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Tips And Hints On How To Compose Better Underwater Images


Rule of Thirds and Diagonals
Rule of Thirds and Diagonals

Following his last article on underwater macro photography and looking at different lighting techniques, Martyn Guess provides some more tips on how we can all get better underwater images.

If you break down a good underwater image, what are the ingredients that help it to be memorable? What makes an image dynamic and leap off the page? The first thing is probably an interesting subject, maybe doing something interesting, or a subject or scene which is striking or colourful, However, the viewer would not dwell on the image if it was poorly lit or exposed, and was not well composed. In this article, I want to look at composition in more detail, and will cover exposure the next time.


The rule of thirds and strong diagonals are a prerequisite for dynamic images. Probably the most basic of all photography rules is about dividing up the image frame into nine equal sections by a set of imaginary horizontal and vertical lines. Using this imaginary frame, you need to place the key part of your image on one of the lines or where the lines meet.

The rule suggests that the best place to put the subject or the part of the subject you want to highlight isn’t necessarily in the middle of the frame but slightly off to one side. The result will often be a lot more natural-looking and will help create a well-balanced image.

In above image, the eye of the subject is placed close to one of the ‘thirds’ intersections of the frame and the subject angled to give a good diagonal line, which helps to create a well-composed image.

The rhinophores of the nudibranch in image two and the eye position of the hammerhead shark in image three are close to the ‘thirds’ intersection. Both images also have strong diagonal lines – the angle of the pair of rhinophores and the shark body position help to make a strong image.

Composition also works well with a symmetrical image, so straight on portrait opportunities are something to look for – putting the subject to one side of the frame also works well compositionally, and if the subject is looking into the frame it will help lead the viewer’s eye into the picture.

It is important to get low and angle the camera up slightly, as this will give a more-natural image than one looking down (will also help to give subject separation from its background). Eye contact when taking images of animals or critters is also key to a good overall composition.

If your image is likely to lose impact due to a busy background (quite a common reality with underwater photography), then cropping in tight around the main point of focus or subject, eliminating the background works well, as all attention falls on the subject. If the background in your image does not dominate the picture, then a composition can work well with the subject seen in its environment.

Such as a pygmy seahorse in a wider view of its fan, rather than the typical shot taken really tight. On the subject, such a wider view composition quite often helps with giving an impression of scale – helping the viewer to understand how big the subject is, for example.

Try to remember to keep an eye on the edge of your frame when composing the shot to make sure that you haven’t inadvertently cut off part of the subject you are shooting. I see this problem quite a bit with students on my workshops.

And it is quite common to miss part of the subject within the frame when looking through a viewfinder with a mask! We all have one stronger eye and it is easy to miss a vital part of the subject, such as clipping a tail or a fin or the edge of scenic shot. What could have been a great shot can be easily ruined by not paying attention to the edge of the frame. There are, of course, times when this rule can be ignored but pay attention to the frame and make sure you are including or excluding exactly what you want.

Natural or man-made frames are very useful underwater and can have various uses when used compositionally. They can help to isolate the subject, drawing in the eye directly to it. They can also be used to hide things behind, such as the sun when you are at a shallow depth where the beams and sun ball are so strong you risk burning the image out.

Putting the sun behind the leg of a pier, for example, can create an image with a lot of impact with sun beams, but not the burnt-out sun ball. I will often put the subject in the sun-ball itself as a way to create an impactful silhouette image and frame the subject within Snell’s window.

A strong sun-ball can ruin a wide-angle image and sometimes it is unavoidable. In these instances, I will frame the top of the image to show the sun beams but not the actual ball. In the same way when in caves shooting sun rays, the images work better if the brightest part of the sun is framed out. A frame will give an image depth and help create context.

It is important to watch backgrounds carefully as blocks of strong colour or overexposed or bright areas or unsightly objects will distract the viewer and pull the eye away from what it is meant to be focusing on.

I will often squint my eyes to see what parts of the frame are too bright and then either recompose or adjust exposure settings accordingly. If the background problem can’t be avoided, then opening the aperture to a lower F-stop and blurring the background will help to alleviate the issue.

Creating depth in wide-angle pictures is very desirable and thus having a foreground, a middle and background will add depth compositionally to our images as well as help to draw the eye through the picture. I often look for a background to set something against that I have found in the foreground when swimming along a reef.

If you are lucky you can find a part of the reef and use it as a background and maybe something in the middle ground to set off against the reef with the subject in the foreground.

The background reef as a silhouette is an excellent backdrop to set your subject against and one which will give a good contrast to your strobe lit subject .

Using the shape of the reef against something with a similar shape in the middle or foreground is also something that will work very well from a composition perspective. Symmetry with shapes and patterns along the reef is well worth looking for.

The next time you dive with a camera, practice the Rule of Thirds and set your subject at an angle to give a strong diagonal lead into the frame. You will not be unhappy with the improvement in your images!


Want to learn how to take or improve your underwater images? Why not come on a photo-specific trip? These trips are meticulously planned to the best destinations at the best time of year where the conditions should be perfect for building a portfolio of great images.

The workshops, which are for all levels of experience but mainly aimed at people with a few trips under their belts, include classroom sessions and presentations as well as in-water help and guidance, all done in a relaxed and non-competitive friendly environment.

I am leading a trip for Scuba Travel to Lembeh Resort in Indonesia in Oct/Nov 2022.


Martyn has been diving for over 30 years and taking underwater images for over 25 years. He has been very successful in National and International competitions and regularly makes presentations to Camera and Photography clubs as well as BSOUP.

(The British Society of Underwater Photographers) and other underwater photography groups. Today he shares his passion and knowledge – As well as teaching underwater photography courses he leads overseas workshop trips for Scuba Travel.

Photographs by Martyn Guess

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