Underwater Photography Etiquette for Marine Life
underwater camera sitting on the beach

Camera SD cards are massive now, and quite cheap. While all this extra data storage space should ensure that you always have room on your card for that magical underwater moment, it also tends to encourage people to adopt a ‘spray and pray’ approach to their underwater photography endeavors. As someone who leads underwater photography workshops I always urge those who do tend to have a heavy ‘trigger finger’ to plan their shots a bit more, not only to save themselves time later when organizing their photos, but also to give marine life a break from a rapid fire flash.

While I haven’t actually spoken to the fish and asked them their true opinions on being photographed, after years of working with a camera in the ocean and witnessing their reoccurring behavior when confronted with a camera, particularly when the flash is engaged, I feel confident when I say they “they don’t love it.” It is for this reason that we, the Snorkel Venture guides, have put together this little etiquette guide for photographing marine life. This little guide will not only give some respite to shy marine creatures, but should also help you get a better photo as consider your subject and how might want to approach it so as to get the best shot with the least number of attempts.

Large Marine Life: Flash Off

Snorkeler photographing whale shark

Larger marine creatures like turtles and mantas are basically too big to fully illuminate with a flash, particularly if you are using a smaller compact camera. Not only that, but it’s quite likely they will quickly disappear into the blue if you start to pester them with a flash. For the best interactions and photos of larger marine life we always suggest using the fish mode on your camera, or a custom white balance, and just turn off the flash and let the sun bathe them in that beautiful dapple light.

Larger Marine Life: Flash On

hawksbill turtle looking into camera lens

I’d be a big hypocrite if I said that you should only photograph larger subjects like mantas and turtles without a flash, as I regularly photograph subjects such as these with a flash. However, when I do approach a subject that I intend to photograph with my two large flashes, it’s not without considering the behavior of the individual I wish to photograph. Not all species or individuals within a species will be overly bothered by the camera’s flash. If the animal is clearly unbothered by my presence and allows me to photograph it at a reasonable distance with out my flashes, I will then turn my flash on and check the exposure on a rock to make sure that I have all my settings dialed in. This way I can take the two or three photos I need before moving on. Even the most complacent subjects will eventually get annoyed and disappear, so be sparing with your photos so others may enjoy the same wonderful creature.

Smaller Marine Life: Flash On

mandarin fish

Smaller reef fish tend to be a lot faster and just shy in general, which means that flash is almost necessary to get a nice clear picture as the blitz from the flash freezes any motion.  When you are photographing reef fish please keep in mind that they don’t have eye lids to block the bright light of the flash. We strongly urge those who love photographing smaller reef fish to keep your shots per individual fish to a minimum, two to three photos each is advised for the well being of our ocean friends. Also something to keep in mind is that the flash is only effective from a few inches to about two feet from the camera, so make sure that if you are using a flash that you get in close to the subject, with out bothering it, before you take your shot.

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Alex Lindbloom