Sea turtle photo - Photo credit: Monica Sweet

How to underwater photography with iPhone 5S – tutorial.

How to underwater photography with iPhone 5S – tutorial.


This is a tutorial on how to do underwater photography with iPhone 5S. Hence the title, ‘How to underwater photography with iPhone 5S – tutorial.’ 😉


“Impressive underwater photography is an art, a skill that should be developed and practiced with the correct equipment.
Anybody can take underwater photos with cheap disposable cameras. However, if you really want to stand out in the crowd and capture truly great underwater photos, easily, and without blurriness and low quality results, this article can help you on your way.


Surfing Maxwell Beach, South Coast Barbados
Surfing Maxwell Beach, South Coast Barbados. Photo: Nicole Lisa Photography / Alexander Van Dorph
Just take a look at the impressive photos in this article, which I hope will inspire you towards capturing similar photos. If you have any questions about anything – look me up in the FORUM or on my facebook page.


As seen above – shooting breaking waves is another fun thing you can do with a watertight camera. Set your imagination free, and dare to thread in the deep end.


Good luck!”

– Nicole Lisa Photography


This article will cover:

What equipment do I need to shoot underwater photography with iPhone 5S?
– What settings should I use to capture underwater photography with iPhone 5S?
– What do I need to think about for lighting in underwater photos?
– What is the best waterhousing for iPhone 5S?


“Every man builds his world in his own image. He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice.”
-Ayn Rand



The camera gear needed to shoot underwater photos with iPhone 5S.



Preferably a DSLR camera, but not a necessity – many point and shoot cameras and even smartphones will do the trick. In this tutorial the equipment is specialized to the iPhone 5S. A DSLR will allow you ease of use in an ever changing rapid environment when waves are crashing over you, surfers are gliding past you, or curious sea creatures are frightened by your presence. You will need to have the option of changing your shutter speeds, exposure and ISO to suit your environment. Additionally, the pictures produced can be a lot sharper than any other camera, making them look a lot more professional.

Read more about the iPhone 5S here (includes iPhone 5S reviews):

Apple iPhone 5s (16GB – Unlocked).


Depending on which camera you have, it is important to have the corresponding waterproof camera housing. Yes, you may have noticed that these may at times be a little pricey, but it will last you a lifetime and have a high resale value due to its durability. They are, unarguably, the best type of waterhousing you can invest in, made specifically for each camera to match the size of both the camera and lens. Not only are they durable, but they are specifically designed for ease of use and full accessibility to all your camera’s features. They will bring a whole new dimension to your everyday camera usage.

Read more about the iPhone 5S waterproof camera housing here (includes underwater camera housing review):

Seashell Waterproof Photo Housing 40m/130ft Rated Underwater Case for iPhone 5, 5s, 5c – Black


Amazon reviews:

– “I bought this for my honeymoon in Hawaii expecting to use it while we were snorkeling. It was probably the best investment I made the entire trip. Now I am no scuba diver so I can’t speak to whether the thing will really hold up at 40 meters deep or not, but it took some really outstanding pictures and video from the surface of the water down to the 15 or 20 feet I was able to dive.


There are a couple of slight drawbacks, but once you get used to using it you can overcome them. One is that the phone can’t be unlocked in the water because the touch screen can’t be used, the instructions tell you this and how to mitigate it, the downside is that the phone’s screen brightness has to be at maximum and it has to be unlocked the entire time which does drain the battery at a very high rate of speed. My iPhone 5 lasted about an hour and half from a full charge. More than sufficient for me, just know it going in and have a full charge. .


That’s said the pictures turned out beautiful, the colors underwater are vibrant and just as good as the camera normally is out if the water. The video is also cool, the microphone picks up sounds akin to an aquarium underwater which was kind of a cool twist. The thing is bulky and limits the use of your phone functions so don’t go in thinking its an everyday case but if you want to take awesome underwater pictures without an expensive underwater camera this thing is a must have to turn your excellent iPhone camera into an underwater memory maker!”

5 star review by BT on Amazon customer reviews.



Underwater reefscape - photo credit Wikimedia Commons
Underwater reefscape – photo credit Wikimedia Commons



Now that you have the equipment in order, we’ll go through the basics and more advance principles of underwater photography with iPhone 5S.


3 things you need to know about when shooting underwater photos – ISO, shutter speed and aperture.


Depth of field can be very important during surf and underwater photography, because chances are you would like both the subject (for example the surfer or turtle) and the background (the wave or the coral reef) to be in focus. Here’s an example with a flower.


Depth of field - Example photo.
Depth of field – Example photo.

The depth of field is dependent upon the aperture (F-stop), which is explained in detail below.


The aperture

The aperture, or f-stop (f-number on your iPhone 5S) controls how wide the lens is during a shot. A wide aperture (high f-number) means that your lens is open quite wide, allowing a lot of light in during the shot. A low f-number means that your lens is not open as wide, therefore limiting the amount of light in any given shot.

In surf photography it is best to shoot with a wide aperture, and therefore low f-number/f-stop – as more of the picture will be in focus – for example the surfer and the wave, with the background (palm trees) in focus as well. An example of what is being described here can be seen in the photos featured in this article.


F-stop illustration.
F-stop illustration. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As you can see from the illustration above, an f-stop of f/1.4 is larger than that of f/2.0, and much larger than that of f/8.0. You can also see that more light get in when there is an f-stop of f/1.4 as opposed to f/8.0. Simples, right? Remember, if you have any questions, be sure to ask them in the forum or on my facebook page.


Depth of field

We’ve already touched on depth of field, albeit briefly, and this is an important element to taking good underwater photos with your iPhone 5S.


If you would prefer that the whole picture to be in focus, a bigger f-number (for example f/32), can help you capture this. A large portion of both the background and the foreground objects/details will be in focus.


A large f-number (resulting in a larger aperture) such as f/1.2 will isolate more of the foreground from details in the picture that lay more in the background, meaning the foreground will appear sharp and the background will appear blurry.

An example of this can be seen in the picture below. The picture on the top has left has a small depth of Field (meaning only the flower is in focus), and therefore has a high f-stop number and a larger aperture.


F-stop example - Photo Credit: Ugly Hedgehog
F-stop example – Photo Credit: Ugly Hedgehog

The picture in the middle has moderate depth of field, therefore a moderate aperture, and lower f-stop. The focus is therefore on the leaf, but the background is still not in focus.


Finally the picture at the bottom has a small f-number, a very small aperture, but much more of the shot is in focus – both the flower and the background in this case.


What settings do I need in order to take underwater surf photos?

This all depends on what time of day it is and how deep you are. The earlier or later in the day it is, the less ambient (surrounding) light there will be, and the deeper you are, the darker it will be and therefore, less light can penetrate through the water.


You will always need to experiment a little, but some main rules do apply.


1/ try to keep the ISO as low as possible – if you have a high ISO, the picture will not appear to be in sharp focus, due to “noise” produced by a high ISO.


2/ Try to have a relatively fast shutter speed – the surfer will be moving fast – you dont want a blurry surfer, so you need to be able to capture the surfer fast.


Photo credit: Sarah Lee
Photo credit: Sarah Lee


3/ If you want the WHOLE picture in focus, try to have a wide aperture/ lower f-stop (>f/8/0), as explained in detail earlier in the article.


These three settings; ISO, aperture and shutter speed need to be experimented with, in order to capture the perfect underwater surf shot. Obviously sometimes you will have to increase the ISO, due to low light issues, and you won’t always be able to have the ideal aperture or depth of field – but that is the beauty of underwater surf photography – all shots are unique.



The most problematic obstacle faced in underwater photography is the potential loss of colour and contrast, due to the wavelengths of sunlight being absorbed by water. This loss of colour decreases both vertically and horizontally, so if the subject/surfer is further away from the camera, the resulting photo can also appear colourless and dull. This effect can also occur even if the water is totally clear. The effect of absorption can be seen in the diagram below.

Underwater lighting - photo credit Wikimedia
Underwater lighting – photo credit Wikimedia

As you can see in the diagram above, the amount of light penetrating the water decreases as you get deeper. Not only does the amount of light decrease, but the different colours (which have different wavelengths) penetrating the water decreases also. This means that as you descend, light levels become progressively blue, and the vivid colours you were initially trying to capture, also decrease. These colour cannot be added in post processing.


There are three ways in which this problem can be reduced. The obvious is to get as close to the subject as possible, either by physically being closer, or by using a wide angle, or zoom lens which will allow closer focus.


The second technique is to use flash, preferably an external flash. This will ensure that the full spectrum of light is captured in the overall exposure.


Third way is using color filters made for specific brands of underwater camera housings, these enhances warm reds and oranges with available sunlight up to 80′ (24m). Ikelite features color filters that are compatible with the Ikelite underwater housing. Check it out by clicking on the link below.

Click here to read more: Ikelite UR/Pro Blue Water External Color Filter


Pros of using external flash in underwater photography with a iPhone 5S?

It is seldom possible to use the internal camera flash, because the camera’s flash will reflect against the waterproof housing, creating over-exposed and unclear photos, which certainly won’t win you many admirers.


It is therefore best to use an external flash, which will produce fantastic well exposed photos, with vivid colours and sharp focus.


You can also use movie substrobe, 160 w/s TTL Underwater Flash combined with a 500 Lumen LED Video Light as seen below.

Read more:

Ikelite DS-161 Movie Substrobe, 160 w/s TTL Underwater Flash


Best settings for underwater surf photography with iPhone 5S?

The surfers, or inviduals doing watersports, will be moving relatively fast. You will therefore need to have a fast shutter speed (for example 1/4000) in order to prevent blurring your subject in the photo. In order to have a fast shutter speed, you may need to increase your ISO, but if it is the middle of the day, try not to increase your ISO over more than 400. You still want to achieve those sharp professional looking photos)


As mentioned earlier, it is important to experiment. If you pictures seem too dark, but your subject is very sharp, you can lower the shutter speed which will allow more light to come into the shot. If you can’t adjust your shutter speed beyond that in which there is too much light or a blurry surfer, then adjust your ISO whilst only slightly adjusting your shutter speed.


With regard to f-stop (or aperture), the higher the f-stop/aperture (f/3.5) the more light can enter during one expsosure (see f-stop/aperture diagram above), but the lower the depth of field will be, meaning that only one part of the photo can be focussed on, for example: only the surfer or only the wave will be in focus, whilst the rest of the picture will appear blurry. The lower the aperture (f/22), the wider the depth of field will be, but less light will be able to enter during one exposure. Generally, choose a mid range aperture (for example f-16) and analyse your pictures after. You may also need to adjust your exposure or ISO, in achieve a brighter picture.


Aaron Chang surf photograph
Aaron Chang surf photograph


You will eventually find the perfect combination – you wont leave the water all day, and you’ll be super stoked with the results.


Not taking photos of surfers, you say?


What settings do I need in order to capture sea creatures underwater?

Again, the following priciples must be followed as those for shooting surfers. A fine balance must be achieved between exposure, aperture (f-stop) and ISO.


Sea turtle photo - Photo credit: Monica Sweet
Sea turtle photo – Photo credit: Monica Sweet


If you would like only the sea creature in focus, and not any background elements, try using an f-stop lower than f/8.0 . This will also allow you to have a relatively low ISO, and a good aperture which will mean the photo will appear brighter and more colorful.


Apply the same rules as those explained for underwater photography. Sometimes sea creatures are fast moving, and it is therefore advisable to use fast shutter speed, low f-stop and low-medium ISO (100-400).

Experiment with your settings. If you are not too deep below water Level (about 4-5m max) you probably won’t need a flash but it is also likely you will be a lot deeper. It is a good idea to invest in an external flash or external light such as showed earlier in the article. This will illuminate your picture and provide contrast and colour.


Underwater photography
Underwater photography – A Leviathan melvillei – Credit: Forgotten Purposes
Article: How to underwater photography with iPhone 5S – tutorial.
By Nicole Lisa Photography and Alexander Van Dorph for Super Stoked Magazine
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