While many locations around this planet offer beautiful backdrops for breathtaking photos, one of the most worthwhile environments can be found under water. Ocean photography offers photographers and those who view the pictures a unique glimpse into another world that many of us would not otherwise see. 15% of the Earth’s species live in the ocean, and photographing them in their natural environment can prove as challenging as it is rewarding. Once you’ve worked through the technical details of diving and operating your camera in underwater housing, you can focus on pushing your creativity and building an impressive underwater photography portfolio.

The following article details ocean photography ideas and tips using the award-winning images from the 10th annual Ocean Art 2021 Underwater Photography Competition.  Visit the UW Photography Guide website to see the full list of winners.

Get Close Up to the Action

Getting up and close to the action with a wide angle lens creates a sense of action, as we’ve illustrated previously in this tutorial.  The same applies to ocean photography.  Instead of zooming in from afar, try getting in close to your subjects.  This is obviously much more difficult, but the results can be much more rewarding and interesting, as you see in the images below.

hm2 Portrait Damir Zurub I m the boss here 1 ocean photography

3rd Cold Water Nigel Motyer Basking Shark Mating Aggrigation 1 ocean photography

Find Patterns in the Ocean

Natural patterns exist in nature and create beautiful opportunities in ocean photography.  Seek these patterns as you explore the ocean and you may find beautiful images like you see below.

3rd Compact Macro Nicole Helgason Coral tip forest 1 ocean photography

2nd Macro Sarah Vasend Social Distancing Ladybug Style 1

2nd Blackwater Steven Kovacs flared beauty 1

Look for Groups

Group portraits work as well under water as they do on land. Capturing underwater group photos, however, includes the benefit of working with uniquely interesting subjects. Just as you would when photographing typical group portraits, use groups to fill the frame or to highlight a particular native of this aquatic environment. Consider using a narrower aperture to increase your depth of field and capture more of the group in clearer detail, or opt for a shallow depth of field (f/2 or wider) to draw focus to a particular subject.

4th Wide Angle Gabriel Guzman The gang 1 ocean photography

hm MagnusLundgren wideangle Pinkies rush hour 1 ocean photography

Hm2maybe Cold Water Celia Kujala Steller Friends1 ocean photography

Find Symmetry in Your Ocean Photography

We’re naturally drawn to symmetry, making it a great compositional tool to use in your ocean photography. Fortunately, marine life offers ample opportunities to reach for this tool when capturing underwater portraits.

HM1 Black White Serge Melesan Symétrie

1st Blackwater Steven Kovacs reflection 1 ocean photography

Try Blackwater Ocean Photography

For those with more advanced diving skills and an inclination to capture truly unique photos in the open ocean, try your hand at blackwater ocean photography. You’ll need to use downline (for safety) and off-camera lights to attract your subjects, and you should probably consult with an experienced blackwater diver (ideally, one who also practices blackwater photography) to master this technique, but as you can see, the resulting imagery is worth the time and effort.

1st Underwater Art Jenny Stock Whips of beauty 1

2nd Nudibranchs Virginia Salzedo Future generations 1

Try Half Underwater and Half Above Water

Capture the best of both worlds with a glimpse above an under water in a single frame. When exposing for these two unique environments at once, prioritize exposing for your subject and use an underwater strobe if necessary.

3rd Compact Wide Angle Enrico Somogyi Catfish and Flowers 1

Tell a story – Create a Message

Human activity continues to impact the ocean and those who live in it, as noted in creative projects from artist & photographer Benjamin Von Wong. You, too, can look for ways to create a message when capturing underwater photos and bring attention to a particular cause. While you may not find litter or other traces of human interference during your visit, capturing the beauty of the environment can also go a long way to show why it is worth preserving, especially when presented with facts that demonstrate how this environment is at risk.

2nd Underwater Conservation Steven Kovacs smoke break 1

Try Black and White Processing

Black and white processing can boost the drama in your pictures and, at the same time, remove a lot of the distractions that present themselves in color photos. When we remove color from our photographs, we allow the viewer to focus more closely on the intended subject with intentional lighting and composition. Try to incorporate black and white processing into your ocean photography and see how it transforms your underwater images.

1st Black White Tom St George Ancient Caves 1

About the 10th Annual Ocean Art Underwater Photo Contest

The prestigious Ocean Art Underwater Photo Competition, organized by the Underwater Photography Guide, has announced the world’s best underwater photos with its 2021 winners. This year’s competition celebrates a decade in the search for the world’s best photos of marine life behavior, unique portraits of intriguing underwater critters, and images that instill an urgency for conserving our invaluable subsurface planet. Ocean Art could not have been possible without the help of our generous sponsors who have all had to navigate a changing travel and dive industry.