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Underwater Photography - Career Resource Guide

Underwater photography is for many people the pinnacle of career choices when working with marine life.  It is a field that attracts people from many different backgrounds and professions. However, this is a very specialized career field that after getting into, many find it hard to progress in. It takes a lot of extensive knowledge and blending many different individual skills together to make the pallet that a successful Underwater photographer must have.

There are most definitely very certain types of individuals that enter the field of underwater photography. Most come from a background of diving or being a Dive Master and are looking for ways to further their experience or specialize. After having hundreds of dives and really making their diving skills concrete, many are looking for ways to stay in the water and still be both challenged and profitable. Avid photographers also branch out into UP (underwater photography) and find it much more challenging than taking photographs on dry land. Underwater everything changes when it comes to structure and technique and this is something that is important for interested parties to know upfront. Of course, being related to marine life, there are also many people coming from fields of marine study branching out into UP with a genuine love of coral reefs and sea ecosystems. It is a fascinating field that while very interesting, and the dream job of many, it is also intensely demanding and challenging.

Job Description

The job of an Underwater Photographer is a very specialized career that is very rewarding to many different people. It involves being out in deep, open waters fighting against currents and the elements. An Underwater Photographer dives into the depths to explore and capture the natural sea life and ecosystems by still life photo or documentary style videos. These can be used for numerous applications from magazines and promotions to scientific research. It is a very interesting position with many pluses but unfortunately it is not always glamorous. Many Underwater Photographers will tell you there is no such thing as a perfect shoot, or perfect conditions. It is a matter of doing the best with the time you have, and meeting deadlines and requirements at any cost. Most positions are assignment or freelance based, going from job to job unless you are skilled enough to have a residency with a certain organization. On average, an UP can make from $30,000 - $60,000 annually, most being in the $40,000 range. Many professionals choose to make money in other ways in related businesses, from selling equipment and cameras, to being guides or instructors. Once you have the skills and reputation there is numerous different ways to branch out.      

Skills

The traits that make up a quality, professional UP are extensive. Many different skills must be honed over time to build up the arsenal that an Underwater Photographer must have. To be efficient at this profession, the most obvious and important quality is to be a seasoned, comfortable, and elite diver. You must be at home in the water, in any and especially the worst conditions that mother nature can offer. It is recommended that an individual successfully perform over 400 dives before ever considering UP as a career path. The reason for this is without the proper experience and comfort in the water you are endangering yourself, and your pictures will not come out well without control over yourself and equipment. Also as far as skills are concerned, a good photographer technique certainly helps. Understanding how to use cameras (including security cameras) and other equipment like strobes and underwater housings is imperative to being a quality Underwater Photographer. Under the water your techniques to take quality photos are very different than on dry land. Colors are stripped away the deeper you get, and light sources can make your images have the dreaded “snow” like effect. There is techniques solely used in UP that are crucial to be proficient in this field. Understanding the challenges you are faced with while shooting underwater is immensely important to be successful.

Knowing a lot about marine life and different habitual patterns of the native sea life is a huge part of the equation. You have to study and be knowledgeable about your subjects to know where to be to capture them, and of course when. Different climates are home to different animals and when you will be able to spot them depends on the time of the year. For finding dive and wreckage locations you have to understand coordinates and reading maps and global positioning systems. You can see how being an UP means mastering a lot of individual skills. Being an accomplished sailor, traveler, knowing how to use different equipment and much more will all come into play as an Underwater Photographer.

Education

While Underwater Photography is a very specialized field, there are still formal education options to help you dive in. Most obviously, a bachelor degree in photography is a great way to get started, especially if the chosen program might dabble in underwater techniques. A fine understanding of the equipment you are using and the different techniques that are needed will go a long way in this business. As already stated though, under the waves it’s a whole different world and specialized techniques must be used.

Marine life and Science degrees are also very useful when looking to branch out into UP. Many people decide after being in these programs that while they love marine life, they may not want to be a marine biologist. UP offers another way to stay in the water and study the animal life you love.

For Underwater Photographers that want to specialize in deep sea wreckages or exploring underwater caverns and ruins, a minor degree in archeology or nautical history are the type of specialization options that could be immensely helpful in locking down an ideal career path.

Of course, the most important thing you can do to prepare for a career in UP is get certified in diving! This cannot be stressed enough as the single most important factor. Getting your Dive Master certification is a good first step. There are many schools to choose from for this so the best thing you can do is find an accomplished instructor and check their qualifications.  A very good source for diving of all different professional levels and objectives is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Here you can definitely find information to help you on your path to become a confident, and qualified diver.

Scholarships

There are many scholarships out there being offered to those who are interested in a career in Underwater Photography.  Some are through colleges, while others are from companies that are tied in with UP.

Our World Underwater Scholarship Society - A very good Scholarship program to consider is offered from the legendary watchmaker company Rolex. Our World Underwater Scholarship Society is an organization that selects scholars every year that are interested in underwater sciences and provides both scholarships and internships.

American Academy of Underwater Sciences - This organization awards scholarships and grants for individuals interested in underwater sciences. Scholarships are granted to graduate students that submit research projects in which diving is a central tool used or diving science is a main point of focus.

Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science - This university in Miami, Florida has an annual underwater photography contest open to amateur photographers worldwide.  The contest draws in hundreds of submissions from around the globe.

Beneath the Sea - The Sea of Tomorrow Scholarship Society offers financial assistance and scholarships to individuals who show dedication to expanding their knowledge of the oceans and marine life. There are several different scholarships on varying ocean sciences.

 

Steps on the path to becoming an Underwater Photographer

While there are no set steps that will guarantee you a career in Underwater Photography, there are several steps that professionals suggest you take. This is an outline of the path to take if you are interested in a career in UP. Many individuals will find that these steps are crucial.

Become an Experienced Diver

While it goes without saying that becoming a certified and seasoned diver is essential, it still must be elaborated on. For your safety first off, and second for the simple fact that if you are not experienced and comfortable in the water, you will not take quality pictures and videos. Knowing how to use your buoyancy is crucial for steadying the camera as all your slight movements and breathing will affect your shot.  While you are on assignments you have a finite window of time to perform the dive and get the shots you need. Sometimes in terrible conditions and against the worst elements. Get certified, travel, become a strong swimmer, be confident in the water.

Study Marine Life

Having an avid interest in ocean life will be a huge asset on this path. The love of the work you’re doing will aid you to get through the rough period of harsh weather assignments and low pay. You must be knowledgeable about marine life, climates, oceans, migration patterns, the list goes on. You must constantly progress your knowledge to further your understanding of the subjects of your photography. While education and certifications do help greatly, there is nothing better than first hand, up close experience. Get in the water with a subject and assignment in mind and learn how to immerse yourself in the underwater ecosystems in a gentle and non harmful way. Respect the marine life you are documenting.

Harness Your Photography Skills

Becoming an elite photographer is not easy but definitely a key component to being successful in this field. You have to study and practice your techniques to become proficient. Forums and sites are great resources to pick up on techniques. It is highly advised to do the best with what you can afford and get your own underwater video camera to practice with. The techniques used underwater are very particular due to the low light and the absence of  color in deep depths. You have to learn to use strobes and spotlights as well as camera enclosures.  The right equipment and techniques will take you very far, but only if you have the skills and knowledge of their operation.

Courses and Certifications

There is no such thing as bad knowledge. It is worth it to invest in yourself however possible. There are numerous avenues for courses and certifications that you can find online. From diving to photography to marine study to equipment training, becoming a dive guide or instructor and more. Find an appropriate program for what you are interested in, check the qualifications of the instructor, and get trained in the many disciplines that will help you on your path.

Production and Editing

Being an industry centered around the images and videos you will be capturing, it is mandatory to get some editing experience. There are many different software programs that will help you enrich your captured material. You must learn proper editing techniques to make the most of your work and really set you apart from the pack. Again, there are numerous different certification programs to utilize both online and off.

The Real Essentials

You need to love what you are doing to make it far in this field. The passion that you build for your work will carry you farther than any paycheck. This is an industry that can be very strenuous and challenging. Often time fighting against the elements and doing pay free volunteer work can be stifling. You can’t let it stop you. Constantly persevere, build your skills, learn to sell yourself as a professional and you will get far. Everything takes time and effort but if you are truly passionate you will find a way to become a successful Underwater Photographer.