The Art of White Balancing for Underwater Photography

Posted: Aug 6, 2014

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.

Sara sets white balanceMost 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.

light and no light

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 Light choiceseven 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

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August 13, 2014 @ 10:10 am

Wayne, if you're getting too much light you can try several things: Backing away or turning the light down (if that's an option) are obvious, but you can also look at the histogram on your camera or adjust the exposure to tone down those hot spots. Depending on the options your camera has :)

Jay Schiesser
August 11, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

As always, Sara has great info !! Some cameras don't have the ability to white balance (point and shoot cameras as an example). Some of these types of cameras might have an underwater setting which can help. Most picture viewing software also usually has some edit features you can use to help with adjusting colors. Make sure you read up on the abilities of your particular camera and software !!

Jeremy Bricco
August 11, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

Yes, yes, YES!!!!! White balance is THE KEY to capturing all of the colors that you lose when shooting underwater! (That, and awesome lighting like the Sola 1200!) I love introducing people to the concept of "re-teaching" their cameras what color white really is when they're underwater, and seeing their amazement at their new photographic capabilities! Fantastic blog, Sara!

Wayne White
August 11, 2014 @ 11:57 am

Sara Thanks for this informative blog. Adding a lighting is a good fix but I occasional get too much light. Hope to be there in Nov to practice some more. More time in the water testing approaches and practicing underwater photograph always helps. See ya then!

Mike Roberts
August 11, 2014 @ 10:00 am

Wow Sara! Well written and very informative info that is so important to UW photography. I would add that white is not the only "color" you can use for calibrating your camera's WB. Anything without color will work. In fact, a 50% gray card is best if you have one since it is less likely to reflect the color of some other close object - like your yellow fins. Of course if you already have a white slate, that works very well. Also keep in mind that just turning around - sun in different direction - will change the WB when you are uw. So if you are shooting with only natural light - no strobe - you should recalibrate before each new subject. If your camera saves raw files, use it and you can not worry about WB till it's on your computer.

Teri White
August 8, 2014 @ 10:32 am

Great blog Sara! With my GoPro I use the Underwater Kinetics Aqualite that you mentioned. The beauty of this light is that the coverage of illumination matches the wide angle of the GoPro camera. It also gives even lighting without a hotspot in the middle. When not using the light, I use a red filter to bring back the color.

August 6, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

Nice one, Sara! I loved this blog because I can totally remember getting blued-out pictures and being so disappointed that my end results didn't look anything like how I remembered it being on the dive! I have a couple more tips I'll share here: In a pinch, aiming your camera at the sand or even the palm of your hand can work to reset your white balance (if you can't find something white). One other handy tip is that manual white balance can (and should!) be used for video clips too (if you don't have lights or filters). And finally, some of the higher-end point and shoot cameras allow users to program short-cut buttons. If you program one to take you directly to custom/manual white balance, you can reset white balance very quickly underwater without having to push lots of buttons and scroll through options!