When it comes to photography, angles can be extremely important. They help give the subject a sense of character and can often convey how the photographer intends the audience to feel about the image. Underwater, a photographer must often choose angles in a split second and cannot adjust them in post-processing like other elements. Once you’ve become technically competent with camera equipment underwater, the next step — and the mark of an advanced photographer — is planning your shots and angles quickly based on how you feel as subjects come into the frame. Change the entire feeling of a photograph by using one of these photography angles.
Standard photography angles
Consider first the three common, compositional angles you’ll see while looking at underwater (UW) images: from above, from straight on, and from below.
Most new UW photographers start by shooting from above; they often snap in excitement at a new or different animal or place. Although common, this style does have its place. Try to use it more artistically, such as by capturing the pattern from above on a turtle’s shell, as shown here. Often to execute a good from-above shot, you’ll need multiple elements in the frame. These will help set the scene and mood.
The straight-on shot often conveys (although every subject is unique) a non-threatening feeling. This is how you would photograph a friend or someone you are fond of. The subject may be calm and friendly, or indifferent to you and your camera’s presence. Animals such as nudibranchs often make great straight-on subjects as they are so colorful.
The from-below shot is one of the most common shark-photography techniques you’ll see. The angle gives the animal a sense of presence and power, and can make it appear intimidating. When shot from above, a shark looks far less “scary.” Try this technique on various animals and you’ll see how easily a seahorse goes from being cute or adorable to looking proud and regal.
Remember, there are no hard-and-fast rules. A stingray will often look threatening from above, with a big barb on display, but harmless from below as its mouth curves into a perceived smile.
Using intermediate techniques
Intermediate angles are those that appear within the photograph. While they still depend on the composition, they are meant to influence the viewer’s perception of the emotion an animal may be feeling. Simpler angles showcase the overall nature of the underwater creature.
The angle the subject is facing within the frame and the direction the animal appears to be looking can create different feelings within the audience. For example, a seahorse angled so that it appears to look into the frame and at the viewer will invoke a feeling of curiosity and interest. If, alternately, it is looking away, the photographer can convey a feeling of pondering or deep thought.
A photographer can place a subject at a horizontal or vertical angle to show active feelings. Looking up and out into blue water may make the viewer feel as though the subject is light and happy, while looking down into the photo may portray a feeling of aggression or intensity. Again, these are not hard-and-fast rules. Often a nudibranch looking down and into the frame emits a curious vibe, while looking up and out can portray a seemingly scared or cautious subject.
Also consider taking a photo straight-on from behind. This can create a fantastic sense of movement and speed or an intense pondering vibe. Taking a side-on photograph will often present a cautious animal, one who is not feeling threatened but does not trust you in the slightest.
Work your way through the above-mentioned angles and try to combine them so that you are conveying the feelings you had about the sea life into your image. After all, that’s why many divers shoot cameras underwater — reliving a dive through your images is a fantastic feeling. Choosing the right photography angles can really help put you back in the moment.
Photography angles examples
I’ve listed a few specific examples of common animal angles to help you understand some of the above-mentioned ideas. Practice often with different types of shots and you’ll soon figure out which angles work best for your photography.
Above: Innocent or scared
Straight on: Cautious and apprehensive
Below: Dominant and unafraid
Behind: A sense of wonder or movement
Above: Dangerous or fearsome
Straight on: Curious
Below: Friendly and regal
Side on: A sense of movement
Straight on: Cunning
Below: Threatening and scary
Above: Often not a feeling but a good highlight of color contrast
Straight on: A sense of movement and curiosity
Below: Determined and regal
Straight on: Aggressive and defensive
Below: Confident and in control
Side on: Confused and confounded