GoPros are built for using them in places that most cameras can’t go, which makes them a fun and interesting choice to take on your next travel adventures. That’s especially true in and around water. And while most GoPros are ready to shoot in and around water right out of the box, here are some tips that can help you get better shots.
Some of these are things to do. Some are things to know. And some are things to get. Some are potential showstoppers, and some are small conveniences.
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Here are some general tips that are relevant anytime you’re using your GoPro in and around water. I’ve got some more specific tips below related to types of activities. I’m focusing mainly on swimming, snorkeling, and diving here, but much of this applies to anywhere in and around water.
Check the Seals
This is the most important tip on this page: check the seals on your camera’s doors.
GoPros are designed to be waterproof out of the box, but their waterproofness is only as good as the seals on the doors. So make sure that the rubber seals around the two trapdoors (to the USB & HDMI ports and the battery and SD card compartments) are free of grit and have no nicks or tears. If they’re damaged swap you the doors–you can buy them as spare parts.
Also make sure that the lens port is securely in place, something especially to look for if you’ve been taking it on and off to use a Super Suit dive housing.
There’s a limit to what you can do about poor seals when out on the water, so this is something worth checking before heading out on the water. Because water getting won’t just ruin the shot–it could ruin the camera.
Add a float and strap
GoPros sink. And they sink fast. They’re also small and grey, making them hard to find and recover from the bottom of the ocean. Adding some kind of float greatly reduces the risk of losing your camera.
There are several different ways to tackle this problem. Each has pros and cons for certain situations and preferences. Generally, my preferred method is to use a floaty grip. That also gives you something to hold only when underwater, especially if you’re wearing dive gloves.
You can also get floating wrist straps or floaty casings. Any of these will work to help reduce the risk of losing your camera. And if you’re not holding it by hand, the same applies but if possible use a tether in place of a strap. I also like foam floaty cases; they’re a bit bulky, but they work well.
A simpler option is to just use a wrist strap without the floating part. Obviously, that doesn’t solve the sinking problem, but it at least tethers it to you directly and makes it less likely that the camera will end up at the bottom of the sea. I’ve found GoPro’s own Sleeve + Lanyard to be a good option, although there’s nothing especially ground-breaking about it, so you can probably find good aftermarket alternatives.
Lock the Orientation
When you’re swimming with a GoPro, the camera isn’t going to be staying level and right-way-up all the time. If you’ve got the automatic rotation enabled, it’s easy to have the orientation shoot at vertical when you want horizontal.
That’s more of an inconvenience when shooting video than when taking photos, but for the sake of simplicity, it can be useful to lock the orientation and save yourself some post-processing hassle.
I have a more detailed guide on how to do that here.
Lock the Screen
While you can’t use the touchscreen underwater, it can still work above the surface even with water drops on it. But a damp screen is not always as reliable, and you can find yourself fighting it to get the screen to do what you want to do.
And sometimes splashes of water can be registered by the screen as touches. So it might put the camera into settings screen or change the shooting mode. It doesn’t happen all the time for me, but it does happen.
A way to prevent this is to use the screen lock. It’s not essential, but it does reduce the risk of unwanted shooting mode changes.
Touchscreens, Wireless Controls, and GPS Don’t Work Underwater
It’s a good idea to have the shooting options set up how you want them before entering the water. If you’re using the camera in the rain or where it’s easy to take out of the water, there’s much less of a problem. But changing some shooting settings underwater can be a challenge or even impossible.
Newer GoPros let you change the shooting mode (e.g. between video and photo) with the buttons, but they won’t let you change settings like Protune, resolution, or frame rates. To change those, you need to either use the touchscreen on the back or the mobile app, but neither of those work underwater. GPS also doesn’t work while the camera is submerged underwater.
Using a GoPro at the Water’s Surface
Here are some tips for shooting with GoPros in places where they’re going in and out of water. Some examples might be in the rain, surfing, swimming, or kayaking.
Water Drops on the Lens
Water drops on the lens can ruin an otherwise great shot. And the lens port on GoPros is so small that even small drops of water can have a big effect.
This isn’t an issue when shooting underwater. It only comes into play when you take the camera out of the water and it’s still wet.
There are a few different ways to try to prevent this. I’ve yet to find the perfect solution, but here are some approaches that can reduce the risk of water drops on the lens.
Spit on the Lens. Yes, spit. It’s an old diving trick to spit in your mask, smear the saliva around, and then give the mask a quick rinse. It works surprisingly well to prevent your mask from fogging up. It’s free and quick, but if you find this approach a bit icky–and some people do–you might be more interested in the commercial spray alternatives below.
Anti-Fog Spray / detergent. If you don’t like the idea of spitting on your camera, you can get commercial sprays that do much the same thing. Many of them can work more effectively and for a longer time.
There are several different versions of anti-fog and water repellant liquids, ranging from the well-known RainX that you might have used on your car’s windscreen to ones that are marketed specifically for GoPro cameras.
It’s a hard thing to test side-by-side because every water drop is different, but I’ve found the ones I’ve tried to give similar results.
Hydrophobic Filters. These are small films that attach to the outside of the lens port that encourage water to pool and roll off easily, thus reducing the risk of water drops. This is the most specialized and, potentially, the most expensive option, mainly because you’ll be wanting to use filters that are cut to size for the GoPro’s lens port. But many of the filters are designed to stay on the camera even out of the water and can be used for quite some time (ie. weeks or months) before they lose their effectiveness. There are some things to watch out for when attaching them–you don’t want any air or grains of sand caught behind the filter, for example.
A related problem that you might run into if you’re shooting in salt water conditions is dried salt on the lens. As the water droplets dry up, it can leave behind a salty residue that can create a smeared look to your shots and catch any direct light in unattractive ways. And it isn’t necessarily self-evident when you’re just looking through the small back screen. So it’s worth watching for it to minimize the risk of getting an unpleasant surprise when you go to download your photos and look at them on a larger screen.
Using a GoPro Underwater when Diving or Snorkeling
If you’re shooting with the camera fully submerged and through water, you have some extra considerations.
The Field of View is Narrower Under Water
When you start shooting through water, you’ll find that the GoPro’s super-wide angle of view isn’t as wide anymore. That’s because of the refraction that happens through water. If you want to dive deeper on the ins and outs of refraction through water, here’s a detailed explanation of the calculations and variables, but most users will find it enough to know that the wide-angle isn’t going to be as wide when using the camera underwater.
An Underwater Filter Will Make Things Less Blue
If you’ve ever shot underwater, there’s a good chance your photos came out blue. It gets worse the deeper you go. That’s because the longer wavelengths of light, such as red and orange, don’t travel as well through water as the shorter wavelengths such as blue. So you can often end up with photos or video footage that ends up being just shades of blue.
An underwater filter will help boost the amounts of red and orange in the light relative to the blue and make the image look more colorful and natural. The filters are usually red or orange, with slightly different tints depending on
With the newer GoPros, the best approach is to use some kind of snap-on filter over the out lens port. My favorite ones are the BackScatter Flip system, but that’s also one of the more expensive solutions and is probably overkill for light uses. PolarPro also offers a simpler and less expensive with their Aqua filters. Note that both of these will only work in combination with the GoPro Super Suit dive housing–you can’t just clip them on the front of the camera without using the separate housing. There are other third-party options available, but make sure you get one that attaches to your specific camera or housing, because different models have lens ports of different dimensions. These clip-on filters are wet filters, which means they’re designed to have water in and around both sides of them, so you don’t have to worry about the waterproofness of the filter specifically.
Underwater filters won’t magically eliminate the problem of different lighting underwater, but they do help. There are some cameras that have a built-in feature to compensate for the lack of red and orange underwater, like this one, but that’s not a feature that GoPro’s have yet.
Use a Dive Housing if You’re Going Deep
The specific depth ratings vary for individual GoPro models, but many of them are rated to deal with the pressure equivalent to going to a depth of 10 meters (33 feet). That’s good for anything at or near the surface, including swimming, surfing, or snorkeling. But if you’re Scuba diving, there’s a good chance you might go deeper than that, even if it’s only temporarily. In practice, you’re unlikely to run into problems at 12 meters or even 15 meters–and maybe below that–but the deeper you get beyond the rated depth, especially for any length of time, the greater the risk of the camera’s seals leaking.
For much recreational diving, and certainly for snorkeling or swimming, the depth rating of the built-in case for newer GoPro models is deep enough. But if you’re going deeper than 30 feet, a safer bet is to put the camera into a dedicated dive housing. These provide extra protection against water pressure. GoPro’s own Super Suit housing is the gold standard and is the one I use. It is strong, has good seals, and has a more secure locking mechanism. It’s rated down to 196 feet (60 meters), which is well below the deepest I’m ever likely to go and well beyond the limits of standard recreational diving.
Other third-party aftermarket manufacturers also make some, but quality control and pressure testing on those vary, so it’s well worth testing for waterproofness as thoroughly as you can before putting the camera in and taking down on a dive. One good way to detect leaks is to put a tissue inside the housing and submerge the housing–any water that gets inside will be quickly visible on the tissue.
When getting a dive housing, it’s important to get one that is compatible with your GoPro model. The GoPro Super Suit, for example, is compatible with the HERO7 Black, HERO6 Black, HERO5 Black, and HERO (2018), but it’s not compatible with the HERO7 Silver or White, earlier models of GoPros, or any of the Session cameras. For those, you’ll need to get a housing that’s designed for the specific camera model. GoPro has a newer Protective Housing that’s built specifically for HERO7 Silver and White.
Just as glasses can fog up in humid and damp conditions, in some circumstances camera lenses can also fog up. With GoPros, this mostly happens if you’re using a separate housing that allows air to be trapped inside. And it happens only with some combinations of humidity and temperature differences, but dunking the camera into water that’s much cooler than the outside air temperature is a classic way to see it in action. The problem is if the lens port fogs up when you’re out filming, there’s no easy way to fix it–you can’t just wipe the lens, because the fogging is on the inside of the lens port glass. So you’ll want to take precautions before getting into the water.
In other words, prevention is by far the best course. There are two ways to do it. There’s no guarantee that either will work every time, but they can greatly reduce the risk.
The first is to seal your camera in the housing in the cool and dry comfort of your air-conditioned hotel room or cabin. That then traps dry rather than moist air in the housing.
A second option is to use anti-fogging inserts into the housing. These will help soak up moisture from the small amount of air caught inside the housing. While the anti-fogging inserts are designed to be slim and small, there’s no guarantee that they’ll fit in the housing, so it’s worth testing ahead of time. And other than being small and slim, there’s nothing specific to GoPros about these–you can use them with other cameras in housings or even use them as silica gel in your camera bag (they’re reusable–dry them out to refresh them).
Shoot Photos in RAW
When shooting still photos, I try to shoot in RAW whenever possible. Shooting in RAW gives you much more leeway with color correction in post-processing. It’s not available in every still photo mode on GoPros–it’s not available in burst modes, for instance–but it is available for standard still photos and many of the time-lapse modes. In short, there are many good reasons to shoot photos in RAW anywhere, not just underwater.
But when you’re shooting underwater, there’s a particularly strong argument in favor. And that is that it gives you much better control over white balance. It’s for the same reason as using underwater filters–to be able to correct to some extent for the lack of red and orange light underwater. You can adjust white balance of JPG files too, but it works much better with RAW files, and you’ll get better results.
Ration Battery Life
GoPro battery life is less than stellar at the best of times. If you’re shooting in cool water, it will be even less. I find that a battery will barely last me for a typical morning outing of two dives when I’m only shooting photos. You’ll burn through more juice if shooting video. And, almost inevitably, that surprising highlight moment will come towards the end of your dive. So you’ll want to maximize battery life by turning off any features you’re not using. Prime candidates include wireless and GPS and reducing the on time for the back screen. I also make sure the camera is off during the break between dives.
There are some waterproof extended batteries around that use a combination of a battery that attaches to the USB-C port and a larger housing to take the camera and battery, although I’d be cautious about taking them deep and test the waterproofness extensively before risking the camera.
Ration SD Card Space
This is mostly an issue when shooting video, but if you’re trying to capture a whole dive at one of the high-bitrate video modes, battery life isn’t the only thing you’ll have to keep an eye on. Those modes burn through a lot of storage space. Starting with a large-capacity SD card such as 128GB or 256GB is a good first step. Most (but not all) GoPros can use cards that size. I’ve put together some suggestions here.
Stabilizing Handles when Shooting Video
Traditional stabilizers don’t work underwater, but one simple way to get smoother footage underwater is to use a handle frame. It gives you a much broader two-hand grip that helps minimize small movements. If you’re shooting video when diving or snorkeling, it can make quite a difference. You can even add floats to the frame to make the rig neutrally buoyant. And if you’re wearing dive gloves, they give you something more substantial to grip. And if you decide to add a video light or two, you can attach them to the frame.
Underwater lighting is a whole topic unto itself, and a complicated one at that. There are many situations underwater where adding lights can add complications or even make things worse. There are also some times when they can give a big improvement. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, because lights work better in some scenes than others. They work well for close-up shots, for example, but they don’t work as well the further you move away from the subject. There are few reasons for this, the main ones being the lights’ lack of power to penetrate the water, the width of the lights’ beams, the problem of backscatter reflections off particles or bubbles in the water, and the challenge of balance lighting on close and distant objects or parts of the frame.
Underwater lighting is something worth easing into, starting with a simple, single video light. As you get used to it, you can add a second light, put them on extension arms, and upgrade to more powerful lights.
Underwater video lights run the gamut of prices, running well into the thousands. But you don’t have to start that high. You can start with small and basic, something like this and upgrade later once you narrow down your preferences and underwater shooting styles. Another excellent option is to rent some lights.
I’ve mostly used large underwater strobes for larger camera rigs, but I’m hoping to test soon some of the best smaller and less expensive lighting that would be appropriate for using with a GoPro. So stay tuned!
GoPros are built for the water, and you can get some wonderful shots with them. There are limits, of course, such as GoPros’ ho-hum performance in the kind of low-light conditions that you’ll get if diving deep. But in good lighting, they’re hard to beat for the convenience, ease-of-use, and just plain fun when things get wet.