Animals & Pets

September 19, 2014

The Eyes Have It – Underwater Photography of Wildlife

As a seasoned master diver and snap-happy underwater explorer, I am constantly trying to capture all of the unique creatures and beautiful environments with my camera. All safe divers know that we must “plan our dive” and “dive our plan”. This includes depth planning, air consumption, what we will be exploring, hand signals and communication between dive buddies, and so much more.


What I have discovered most recently is that diving with a camera requires even more planning and technical know-how. I need to couple the normal dive plan with the “photo planning.” I decide which lens to use, how long to stay with different animals, how to stay safe with potential deadly creatures, how to deal with changing currents, maintain good buoyancy, not damage the environment, and manage ever-changing lighting. In most cases, I need to be aware of and select which subject to photograph before submerging – ie: sharks vs nudibranchs. I will study an animal’s habits, patterns, and look at other published images before diving in order to be prepared.

My underwater photo kit consists of a Nikon D7100 DSLR camera and several interchangeable lenses. The camera and lens sit inside a Nauticam water-tight housing. I also have a focus light and several strobes attached to my kit. I use different lens setups to capture different scenarios.

Wide angle landscape example

Wide angle landscape example

Sometimes I try to capture large underwater landscapes, wrecks and reefs, and large animals. During other excursions, I will focus on smaller items, tiny fish and wildlife, and macro closeups. Before embarking on a dive, I have to decide which lens to use. As you can imagine, it is impossible to switch lenses on a sealed camera housing underwater. So, once the decision is made, I need to stick with that setup for the duration of the dive.

Sharp Focus and tech-speak – AKA: Settings

I have been a landscape and wildlife photographer for over 25 years. I thoroughly enjoy taking animal portraits. I strive to get different perspectives of what we see with the naked eye. As I have perfected my skills over the years, I have discovered “artistic animal portraits” – this means using a wide aperture and longer focal length to create a shallow depth of field, throwing the background out of focus.

Of course, technically speaking, this makes it more challenging to capture the perfect image. This can be done with any lens, whether wide-angle or macro. The two lenses I prefer using underwater in my kit are:

  • Nikon 105mm Macro
  • Tokina 10-17mm Wide Angle/Fish-Eye/Macro

What follows are examples of images with each of the lenses above. Click to see larger size.
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Focusing is more important than usual as sharpness is captured across a very narrow plain, often just an inch or less. On top of this, you have a moving subject, so focusing on precisely the right point at the right moment is crucial.

The detailed science of light, focus, and how digital cameras and lenses work will is not the subject of this article, but I am going to share just a few of my favorite tips and settings for sharp focus in underwater photography:

  • Manual Focus – Although nearly all DSLR cameras can focus the lens automatically, they also allow you to focus manually instead. Manual focus is a particularly good option with super-macro photography because most cameras struggle to lock onto very close subjects and the lens ends up hunting (moving in and out of focus) every time the shutter release button is pushed. Personally, I use auto-focus with back-button focusing most of the time, but I do find the need to manual focus when there is a lot of current and the subject is very small. I also use manual focus mode exclusively when I shoot wide-angle underwater shots (large landscapes).
  • Back Button focusing – The usual way to focus a lens is to press the shutter release half-way down, but there is another way. Rather than auto-focusing with your shutter release, you move the auto-focus function exclusively to a button on the back of the camera. When you first hear about this technique, it’s natural to greet the idea with a bit of uncertainty, but once you get used to focusing with this method, you may never go back. One of the best uses for Back Button AF is when a static subject suddenly decides it’s time to move quickly.
  • You’ll find that going from static shots to action shots isn’t just instantaneous, it will also become instinctive in a very short amount of time. Back Button AF allowed me to shoot portraits by focusing andrecomposing until I could see my subject just as he is ready to take off. In a split second my finger was holding down the AF-On button and I was tracking the takeoff. I never took my eye from the viewfinder and never really even thought about focus. You may ask what about when the action stops and you want a static posed shot? No worries, just focus on the point you want, release the AF button, recompose and shoot all you like. The focus will stay at that point no matter how many times your finger comes off of the shutter release. No more refocusing andrecomposing between each shot.
      • What follows are the menu settings for this feature in the Nikon D7100:


  • Focus Priority Selection – Focus priority means that the camera will take a picture only when it can focus on your subject. Release priority means that the camera will take a picture even when it can’t get good auto-focus. Why would a camera even have a Release priority if it can cause out of focus images? Well, that seems like a very good question. And the answer is critical for underwater photography – it is non-intuitive. For me, I use AF-C as my standard focus mode (continuous mode) and “Release” as my AC-C priority selection. In all cases when I shoot underwater, I have back-button focus turned on. What that allows me to do is press my back button and focus whenever I desire and lock the focus. Then, looking through my viewfinder, I rock back and forth with my camera in hand to compose and shoot quickly. If I have to fine tune focus, I’ll press the back button again. For Macro shots, this works perfectly, as I can quickly compose/shoot. This setting allows me to take one or more very quickly without having the camera “hunting” for a good focus selection.
      • What follows are the menu settings for this feature in the Nikon D7100:


  • Auto Exposure, Settings and Histograms – When underwater, your camera’s light meter will be whacked out. This is when you use your head instead. There is no 1 setting for all shots. I always use manual mode underwater to better control the desired settings. For people who haven’t shot in manual mode before, it often sounds difficult, with lots of settings to worry about. In reality, it’s very simple (assuming you know the science of light, and how F-Stops and shutter speed work). Make your initial settings (for me, it is F/13, ISO 100, 1/250th), and then start only worry about changing one parameter at a time. It’s actually quite simple! After each shot, look at the previewed image, the histogram and adjust the amount of light accordingly. Aperture may need to be lowered to F7-F8 or a larger aperture for fish shots. When shooting small objects, shoot at a smaller aperture (up to F29) for more depth-of-field. If shooting super-macro, use F25-F50 with a 100-105mm lens. I’m constantly changing my aperture on different shots, depending on what I want to accomplish, changing from F2.8 to F32.
  • Raw vs JPG – Not much to say here – ALWAYS shoot in raw mode. Don’t worry about white balance.
  • Focus Mode – Not much needs to be said here. For underwater, I use spot focusing with matrix metering all the time. For the D7100, I use all 51 focus points.
  • Wide Angle and Shutter Speed – During the dive, I adjust the shutter speed up or down for desired background color. Changing the shutter speed only affects the background exposure. This is because your strobes fire almost instantaneously.
The Eyes are Critical

I believe that the eyes are the most vital element of a portrait, so it is essential to record them sharply, particularly if you are using a wide aperture. If the focus is off, it is usually only by a whisker. Taking animal portraits above on land is very different from taking fish portraits while submerged. I have spent years perfecting how to shoot animal portraits, specifically with the eyes in focus.

Here are a few examples where I feel that the eyes make the shot. In all cases below, one of the two lenses described above were used.
Click on any image below to see larger version of thumbnail and to walk through the gallery.

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Get the subject to ignore you

Wildlife photography is unique – when capturing images of animals (whether above or below the water), I try to get them to forget that I am there. This takes time and patience. Above water is easier. I can hide in a blind, use tripods and be very still. This will allow the wildlife to go about their normal way. Underwater photography is different. Not only is the animal moving, so am I. I’m this big black rubber thing making noise and blowing bubbles – swaying in the current – not a normal sight for an underwater animal. In general, as I approach a little fish or large animal, they will see me as a potential threat. So, whether they be lions, tigers or bears – or octopus, sharks or angle fish, I try not to approach in a threatening way. For photographing any animal, I try to master the art of distraction. Move slowly, and get my subject in their natural environment. Most of the time, they quickly forget that I’m even trying to take a picture and the “decide” that I am not a threat. That is when the fun begins. It is when my “dive time” becomes “photo time.”

It is tricky to allow the animals to trust you - here is a very curious Goliath Grouper checking us out.

It is tricky to allow the animals to trust you – here is a very curious Goliath Grouper checking us out.

The science of the eye and our animal kingdom

There are so many things to learn and master. Each trip becomes an educational experience. I continue to discover and learn more about the wildlife I encounter and continually become amazed. Here are a few examples of photos and lessons I’ve learned about “eyes” – with the creatures living in my back yard – At the Blue Heron Bridge in Riviera Beach, Florida.

Octopus Eyes

Octopus eyes can focus in different direction. They use monocular vision almost exclusively and can move its eyes independently. The amount of binocular vision is small because the eyes are on the sides of the head.

What follows are a few of my octopus images. Click to see larger size.
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The Conch

There is something very E.T. like about the Conch – very intriguing.

As a long time resident-visitor of South Florida, I have always loved conches – the soup and the shells. Only now, as an underwater photographer am I really in love with these amazing creatures – especially their eyes.

True conches have long eye stalks, with colorful ring-marked eyes at the tips. They have two-lensed eyes at the end of stalks (ommatophores). A black pupil and colored iris is found at the tip along with a sensory tentacle used to feel objects. The eyes cannot be fully retracted underneath their shell and extend slightly. To compensate for this, they can regenerate an amputated eye.

New eyes will regrow at the tip of the eye-stalk within five to six days. They initially appear smaller with hollow balls of cells and little pigment, but within 14 days the eyes are fully formed and as good as new.

Yes you just read that right… they are unique in the fact that they can re-grow their lost eyes!

What follows is super-macro photo of a Conch Eye. Click to see larger size.
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The Mantis Shrimp

The mantis shrimp has one of the most elaborate visual systems ever discovered. The vision of the mantis shrimp is so precise that it can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images. Their eyes (both mounted on mobile stalks and capable of moving independently of each other) are similarly variably coloured and are considered to be the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom.

What follows is a macro-photo of a Mantis Shrimp. Click to see larger size.
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The Southern Stingray

The flattened bodies of stingrays allow them to effectively conceal themselves in their environment. Stingrays do this by agitating the sand and hiding beneath it. Because their eyes are on top of their bodies and their mouths on the undersides, stingrays cannot see their prey; instead, they use smell and electroreceptors (ampullae of Lorenzini) similar to those of sharks.

What follows are a few wide-angle close up photos of a Southern Stingray. Click to see larger size.
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Eyes are windows into the soul of your subject

The eyes have long been considered the windows to the soul. I completely agree with this thought. As I shared above, for all animal images (whether portraiture or artistic), I try to focus on a subject’s eyes as a way to add depth and emotion to a photo. I take my time, become one with the environment and strongly feel that the right expression and placement of the eyes will make up for a less than great pose any day!

Article and photos are copyrighted by Grapek Photography Online. Any use or reproduction of any of this content is forbidden without prior authorization.


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About the Author

Howie Grapek
Howie Grapek
IPA Staff ID: 06549 • I am a semi-professional photographer with years of experience covering many media events. For the first 15 years of my photographic career, I've focused on Wildlife and Nature Photography. I am a master scuba diver and avid underwater photographer. Most recently, I would call myself a "lifestyle photographer". Basically, that means that I mix photojournalism, candid portraits, and creative photography approaches to capture the most beautiful and hidden moments. The silent vulnerability & raw emotion is what I aim to capture in each photo I take.



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