Underwater Wrecks - pecios Fujikawa_maru montereydiver
The Best Underwater Wrecks to Explore in the World
Dive planning - plan de buceo
Dive Planning Tips for Novice Explorers
Show all

The Art of Underwater Cave Photography

Underwater cave photography is a technical and logistical challenge. Photographers must deal with low light conditions, the requirements of technical diving, and the limitations of photographic technique.

Despite the challenges, cave photography offers a beautifully unique view of an environment that few can experience. In this article, we review the most important aspects of underwater cave photography so you can take your first photos if that’s what you desire, or appreciate the effort it takes.

Underwater Cave Photography 2 fotografía de cuevas submarinas

1. Technical Skills and Training Needed for Underwater Cave Photography


If we want to be responsible, we must say something clear and soon: cave photography is not for everyone. It requires meticulous preparation, solid technical knowledge, and a deep understanding of the underwater environment.

Prepare as a diver for the adventure:

Before embarking on cave exploration, remember that safety is paramount. You must have the proper training; underwater cave photography demands great adaptability. Always dive with a buddy and adhere strictly to cave diving safety rules. Additionally, cave photography requires respect for the environment, avoiding sedimentation and any damage to the fragile beauty of the cave.

In other words, you need cave diving training. It’s important to have technical diving knowledge to overcome the challenges presented in an underwater cave environment; specific certifications are required. These certifications will provide you with the necessary skills to overcome critical situations inside a cave, such as planning a dive in a cave, setting up equipment, mastering techniques like low visibility navigation, buoyancy, gas blending, and how to act if you lose the guideline or if your buddy becomes entangled in it.

Our advice: start your photographic journey in open waters to refine your buoyancy and navigation. Practice in shallow caves before venturing into more challenging ones. Cenotes are ideal for underwater cave photography.

Technical Photography Skills:

Advanced knowledge in underwater and cave photography is paramount. In addition to technical diving skills, it’s important to have knowledge of underwater photography. This includes understanding the characteristics and techniques of underwater photography, as well as the equipment needed to capture images underwater; mastery of lighting to illuminate scenes and avoid unwanted shadows; understanding the impact of depth that alters the appearance of photos; and practices to train anticipation and react quickly. With preparation, technical knowledge, and a passion for photography, you’ll be ready to explore underwater caves and capture images that will take anyone’s breath away!

2. Essential Equipment for Cave Photography


To become a master of this discipline, you’ll need an arsenal of tools:

Personal protective equipment: Depending on the cave and conditions, you may need personal protective equipment such as a helmet, drysuit, or thicker wetsuit to protect you from the cold, gloves, a compass, a dive computer, etc. This will help you stay safe and comfortable while exploring and photographing in underwater caves.

Headlamp or dive light: since caves can be dark, it’s important to bring a headlamp or dive light (with spare batteries) to illuminate the environment and be hands-free to adjust the camera while taking photos.

Waterproof housing: this will protect your camera from water pressure, bumps with rocks, and other incidents that may occur while photographing caves. Look for one that is rugged, shockproof, and with intuitive controls so you can focus on the perfect shot.

A pair (or more) of off-camera lights: will be your allies in the fight against darkness. Illuminate it with controlled bursts of light.

Tripod or support: An indispensable ally for stable shots in low-light conditions. With it, you can capture the majesty of an underwater cathedral without your image trembling like jelly.

Wide-angle lenses: Wide-angle lenses are ideal for capturing the breadth and beauty of caves. They will allow you to capture more of the environment and highlight the rock formations and details of the cave. A rectilinear lens that doesn’t curve stalactites and stalagmites.

The camera: For cave photography, it’s essential to be able to shoot at high ISOs to reduce noise.

3. Preparing for a Photographic Dive in Caves


For a photo session in a cave, preparation begins long before submerging. Cave photography is by far the most structured and planned type of underwater photography.

  1. The first step for cave photography is choosing the right place. It’s important to research and find caves that are safe for diving and offer interesting photographic opportunities.
  2. At least one dive in the cave should be done before the photo session to scout locations, think about lighting, etc.
  3. Back on the surface, plans for the photo dive must be thoroughly discussed. These plans should include all preparations linked to cave diving plus those related to the photo shoot. What do we want to convey with the photography? In what order will the shots occur? Who will carry what? Where should the model be placed?
  4. It’s important to agree on signals to change the diver’s position, where to aim your main light, and where to look because, in a photo shoot, the signals are completely different from those used in ordinary diving. Rather, some signals are added to others.
  5. Think about your camera settings before diving, rather than trying to make adjustments underwater.

4. Technical Tips for Underwater Cave Photography


4.1. Pre-adjust your camera’s focus for cave photography

First and foremost, cameras need light to focus. Focus in cave photography is vital and must be handled correctly because it cannot be corrected in post-processing. Wide-angle photography, which typically doesn’t pose a focusing issue, is a challenge inside a cave because the shutter aperture is wider to compensate for the lack of light, and a high ISO is used. Therefore, it’s advisable to unlink the focus from the trigger, focus with the light on, and lock it before shooting.


4.2. Lighting Techniques for Underwater Cave Photography

First of all, remember to adjust your camera’s white balance according to the light source you’re using, whether it’s natural or artificial light. This will help you achieve accurate colors in your photographs.

Sometimes, as in cenotes, caves have openings that allow sunlight to enter. Take advantage of them. Plan your session for midday when the rays are highest. Let the water calm down before shooting, so those rays will be more focused.

The surface will be brighter than the rays, if you want them to be seen, the ray should be surrounded by darkness and minimize the portion of the surface appearing in the photo. That way, the ray will be the brightest part of the composition. One way to do this is to take a photo near the cave’s ceiling.

Another interesting tip is: to shoot the photo from darkness. What needs to be illuminated is the scene, not the photographer. Get out of the light.

In other instances, the only underground lights are the ones you bring with you, therefore mastering lighting will allow you to freeze movement and reveal the hidden details of the caves. Precisely illuminating the scene, creating a play of light and shadow, will make your underwater cave photos shine.

Forget about using the flash as you have done before. Direct light produces overexposed, flat, and uninteresting images. Additionally, all divers know that water filters light, so strobe lights won’t reach very far. We also don’t want our models floating on black backgrounds. We want the cave to be visible. Therefore, we need to illuminate the environment to create context. The solution: light.

If you use strobe lights, you can combine one from the camera and another carried by your model pointing backward to illuminate the background.


Another option is to choose video lights. LED lights are recommended due to their color temperature similar to Flash and lower scene lighting pollution.

Lighting from various independent sources adds the third dimension and facilitates viewing of both the foreground and background of underwater cave photography.

To ensure the diver is not just a silhouette in shadow, we must illuminate them, but it must be done correctly or their body will cast shadows on the cave wall. Front lighting creates reflections in the dive mask, and although sometimes it’s a problem, other times it creates a very cool effect. Illuminating the diver from below usually yields good results. To create a halo effect, they are illuminated from behind with an extra light handled by an assistant.

The “light painting” technique is very appropriate in these cases and involves selectively illuminating different areas of the cave while the camera captures a long exposure.

Regardless, it’s interesting to avoid direct light to prevent the image from being overexposed and losing depth.

The main problem with darkness is exposure, and for that, the camera will need to be configured. There are no magic numbers: light levels are changing, and the best combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO depends on your type of camera.

4.3. The Importance of Having a Model in Underwater Cave Photography


A flooded cave can be very impressive, but no one will understand how much it is unless we scale it with a human.

The presence of a model in a photograph can add visual and narrative interest to the image. A model can help provide a reference scale, highlight the beauty of the environment, and add a human element to the composition. In the case of underwater cave photography, a model can help convey the feeling of exploration and adventure and highlight the magnitude and beauty of rock formations and bodies of water.

Furthermore, having a model in the photograph can help create an emotional connection with the viewer. Seeing a person in the image, the viewer can imagine being in that place and experiencing the same sense of awe and wonder. This can make the photograph more memorable and meaningful.

The role of a model in underwater cave photography is challenging. Minimizing the shutter speed to abnormal levels is common in underwater cave photography. Models must be able to maintain buoyancy and posture for a sufficient amount of time (which is never short). As a photographer, you also need to be very stable, or the photograph will be blurry.

Achieving focus in darkness requires an underwater light source directed towards the subject (ideally a video light with a wide angle), but, likely, this will partially blind your model. In addition to posing, cave diving partners often handle one or more lights, whether flash or not. These can be mounted on their equipment, which will require your partner to pay additional attention to them. Other lights will be portable, which implies more assistants. A model capable of keeping the flashlight at the optimal angle with respect to the rock structure behind them (without looking at it), while remaining still in the ideal position for the lens and smiling at the camera, deserves recognition for their skill.


4.4. Composition in Underwater Cave Photography


Composition in underwater cave photography is an important aspect to consider for creating impactful and visually appealing images.

Composition in photography refers to the arrangement of elements and subjects within the image frame. It’s a way of visually organizing elements to create a balanced and attractive image. In the case of underwater cave photography, composition can be especially challenging due to lighting conditions and the importance of rock formations and the diving model.

Explore different angles and perspectives to find interesting compositions. You can try capturing shots from the water level to emphasize the feeling of immersion or look for elevated viewpoints to show the scale and beauty of the cave from above.

Remember that there are no strict rules in photographic composition, and each photographer has their style and approach. The most important thing is to experiment, explore, and develop your creative eye. Underwater cave photography offers a unique and challenging environment, but is also full of opportunities to capture stunning and memorable images.

5. Notable Underwater Cave Photographers


Natalie L. Gibb: Specializing in photographing underwater caves, this photographer seeks to convey through her lens the serenity and awe she feels when exploring the dark flooded passages.

Tom St George: Merging his two passions, diving and photography, this photographer captures striking images of underwater caverns, caves, and marine life.

SJ Alice Bennett sheds new light on the dark, gloomy, and twisted passages of underwater caves and offers a fresh perspective on cave diving practice.

In conclusion, underwater cave photography is a challenge that requires meticulous preparation, solid technical knowledge, and respect for the environment. From safety to lighting and composition, each aspect demands attention and skill. Only with passion and dedication do underwater cave photographers manage to explore these underground landscapes and capture the breathtaking and unforgettable images they offer.


Note: All the images featured in this article belong to SJ Alice Bennett, Rafa Fernandez, Dressel Divers or are in the public domain. This article is intended for informational purposes only and no economic gain is sought from it.