8 Essential Underwater Photography Tips from Sarah Lee


Water photographer Sarah Lee (recently featured in a behind-the-scenes artist profile for the SmugMug Film series) grew up in Hawaii, surfing and swimming competitively. One day, while at a swimming competition, she was handed a camera and hasn’t looked back since.

She finds inspiration in the unpredictability of nature, creates art that captures the interplay of people, water, and light, and uses photography to find beauty in the chaos. If you want to take the plunge into underwater photography, check out Sarah Lee’s essential underwater photography tips below, plus get a close look at her underwater photography gear kit.

Underwater Photo Tip #1

Ask your models to channel their inner ballerina or yogi and trust them. Open body posture is key. This photograph was taken of adventure model and soul surfer, Alison Teal, somewhere in the warm waters of Fiji.

Credit: Sarah Lee

Credit: Sarah Lee

Underwater Photo Tip #2

I find it ideal to photograph people underwater in the late morning between 8-11am because you’re going to need a lot of natural light being underwater. Though, on occasion it’s fun to experiment with different times of day. This photograph was taken during the last hour of the day, probably in the presence of a few sharks too shy to make themselves known.

Credit: Sarah Lee

Credit: Sarah Lee

Underwater Photo Tip #3

Skin tones look the best within 1-5 feet of the surface. Beyond that, you start to lose the warmth and reds in their skin tone.

Credit: Sarah Lee

Credit: Sarah Lee

Underwater Photo Tip #4

Lately I’ve been using an Outex, which is a silicone water cover. It’s rad because you can use different lenses in it, and it has a tripod neck strap. It’s worked really well underwater in lots of different situations.

Credit: Mark Tipple

Credit: Mark Tipple

Underwater Photo Tip #5

You don’t always need a fancy camera or underwater setup to take a good photo. This photograph was taken on a GoPro. Read more about shooting with a GoPro on my blog.

Credit: Sarah Lee

Credit: Sarah Lee

Underwater Photo Tip #6

Working with props and clothes can be challenging underwater but worth the effort! In this shoot, I created a jellyfish from an umbrella, ribbons, and beaded curtains. Just be careful you don’t lose anything in the process!

Credit: Sarah Lee

Credit: Sarah Lee

Underwater Photo Tip #7

Within the realm of underwater photography, there’s not much in your control. It’s all about being in the moment and finding the composition within the “chaos.” Most of my favorite photographs were taken when I just let things “be” and used my camera as a way to interpret what is happening at the present moment, rather than trying to orchestrate and control any of it.

Credit: Lucia Griggi

Credit: Lucia Griggi

Underwater Photo Tip #8

Protect your gear. I alternate between surf housing and water covers depending on the conditions I shoot in.

Credit: Sarah Lee

Credit: Sarah Lee

Want more?

Read SmugMug’s exclusive interview with Sarah Lee or check out the SmugMug Films artist profile of Sarah Lee by clicking here. Thanks for the tips, Sarah!

About the author: Sarah Lee is a water and surf photographer based in Hawaii and California. Her work has been featured in the Huffington Post, Daily Mail, Marie Claire and more. Check our her portfolio and print shop here. This article originally appeared on SmugMug’s blog. Introduction by Katherine Cheng.

Image credits: Photographs credited individually, used courtesy of SmugMug.

  • snuggles

    I like guest blog posts where they tell you where to buy their stuff that’s awesome

  • Rob S

    Tip #0 – Start with girl in Bikini

  • Knightmare6

    I’ve been debating an Outex cover

  • Rubi

    tip #9 : have water

  • Dover

    Wonderful photography and advice. Thanks!

  • tomdavidsonjr

    Nobody does it like Sarah Lee…

  • Jas

    Thats a bit sad, no ocean nearby