Underwater Photography On the Isle of Harris

From the very first time I began to practice underwater photography on the Isle of Harris, I had a vision of wanting to capture an image in snowy conditions. Of the snow on the mountains. Still yearning for this image, I spent a month on the Isle of Harris in January, hoping that would be the time for capture these images.  But January saw just rain and gales and no opportunity to get into the water and do any underwater photography on the Hebrides.

When I went back to the Isle of Harris in March, we enjoyed a spring-like week with beautiful, bright sunshine and calm wind.  Indeed, it felt like summer! Yet to my surprise, on one of the days, we woke up to a sprinkling of snow on the hills and on the ground. From my vantage point staying at Dun Borve Bothy, I could see the approaching weather because as soon as I opened my blinds I could see right down towards the hills of Harris. The conditions seemed perfect…

Underwater photography equipment

Step 1: Prep your gear!I took time and care to get my underwater photography gear together.  Experience has taught me to have my camera kit cleaned, set and ready to go in advance.  Arriving for an underwater photography shoot without one setting correct or, say, forgetting to put a card in the camera, is just the worst thing.  That would mean opening up all the housing to correct it – something best done indoors and without pressure.

So, I cleaned my Fujifilm XT3 and put the 16-55mm lens on. This is the camera equipment that I’d chosen for my underwater photography.  Seafrogs housings are purchased to fit specific camera models, so you can’t switch about once you’ve bought the housing.  A lot of research went into choosing the best lens and best camera body at that.  I shoot most of my seascape photography with my Fujifilm GFX 50s, but I didn’t want to put that in the water!  Also, I need to have a separate body system for the underwater housing so I can shoot stills normally as well as keep the camera in the housing when going out. So, I put the lens on, made sure the battery was as charged as possible, and the card had plenty of space on it.  You can’t open up the housing to change a battery or card during a shoot, so these are all essential steps.

Underwater photography on the Isle of Harris


Settings for my Fujifilm XT-3

Step 2: Pre-setting the camera. I like to pre-set the camera for photographing in the water as much as possible.  It is possible to switch settings during a shoot in the water, but it isn’t ideal and there are so many other things to deal with. I prefer it to be pre-set as much as possible.  My choice of settings are;  F11 to keep as much in focus as possible, which is important when you are trying to capture the mountains in the distance as well as the water in the foreground.  The ISO I generally put to around 800 as the water can be a bit dark and my priority is getting the shutter speed high enough to freeze the movement. So it’s less risky to use a higher ISO.  Then I will put the camera into aperture priority so the shutter speed is taken care of and the exposure is always correct.  I often dial in a little negative exposure compensation as it’s always better to have things a little darker than blown out.

Focusing my underwater camera

My focus is to set the middle of the image to what I think will be above the water line and over to the land in the background.  It is set on autofocus but I have come to realise that the focus point being pre-set correctly is absolutely crucial.  It is technical vision beforehand that is so important in this type of work.

I photograph in the water with the same camera set up that I have outside the water with the exception of aperture priority.  I will always shoot fully manual when on dry land.

Underwater photography hebrides

Underwater Photography on Harris, Luskentyre beach

Step 3:  Choose your moment carefully. The evening came round and the forecast suggested a calm, beautiful sunset, so I headed out to Luskentyre beach.  I knew the hills would make a stunning backdrop.  Waiting until an hour before sunset, I was completely ready and on the beach, just as the colour was starting to come out.  The water was completely still with absolutely no wind at all.  The conditions were just perfect and I stayed in the water for about 40 minutes as the colour changed and the sun disappeared.  What a truly sublime experience – one that I won’t forget.  With utter delight, I was able to capture the Harris hills in the background as well as views in the other direction over to Caephabhal.

I felt satisfied.  I had been able to create some underwater photography on the Isle of Harris that made me proud and was thrilled to have captured and, on top of that, I’d had an experience second to none.

Snow on the hills of Harris

There’s more! Happy and content with these underwater photographs from the Isle of Harris, I’d thought that was the end of my shooting in the water for this trip to the Outer Hebrides. But I woke up the next day and opened my curtains to find fresh snow on the hills!  It took me a while to prepare everything again and get down to the beach, by which time the snow had mostly melted. I headed to Horgabost, where I normally swim – a very sheltered beach on the Isle of Harris.  It was a little windy and there was a bit of chop coming in – not ideal, but I went in anyway.  It was pretty hard to navigate as the swell was coming right towards me, but I persisted a while because I did notice the skies changing and a snow shower forming.  It built for a while, becoming more and more dramatic until there emerged in front of me an image I’ve wanted to capture for a very long time…. I was elated!

stormy skies on the isle of harris isle of harris water photography

Being immersed on the Isle of Harris

A true sense of Harris. As the shower hit me I prepared to head home with several images I was truly excited to have captured and keen to see just how well they looked back on dry land.  Again, I packed my camera away and thought I would just rest now until I left the island, but again the Isle of Harris had other ideas for me. Yet again I opened my curtains the next morning to a thick blanket of white across the hills and near-perfect stillness to boot.  So again, yes I prepared all the equipment once more and again set off for the beach.  Once I was in the water it was far easier than the preceding day without battling the wind and the waves and I came away with images that matched the long-held vision in my head.  It was the true sense of the Isle of Harris, the landscape and the place, but with a viewpoint from being within it.  It was my perfect vision of the snowy landscape from being immersed in the turquoise waters that are so distinctive. 

snow on the hills on the isle of harris underwater photography ,harris

I created a short behind the scenes video about my underwater photography on the Isle of Harris which you can watch below. You can also read about the week before in Harris, leading my photography workshop and photographing seascapes on the island in this blog post