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Got a new underwater camera for Christmas? Now what…. underwater photography expert Andrew Sallmon talks about some things a new scuba diver would want to know with their first camera set-up.

( – So you got a new camera, strobe, housing, lens etc. Now what?

If you are one of those people who believe that simply purchasing the latest and greatest piece of underwater photo equipment is all that is necessary to create great images then you need to think again. Spending the time to learn about how that new equipment works is the best way to get started.


Learning the features and how to operate and maintain new equipment can be overwhelming since many manufacturers use their own specific set of terms and acronyms to designate equipment function. Couple that with the increasing complexity of underwater imaging equipment and the experience could prove frustrating to the user and possibly disastrous to the equipment. Here are some tips to help you speed up the learning process and avoid trouble.

Get it out of your system
Go ahead, open the box, unwrap it and play with your new toy. Look through the paperwork. Some manufacturers have gone to a “quick-start” guide to get you up and running fast. Read step 1 through whatever, put in the batteries, turn on the switch and press the button a few times. Now it is time to get serious. You need to read your owners manual but do not expect to sit down and read it from cover to cover. Nothing could put you to sleep faster.

Use a systematic approach to learning
Approach your equipment as a “system” with “sub-systems”. This will help you to learn step-by-step instead of overloading yourself with everything at once. Choose a specific section in the manual that covers the “sub-system” you want to learn about and read it with the equipment near by. Stop periodically to try out the controls to see what each will do. Learn each sub-system separately until you feel comfortable with it then proceed to the next.

Test yourself
Once comfortable operating your new equipment set it up and do a topside test. Find subjects of the approximate size and shape that you wish to create images of and go through the process of how you would make an image step-by-step. As you do this analyze the order of each step and ask yourself if doing things in that order is the best way. Visualize being underwater and the difficulties you may have like surge, current, poor visibility and approaching shy animals. Adjust your steps and techniques appropriately.

Practice makes perfect
Practice with your system before you go diving. Practice aiming the strobe(s), aiming and focusing the camera, setting the aperture, shutter speed and strobe power. Visualize the types of marine life that you expect to encounter. Turn on the camera and strobe(s), focus on a practice subject of similar size and take some shots. This is easier with a digital camera since you can delete the test images. Doing this with a film camera may require that you load the film after practice.

Water test new equipment
Please don’t take brand new out of the box equipment on a dive before testing it. If your plans are for long range travel make sure you get it in the water at least twice before the trip. Even if you are just going for a day trip plan to “test-dive” your system before you actually use it. All to often something will work topside but once exposed to the increased pressure at depth it mysteriously fails. If it’s a new housing for your camera it’s best to plan a dive without the camera in the housing the first time. While underwater push every button and move every control. Look inside the housing for signs of leakage. Once you know everything is water tight you will want to do a second dive with the camera in to make sure everything works. Check out every control and shoot some test images. If you cannot get out on a dive then test your new equipment in a swimming pool. Even though the depth is shallow in a pool it’s still better to try it out than not. Finally, make sure to do all your pre-trip test dives with plenty of time remaining to get items serviced before your trip just in case something goes wrong.

Take it with you
Bring your owners manual with you when you go diving. Do not expect to remember everything in it. Bring the manual as a reference in case something comes up that you haven’t encountered. Keep it in a “zip-lock” waterproof bag with your spare batteries. You did bring spare batteries, right?

Take a class
Learning underwater imaging takes too long by the trial and error method. You would be well advised to take a class in underwater photography before going out on your own. Many dive stores and resorts have a photo-pro on staff to help you and they are usually underwater photo instructors as well. Also, look for an instructor familiar with the type of system that you are using. There is not much point in taking a class from an instructor that only shoots a film system if you are shooting a digital system and vice-versa.

Taking the time to learn about your new underwater photo equipment requires a little pre-planning but it is time well spent. Arriving at the dive site with your equipment water tested and prepared is a good start and will minimize the possibility of flooding and damage to it. Being familiar with the operation and maintenance of your camera system will help you think faster underwater and provide you with endless opportunities to capture images of the wonderful moments we all find during our dives.

Andrew Sallmon is a well-known and published underwater photographer who contributes regularly to For more information, visit his website at


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