Beneath the surface – underwater iphoneography


From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth.
But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free. 
Jacques Yves Cousteau 


Initiated by a desire to combine two passions, skin diving and iPhoneography, I share with you the results of my underwater iPhoneography exploration. Once I got past the potential iPhone destruction, a whole new world of possibilities opened. Beneath the waters surface lays an alien environment where gravity and light behave in unusual ways. 


In reality gravity remains the same; it is our buoyancy that provides the feeling of weightlessness. This can cause problems when trying to take a steady photo in the motion of the ocean. There are two ways to control buoyancy, the first is to attach extra weight and the second is breathing. I prefer to use the latter, however this requires practice. 

The idea is to achieve neutral buoyancy and reduce movement so that you are neither, sinking or floating whilst taking the photograph. The simple equation goes like this, breathe out = sink, breathe in = float. Time to revisit those childhood games; sitting on the bottom of the pool. If using a mask and snorkel, I would recommend the type of snorkel that has a valve for easy water release; I ended up getting a lung full using the old style. 

The denseness of water changes the physics of light dramatically. Water molecules and particles cause loss of light (graphic 1.1), colour changes (graphic 1.2) and there is a loss of contrast. 

 graphic 1.1

Using the information option in Pro Camera you can see how the ISO setting changes in the same location when shooting above and below the waters surface as illustrated above in graphic 1.1. Light is made up of all the colours of the rainbow, in water light changes dramatically with the red, orange and yellow being filtered out within only a few meters. The image below illustrates a technique I use to replace the filtered colours.

graphic 1.2


Keeping the water out of your iPhone is an obvious must; I use an Over Board camera bag for housing my iPhone; which has enough room to also fit the extra bulk of my Otter Box case.The Camera Bag salesman advised slipping a silicone bead satchel into the bag to absorb any condensation that might accumulate. What I didn’t know before purchasing the bag is that the iPhone screen stops conducting once submerged. 



Aaron Davis with his iphone housed in the Over Board camera bag, skin diving on the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia.


In the days of the Camera+ volume switch shutter release this wouldn’t have caused a problem as all non-screen controls work fine through the camera bag underwater. The method I came up with to resolve the conductivity issue was to shoot using the timer settings in either ProCamera or Camera+. I found Camera+ to be more versatile with either 5, 15 or 30 second options whereas ProCamera only has a 10 second option. The technique for shooting involved me pressing the timer screen icon above water then duck-diving down to the subject and positioning myself for the shot; often expelling most of the air from my lungs to achieve neutral to negative buoyancy. I found that the 15 second interval was perfect for this technique, see Graphic 1.3.





I chose to concentrate on stationary underwater subjects on my first reef exploration to practice the technique, acknowledging the iPhone’s limitations with low light and camera movement. The upshot of using the timer mode is that you can concentrate on composing the shot and holding the iPhone steady, whilst the camera shoots the subject automatically. Another useful tip is to turn up the volume, providing an audible indicator of when the iPhone is about to shoot.



Battery conservation is the key to having a successful underwater shoot as it takes numerous shots to get the one you want. I turned my iPhone on only when I was shooting and found that I only had about 45 minutes viewing and editing time on the boat trip home. Battery charging and conservation for remote shooting is an area for future exploration.


If you are interested in viewing more underwater iPhoneography, check out my group, Beneath the Surface at, submissions welcome. 


iPhoneographer, Aaron Davis is based in Cairns, Australia, where the rainforest meets the reef. You can email Aaron at or Flickr contact Aaron Davis 2011.