Tips for Getting the Perfect Shot: Get Into Your Sanctuary!

By Nick Zachar

May 2021

One of my first memories is flipping through a Jacques Cousteau coffee table book. The image inside the front cover is seared into my memory -- a massive school of scalloped hammerhead silhouettes cruising above the photographer somewhere near the Galapagos Islands.

Even as a child, I knew I wanted to take a photo like that and share it with everyone I knew, hoping they would feel the same excitement I had. That is the power of photography. Photographs can inspire the next scuba diver, marine biologist, or ocean steward. We can’t protect what we don’t know exists, and a great way to learn about and see what needs protection is through photography. That’s where you come in!

a scuba diver holds a camera with bright video lights
Nick Zachar films on a mission to document a research expedition in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Kate Thompson/NOAA

Get Into Your Sanctuary

Researchers from Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary prepare to enter the water from the research vessel Manta. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest

It’s that time of year again -- time to show the world what the ocean and Great Lakes mean to you by submitting photos of the National Marine Sanctuary System to the Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest. The contest runs from May 29th - September 6th, 2021 (Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend). Winning photos will be featured in next year's Earth Is Blue Magazine and on the Earth Is Blue social media campaign.

We welcome photos of your national marine sanctuaries above and below the water. For those who prefer diving in, here are some tips to get that perfect underwater shot from underwater videographer, Nick Zachar.

We now live in a world where anyone with a camera phone can be a photographer. Billions of photos are taken everyday. You can buy underwater cases for your phone or find an inexpensive action camera to document your underwater adventures. Keep in mind -- electronics and water do not mix. There are a lot of products out there, so do your research and know that even the most experienced underwater photographers have made expensive mistakes by improperly sealing a housing or pushing an O-ring one dive too many.

First and foremost, the key to any successful underwater experience is safety. Before bringing a camera into the picture (pun intended), get some dives under your belt and just focus on diving. In order to have the skills necessary to take good underwater photos or videos, your diving skills, such as buoyancy and trim, must be dialed in. This is not only for your and your buddy’s safety, but also to protect the underwater environment. Even relatively experienced divers trying to take photos can wreak havoc on a reef when their fins are flailing around taking out anything in their path. Spend time getting your buoyancy dialed in and practice looking closely without disturbing the habitat. This will prepare you to add a camera to your dive equipment. It’s also worth mentioning that you will inevitably breathe more gas when photographing underwater than when diving without a camera.

Light Behaves Differently in Water

Underwater photographer Keith Ellenbogen freedives to document and photograph the incredible life in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Once you’re proficient in your diving skills and ready to add a camera into the mix, there are some new rules when comparing above water to underwater photography that once understood, will take your underwater photography to the next level. Let’s dive in.

You might ask yourself, “why do all of my photos and videos look out of focus, too dark or grainy, or blue or green?” The short answer is that light underwater acts much differently than above water.

Water bends light, causing refraction. This makes objects appear 25% (or more) larger and closer than they actually are. This refraction can also mess with the accuracy of your auto-focus. This is definitely something to be aware of, and is also why I try to use manual focus as often as I can.

Water also absorbs light waves, and the deeper you go, the less available light there will be. Water also absorbs certain wavelengths/colors more than others. This addresses the issues of your photos and videos looking washed out with blue/green. Many people aren’t aware that by the time you reach 10 feet, most of your reds on the color spectrum have been completely absorbed by the surrounding water, and won’t be seen in your images. By 80 feet, only blues and violets on the color spectrum are visible.

We have two main ways to counteract the loss of reds, oranges, and yellows on the color spectrum. The first is the use of a red filter on your lens, which can actually enhance some of those reds back into the image. The other technique is the use of underwater strobes or video lights. Keep in mind that when used in tandem, the combination of red filters with underwater lights can actually overdo the corrections we are trying to make as underwater photographers. What I recommend is start with one as your budget allows, and practice, practice, practice. Add new gear and techniques slowly and constantly try new things and see what the results produce.

For Videographers

Nick Zachar films an angelfish and other marine life on Stetson Bank in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Photo: Kate Thompson/NOAA

One key tip for the videographers out there: shoot in high frame rates when filming underwater. Although not always a must, and more of a rule of thumb, shooting video in 60 frames per second or higher allows you to slow down your footage in editing and will result in smoother footage. Just like the “slow-mo” setting on a smart phone, filming more frames than 24 or 30 frames per second on an action camera or DSLR will correct for shaky handheld footage. Not to mention, fast moving animals like sharks and other underwater creatures look pretty cool in slow motion.

Along those lines, really do your best to steady your camera. Larger camera housings are easier to hold steady for smooth footage. It’s the smaller DSLRs and action cameras that are trickier to get smooth footage with. If you are using a small action camera, look into adding a “tray,” or other stable platform that you can attach your camera to. This will allow you to grip the small camera with two hands, and give you the ability to add lights if you wish.

From there, press record, focus on your breathing, and make only small, smooth movements. Finally, always hold your shots and try to let the subject, whether it be your dive buddy or a fish, exit the frame before you stop recording. This gives you a nice option to cut or end a scene in the edit room.

Become Part of Your Surroundings

A green sea turtle in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary prepares to dive below the surface after a breath of air. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Always let the underwater life you encounter dictate the interactions. Never chase or feed wildlife. You are in their home, and we are just spectators. There is nothing more humbling than seeing a shark or sea lion glide effortlessly underwater, and there is nothing more exciting than capturing these animals on camera and bringing that footage home to share that experience. When you have all of your equipment, diving, and camera dialed in and you slow down and let the action come to you, that is when you capture magic in your photos and videos. Who knows, maybe your photograph or video will inspire someone to want to help protect these amazing creatures and places that call the underwater world home.

We look forward to seeing your incredible photos above and below the waters of your National Marine Sanctuary System during this year’s Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest!

sea turtles on a coral reef
The Sanctuary Life category welcomes submissions of photos of sanctuary inhabitants like fish, birds, marine mammals, and other amazing ocean creatures. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA
a person kayaking over a submerged shipwreck
Sanctuary Recreation welcomes images of people responsibly enjoying national marine sanctuaries, whether they’re boating, diving, or just hanging out on the beach. Nick Zachar/NOAA

Nick Zachar is the video production coordinator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.