Underwater Photography

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Over the past few years I’ve started to travel a bit more and some of that travel has been to tropical locales like Maui, Mexico, and most recently Polynesia.  Of course any time you travel to a tropical place one of the obligatory tourist things to do is snorkel.

In February 2007, I went to Maui for a friends wedding and I took my Nikon D70 and Canon PowerShot Elph SD100 along.  I’d had the SD100 for a few years and it was pretty beat up but it still worked.  So I picked up a Canon Underwater Case for it prior to the trip hoping I could get some underwater photos while snorkeling. The case worked very well but I found that the photos lacked much color, mostly looking blue.  I experimented with a few things and did some research and found that Red is the first color to be filtered out in water.  So I boosted the red on a bunch of the photos and that helped a lot.

During our honeymoon in April 2009, I had my newer Nikon D90 and a Canon PowerShot Elph SD1100 (which replaced my SD100 after it finally stopped working reliably).  I picked up a new Canon Underwater case (since they are camera model specific) for the SD1100 prior to the trip and again took it snorkeling.  The water in French Polynesia is a little clearer and the sun a little brighter than Maui so the colors were better.  But still I ran into color problems like too much blue, and not enough red.  However this time boosting Red didn’t seem to help, in fact hurting the image.

I finally figured out the trick though.  My seldom used Custom White Balance option.  Using Adobe Lightroom 2 (my current favorite), or most any RAW photo workflow tool (Bibble, Aperture, Nikon NX) you can adjust white balance of the photo manually or use a picker to choose an area of white for the software to automatically determine proper white balance. I snorkeled in 5 different places during the trip and each had unique lighting and differing depths which changed the result.

Methodology:
First of all, I did not use the flash since it highlighted floating bubbles and sand in the water.  For each unique snorkel location, I tested the White Balance picker tool on 3 different photos using various points of the images that should be white.  I noted the Tint and Temp that Lightroom determined from each point and picked the values for each that seemed to be the average for all of the tests.  Then applied the final Temp/Tint values to all of the photos in the set.  I also increase the Clarity and Vibrance values on all of the photos since it helped to bring out the fish and coral from the background.  I did not adjust saturation or curves in any way.

Examples:
Rangiroa, Tuamotu (salt mixing cloudiness, sunny, lots of shadows, 20 feet+ deep)
    Temp +32, Tint +54
Fakarava, Tuamotu (very clear water, lots of sun, 5-6 feet deep)
    Temp +11, Tint +35
Bora Bora, Society Islands #1 (sand mixing cloudiness, cloudy day, 3-4 feet deep)
    Temp +23, Tint +60
Bora Bora, Society Islands #2 (very clear water, cloudy day, 40+ feet deeo)
    Temp +39, Tint +73
Taha’a, Society Islands (very clear water, lots of sun, 4-5 feet deep)
    Temp +11, Tint +35

The results turned out pretty good in my opinion and you’ll note that in similar conditions (Fakarava vs. Taha’a for example) the white balance holds pretty constant.  Keep in mind that the original photos were JPGs from a point and shoot camera, not RAWs from a DSLR like the D90 where making White Balance changes is easier.

For examples of all the underwater photos I took with the old and new methods, check out my Flickr Underwater set…  http://www.flickr.com/photos/techsavvy/sets/72157594554826402

Category: photography

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