Nervous journey from Auto to Manual

Nudibranch, f/10, 1/125th, ISO 320

ROSS MCLAREN managed OK with his cameras locked on automatic, but he knew it couldn’t stay that way forever. Would a night class help him to make the leap?

“All the gear and no idea” – I’m not too sure who came up with that phrase, but whoever it was I reckon wrote it with me in mind. It definitely sums me up. 

I’m the magpie of diving – if it’s shiny and new, I want it! I then get the “something new”, and three or four months later want to upgrade it, which drives Rachel crazy, and rightly so.

So when I decided to start taking my underwater photography “seriously”, there were audible groans… and that was just from the credit card.  

To come clean, I’ve been through five underwater cameras and set-ups in the past three years without really knowing how to use them properly. I’ve asked a few people and taken advice over that time, but in reality until September 2021 my camera (regardless of which one) had been left on the Auto setting, and all I actually had to do was point it, press the button and hope for the best. 

And you know what? It kind of worked for me, as I suspect it does for many divers.  

Fireworks anemone, f/4, 1/160th, ISO 320

But having spent a small fortune on “all the gear”, I decided at the end of last August that perhaps it was time to invest in rectifying the “no idea” part of the phrase. So I signed up for a Photography for Beginners night class at our local college. 

So how would that help with my underwater photography? Shooting a model in a studio in which you can control everything from lighting to the subject itself is about as far as you can get from shooting a crab in the pitch-black, sediment-filled waters of Loch Long. And that’s what my underwater photography is usually all about – macro shots of marine life.

Half a step

That said, the general principles are essentially the same. You can’t ask the crab to turn half a step to the left, but my main objective was to tear myself away from that Auto setting. As much as the Auto results could be passable (1 in 80 shots, anyway), I found that when I came to edit them the noise caused by a high ISO made it difficult. Those images looked really grainy. 

I realised that I had been scared to mess about with my camera under water. Trying to change the settings (Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO) while maintaining my buoyancy, keeping the subject in focus, ensuring that the lighting was right, keeping an eye on my buddy and so on felt a bit daunting, if not potentially dangerous. 

So doing the night class meant that I was able to get comfortable doing all the things I needed to do at the surface before I tried them out beneath the waves.  

Nudibranch, f/13, 1/125th, ISO 320           
Nudibranch, f/8, 1/60th, ISO 320

Once I had mastered (I use that term loosely) the surface photography, it was time to tentatively switch the dial to Manual and dip my toe in the water with some underwater work. 

Those first photos didn’t turn out the way I had planned. What I hadn’t realised about my camera was that the screen on the back had a setting that boosted the brightness of the display, which was not helpful. Every shot appeared correctly lit on the screen under water, but when reviewed later they were all way too dark. Guess I hadn’t quite mastered everything after all. 


A few YouTube videos later during the surface interval (thankfully we had 4G at the dive-site) and it was time to try again. The results this time were definitely improved – not perfect (I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a “perfect” shot), but 100 times better. The  graininess  of the images was greatly reduced as well. 

Compared to the previous Auto setting the images were darker, for sure, but by reducing the ISO that the Auto had always wanted to make crazy-high, I was able to brighten them up in post-production – editing in Lightroom – and obtain the considerably sharper images. 

Through discussions with other photographers and trial and error I was eventually able to find some “base” settings and could set the camera on these before getting into the water, so that once I was in I might need to alter only one of the three options.  

Nudibranch, f/14, 1/250th, ISO 320 
Plumose anemone, f/7.1, 1/125th, ISO 320           

Moving from a GoPro to a compact/mirrorless/DSLR camera is daunting both in terms of price and complexity for many budding underwater photographers. The experts insist that you should be shooting on Manual, and that you’re not getting the most out of your camera if you aren’t. 

They’re right, to an extent, although there is nothing wrong with leaving your camera on Auto and letting it do all the work if that works for your requirements. Despite having been set on Manual for the past six months now, some of my best photos remain those taken on Auto. 

The best advice I can offer for someone unversed in Manual settings and wanting to move from an action-cam to a dedicated stills camera is to start off on Auto for the first wee while and find what suits you, and what you’re comfortable using. Then, if you feel confident, you can learn to use your camera on Manual at your own speed at the surface before taking it under water. 

Listen to all the advice, find what works best for you and, most importantly, enjoy yourself!


Ross Mclaren dives mainly at the many sites within easy reach of Glasgow. He produces and presents videos about aspects of Scottish scuba diving on BBC Scotland’s online platform BBC the Social. Also by Ross on DivernetDiving With a New Baby, The Long Game and Scottish Star

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