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Photographing underwater wildlife: nine top tips from Christian Vizl

By World Photography Organisation | 1 year 7 months ago

We're all familiar with the adage about us knowing more about the surface of the moon than the ocean floor, so perhaps it's this not knowing that keeps us full of awe and wonder whenever we see anything subaquatic. Underwater wildlife photographer Christian Vizl has been diving into the depths of the world's beautiful oceans and seas for the past 30 years; he shares nine top tips when shooting all things under the water's surface. 


While it’s not all about technique it’s a good place to start. I love to shoot with a wideangle lens, I often use a 16-35mm as it gives me quite a bit of flexibility when wanting to get close to my subjects. I’ll switch my settings to shutter priority so I’m freer to concentrate on getting those important shots - as wildlife can be pretty unpredictable fast moving! If shooting macro, manual settings are a must so you can control mainly depth of field while using flash. 


To be a good underwater photographer you’ve got to (obviously) be well trained in diving. Before you consider taking a camera out make sure you’re totally confident in the ocean. Spend time developing your distinctive style and of course respect the wildlife and their environment.


This goes without saying but always good to remind everyone! It’s really important to not touch or harass the animals in any way. Make sure you don’t go beyond your capabilities while diving and be respectful of other divers too. It’s a special community the diving community and being supportive of another is key. 


Researching and planning is key in underwater photography as conditions are so critical in getting the right shots. Make sure you check out the best diving centers, times of the year and, of course, be really familiar with the behaviour of the animals you’ll be encountering. The more you can learn about your subject the better. 


The most important thing in wildlife photography is to develop a profound love and respect for your subjects and discover as much as possible about their particular behaviour so you can behave accordingly and maximize your chances to establish a positive rapport, but keep in mind that each animal is an individual and will have individual behavior. 


Check the forecast before you head out. If the weather is bad, the diving center won’t take people out but in terms of avoiding conditions as a photographer try and avoid times of strong winds as they can create big waves which isn’t great for images. I’m a firm believer you can create an amazing photograph in any lighting condition. 


You’ve got to travel to where the most amazing wildlife are to get those great shots. For me, South Baja California, particularly La Paz, Cabo Pulmo and Los Cabos are my top three spots.


Keep looking at other photographers’ work, it’s a great way to learn how to compose an image as well as seeing the many ways you can communicate what’s going on in the world. Jacques Cousteau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Sebastian Salgado, Nick Brandt, Peter Beard, David Doubilet and Ernie Brooks have all been lifelong inspirations.


Post-production has always been a key element in photography however today’s technology offers us tools with almost endless capabilities, so sometimes it’s tricky to know where to start. Try and know one post-processing software tool really well. I only use Adobe’s Lightroom for my editing.

Enter your best wildlife or underwater photography images to the 2020 Sony World Photography Awards competition, now open and free to enter. 

Christian Vizl was born in Mexico City and has been a photographer for over three decades. He's won numerous international professional awards including Wildlife Photographer of the Year, International Photographer of the Year and has been recognized in the Sony World Photography Awards. Vizl has served as a judge in several international underwater photography contests and his images have been published in numerous media outlets, including National Geographic and Ocean Geographic.

Silent Kingdom: A World Beneath the Waves is out now
By David Doubilet, Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, Christian Vizl
Hardback, $50

See Christian Vizl's portfolio here
Check out his Instagram feed here