The Art of White Balancing for Underwater Photography

When we are underwater, our brains can adjust what our eyes see to help filter out the blue that it knows is there, so we get to see a lot of the colors going on below the surface…and this can be very discouraging when we look at our photos after the dive and instead of colorful, vibrant photos, we have a monochromatic study in blue. But never fear, you can fix this!

White balancing is usually achieved through adjusting your camera’s settings, using filters, or adding light.

Most digital cameras these days will have either an “underwater mode” that adds some red back into your photos, or a way to adjust your white balance manually. Some cameras even have a one-touch white balance which can be super helpful when you need to adjust your white balance on the fly.  

White balancing differs from camera to camera, but is usually done by aiming your camera at something that is known to be white. I use the back of my slate which is solid white, and I have a friend who uses his white fins. The Mini Quest slates that many divers carry on dives (we sell them here in the shop too) have a great white slate on the back that works perfectly for white balancing. 

A common mistake when white balancing is to hold your white surface under you. If you do this, the reading will not be accurate if it is in your shadow instead of full light. If you are using this method, also be sure to re-adjust every 10-15 feet that you descend and ascend; it won’t do any good if you take a white balance reading at 50 feet deep and then take a photo of a barracuda that is swimming by at a 100.

Another method of getting the color back into your underwater shots is to use a filter that attaches to your camera’s lens.

Here in the middle of the Pacific, we most commonly use red filters, but there are also filters for green water. Take care to not let your filter get scratched or broken! If the filter is removable, be sure that it can be securely attached to a place where it won’t be in danger of being scratched (camera buckets on boats can be dangerous for this reason).

Better yet, there are filters that can be flipped in and out of place depending on which one you are using. One excellent choice for GoPros is the Flip 3.1 by Backscatter: not only do the filters flip out of the way when not in use, but there is one for shallow water (5-20 feet deep), common diving depths (20-50) and for deep diving (50+). For cameras such as the GoPro that don’t have the ability to adjust their white balance, filters are the way to go.

The final option is to use a light which will illuminate your subject matter sufficiently.

Lights are great because you don’t need to adjust your camera’s white balance, re-adjust for depth changes, or use a filter. Lights can also help make your subject pop out from the background if used properly. 

Select a light that is powerful enough to reach the distance you plan to be from your subject (you’ll need a lot more power for a large critter cruising by than for a close-up macro shot).

Our favorite and most versatile light is the Sola 1200 which has a nice even beam (try to avoid beams with a hot center or halos of light) and three brightness settings. These lights can be mounted on trays with arms or on the back of your own hand and then YOU become the arm (this is my preferred method, my arm is pretty versatile!).

We also have an option from Underwater Kinetics that involves two lights with a tray that can fit a variety of cameras. When using a light when there is particulate matter in the water, take care to adjust the angle of your light so that you aren’t illuminating it to create backscatter.

As with many activities, you can hone your photography skills with plenty of practice, practice, practice (oh darn, that means you have to go diving more)!

If you prefer to learn on your own, you can take advantage of some online curriculum like PADI’s Underwater Digital Photography course. This eLearning system is great for beginners as well as more experienced shooters and as you “study”, you can hop into the water and try out what you’ve learned and then check your results.  

If you decide you want to take this further, you can always sign up for some instructional dives with us or with your local dive shop.

For Maui residentsi, remember that all of us instructors here at the shop are also avid photographers, so stop in any time to get some tips or to share some of your own; we’re always learning too!

Aloha, Sara