Everyone new to underwater photography wonders: “Where are the colours?”. Maybe you can identify yourself. After hours of diving and countless pictures taken you are sitting on your balcony, having a cold beer. You are reviewing your media and suddenly you wonder what happened to those beautiful colours on your images. Magnificent reefs and beautiful school of fish suddenly appear dull, green and boring. Let’s have a look on how to fix this issue in the first place.
When taking pictures underwater you need to keep in mind, that water absorbs the colour of light. Therefor, the deeper you venture, the less colours will be visible on your pictures.
You will notice, that the colour “red” is being completely absorbed at a depth of 10 meters, followed by “orange” at 20 meters, “yellow” at about 35 meters and “green” at a depth of 45 meters. Everything deeper than that will appear in a blueish colour.
There are three different ways on how to restore these colours on your images. Some techniques work better than others and might also depend on your camera system. But one word is enough to rule them all:
The process of adjusting the colour composition in a picture is called white balancing. You can accomplish this while taking a picture or in post production. When setting the White Balance on your camera, you are simply telling your device, which colour in your current setting is “true white”. In result, the cameras algorithm calculates all other colours according to the “true white” you set.
If you are capturing the underwater world with an action camera like a GoPro, there is little you can do to make the colours pop, but one of the following tips might also work for you.
1. Automatic Underwater White Balance
When choosing between different White Balance settings in your camera you might come across the “Automatic Underwater White Balance” (usually marked with a FISH symbol). Not every camera supports this feature. Cameras like the Canon G7x, Sony RX100 or the Olympus TG series for example allow you to use Underwater White Balance. As every cameras colour algorithm is different, the results from different cameras will vary in style and colour. Automatic UW White Balance is a good way to get started but might not work properly at greater depth.
2. Manual White Balance
Every digital, mirrorless or DSLR camera allows you to adjust the White Balance manually. Depending on the manufacturer and camera system you would have to take a picture of something white (white fins or slates e.x). Then you need to tell your camera that this image contains the “true white” and your camera will calculate the whole colour spectrum according it. This setting is usually found at the very bottom of the White Balance settings.
Adjusting your White Balance manually gives you greater opportunities, better results but can sometimes be quite tiring: Remember, the colour spectrum is different at every depth. Meaning you would have to adjust the White Balance every time you go shallower or deeper. Some cameras give you the option of saving multiple custom White Balance settings. This way you can set 3 different White Balances for 3 different depth and change them according to your depth.
3. Post Production White Balancing
Everything is possible in post production. If you have experience using editing programs like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop you know, that you can change the Temperature and Tint of a picture in post production which is actively effecting the White Balance of your image. Lightroom gives you the option of selecting a white object on the frame. According to your selection it will adjust Tint and Temperature of all colours.
Changing White Balance in post production is a great tool to rescue your underwater colours but it should be the last resort. The quality of the image suffers under too much editing and post production. Therefor you are advised to capture your images straight from your camera with the right White Balance setting and only “manipulate” the image afterwards if truly needed.
Conclusively we would advise you to set your White Balance manually for the best results. If you are still not happy with your colours, the only way out is to invest in underwater strobes. Only with underwater strobes the true colour of the underwater world will comes into light. Learn more about underwater strobes in our next article.