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18, Apr, 2013

A Beginner’s Guide to Underwater White Balance

Posted in Latest News, Liquid Lense, Shot Type Tips, Tips & Tricks, Underwater Photography Tips by tasha

Tips, tricks and photographic techniques from Liquid Lense’s underwater digital imaging specialists, to help you understand and photograph using underwater White Balance.


If you are new to underwater photography, one thing you may find is that photographs you are taking using natural light, are coming out with a blue/green cast to them and the true colours are being lost. You can overcome this problem, by learning how to manually set the White Balance on your camera. White Balance is an aspect of photography that many digital camera owners do not understand or use, but it is something well worth learning about, as it can have a real impact on the photographs you take.

Example of White Balance


Explaining White Balance:

The reason for adjusting White Balance is to get the colours in your images as accurate as possible. As water is much denser than air, light behaves differently underwater, affecting the colours as they appear underwater. Water absorbs different colours in light at different rates. Red is the first colour wavelength to be lost, disappearing altogether by about 3 metres, as light is absorbed. Secondly; orange, then yellow and so on.White Balance - Common Lionfish - Pterois volitans This means, that the deeper you go, things will appear bluer and greener. By manually setting the White Balance underwater, you will compensate for colours that have been lost. Depending on your camera, you can change the White Balance by choosing from the list of predetermined settings, or shifting the White Balance from blue to red on the scale, or by manually setting it yourself. We highly recommend, manually setting your White Balance. This will allow you to vary the White Balance with depth. A white slate or sand is ideal for setting the White Balance too.

Cameras record what they see, i.e. a bunch of colours from the light. These colours are the result of a light source and how the light is absorbed and reflected. Above water, light is not usually absorbed significantly, but light source colours can vary. For example, indoor fluorescent lighting can be a harsh white, or some lights can give an orange tone. To account for this, cameras allow you to change the White Balance and redefine what the camera thinks of as white, by allowing you to intervene. If you know that a wall is white, but it appears yellow, because of the room’s lighting, you can point your camera at the wall and set the White Balance to it. You are telling the camera that the wall is white. The camera will then adjust the colours accordingly, to account for this. This means, that the camera will compensate by removing yellows.Leopard Shark - Stegostoma fasciatum - White Balance Shot
Underwater, we are doing the same thing, except, instead of compensating for off-coloured light, we are adjusting for red light frequencies being absorbed. When we tell the camera that something that looks blue, is white, the camera adjusts by removing blues.

To set the manual White Balance correctly underwater, you need to point it and set it to something that is white, or neutral. At Liquid Lense, we recommend setting your White Balance on the sand. We prefer this method to setting it on a white slate, as we find, that by setting it to the sand, you will get more even, natural colours. It is a good idea to have a white slate with you at all times, if there is no sand available then this will work for you, also.

When photographing underwater with manual White Balance, you are using the sun as your light source, so it works best at shallower depths and on sunny days. On a bright sunny day, you will find that you can still set the White Balance at deeper depths, but on a cloudy day, you will find it harder to set the White Balance below depths of about 10 metres.White Balance - Reefscape with Divers
Shooting with White Balance means less camera drag, as you can leave your strobes on the surface. The lighting of the photo will be more even and natural, which is ideal for wide-angle shots, such as; large marine life, reefscapes, schools of fish, or large wrecks. However, without a strobe, there will be less depth to your photograph. The colour and contrast will not be as good and shadows will not be so prominent.

By setting the White Balance manually underwater, you are adding red to your image. It is really important to remember not to use the manual White Balance setting when photographing into direct sunlight, or when using a flash or strobe. This is because sunlight, flash and strobes also add red. Your resulting image will be predominantly pink/red in tone.

Most digital cameras support a manual White Balance setting. If you are intending to buy, a new digital camera, it is important to make sure it has this function. White Balance can also be adjusted on a computer, however, to do so, your photographs need to have been taken in an appropriate format (RAW format.) This format does not apply for most point-and-shoot cameras.

To set White Balance manually underwater, follow directions in your camera’s manual to find where these settings are in your camera.


Manually setting the Custom White Balance Underwater.

Teaching Example - Flash with Manual White Balance

Manual White Balance and Flash together.

  • Make sure your flash is turned off
  • Find some sand or use a white slate to set the White Balance
  • Enter your camera’s function menu. You are looking for anything that says ‘White Balance’ or maybe even “AWB” (automatic White Balance)
  • Enter the custom White Balance setting and manually set it
  • To manually set the White Balance, hold the camera’s lens over sand, or a white slate, so that the entire frame is filled and then set the White Balance
  • Check you are satisfied with the colours, if not, reset it
  • For best results, reset the White Balance at different depths, because of the way the light is absorbed A White Balance setting is only appropriate for the depth for which it was set. If you go deeper or shallower, you will need to reset
  • Remember to switch your White Balance back to auto or another setting, when using the flash, otherwise your photo will look very red


For a good White Balance shot the following should be taken into consideration:

  • The position of the sun. You ideally either want the sun behind you, or to the side of you
  • Good contrast in the photo
  • Good separation between the subject and the background. Choose your background carefully; a blue background works really well
  • Being as close as possible for a sharp foreground
  • Being careful to position yourself, making sure not to disturb the seabed, as this can frighten other sea creatures and also cause a cloud of backscatter, making it impossible to take your photograph
  • Watching your buoyancy; you need to have excellent buoyancy skills. Breaking corals or disturbing the environment is not an option. Being aware of your surroundings at all times. Keeping your body away from the reef


At Liquid Lense we love the natural effect that is created by White Balance photography.

All images are taken at the dive sites around Ko Lanta, by professional Liquid Lense Underwater Digital Imaging Specialist, Natasha Lambelin.




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