Snorkeling Photo Tip: Best White Balance Settings
snorkeler with a big camera on the surfae

White balance is one of the principal camera settings or functions we need to understand in order to bring out the natural colors of the reef and our fishy friends. What is the white balance you ask? Well, in the most simple terms, white balance is a setting included on all digital cameras, usually indicated with a “WB”, which changes the overall color of the picture to accommodate different lighting environments. For example, a land photographer would change the white balance settings when they move from shooting in a sunny outdoor environment to an indoor environment lit entirely with fluorescent light. For us underwater shooters, we adjust the white balance to account for a loss in the red wavelength as we go deeper underwater. If you do not adjust your white balance your images will come back in shades of blue and green when they should be coming back with a full spectrum of colors. How do we correctly set our white balance? Let me explain.

Side by side comparison of white balaced image vs. no white balance

Underwater Auto Shooting Modes

As I said, as we dive deeper underwater we start to lose certain colors, most importantly red. With this in mind, we need to try to account for this loss of red by utilizing our camera’s built-in digital red filter, which is controlled through the white balance function. Many cameras like newer models of GoPro or the Olympus TG series—some of the most user-friendly cameras for snorkelers and divers—will have pretty fantastic auto-white balance settings for underwater shooters.

For GoPro users, you’ll just need to switch the white balance setting into Auto and just let the camera do its thing. In my experience, and from what I’ve seen from our guests using GoPros, the colors come back very accurate.

For the Olympus TG folks, simply turn the little dial on the back so it’s on the fish, and then select the scene and depth you’ll be shooting in.  Keep in mind that when you start to shoot a new type of scene or change depth by more than fifteen feet or so, you’ll need to adjust the camera accordingly.

For those of you not using GoPros or the Olympus TG cameras, you just need to check through your camera’s white balance options. Some cameras will come with pre-set underwater balancing modes like the Olympus of the GoPro, others will require you to set them manually.

Underwater Custom White Balance 

Custom white balancing underwater works very similar to the auto white balancing modes, the only thing is, you have to manually do the calibrating. It’s a little more time-consuming the first time you do it, but once it’s done, you’ll have your own collection of different white balance settings to accommodate different depths and environments locked away in your camera for you to quickly choose from.

You can custom set your white balance by going into your camera’s white balance settings and selecting the icon that shows a sort of oval above two triangles, this is the custom white balance symbol. Once you select this, most cameras will give you a prompt on what to do next, which will involve pointing your camera at something white like a white fin, or even the palm of your hand, and then pressing one of the camera’s buttons for the final calibration. Each camera has a different button to press, so just follow the on-screen instructions.

Custom White Balance Icon
Custom White Balance Icon

A couple of things to keep in mind when calibrating a custom white balance.

    • Make sure the object you are calibrating off of is about six to eight inches from the lens.
    • There are no shadows on what you are calibrating off of.
    • Make sure that you are calibrating at the depth you intend to shoot at. That would mean diving down and calibrating while you are at your desired depthhard coral reef with manta swimming through blue water

About Author

Alex Lindbloom
Alex is a Snorkel Venture and Dive Safari Asia guide as well as the video and photo pros for both companies. Alex is also a field editor for a popular underwater photography magazine. Prior to joining Snorkel Venture in 2018 Alex lived and worked all over the world working as an underwater cameraman, with five of those years living/working on a yacht in Indonesia. Alex's images and videos have garnered many international awards such as Underwater Photographer of the Year and can be seen on NatGeo, Discovery Channel, the UN Building, and various magazines.