.

What're the advantages of using continuous lights for still images?
The biggest advantage is not having to change out my lighting systemso I can choose to do either still photos or video on a dive. When shooting 4K and up, you can always export a tiff image if you do not want to switch back and forth between still and video with your camera.

Can you do stills and video on the same dive?
Yes. When I switched to the Canon set-up I have now, I only shot underwater video as I didn’t want to switch between strobes and video lights as I was upgrading my video library while working on a few projects. Then on one filmmaking trip, I started shooting stills to document for a behind the scenes article and really loved the feel of the images using constant lighting. So I experimented (a lot) and feel I get to capture a different mood with constant lighting. There are some still image situations you really need strobes for the short burst of high intensity light. With shy subjects they can be skittish from too much light. Figuring out the right combination of lights together with lens and port selection is imperative to success below the surface.

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