My family takes regular trips to the Caribbean, and I always bring along my DSLR. I have never been able to accurately capture the blue of the water.

Canon Rebel XS (2008)
Lens: EF-S 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6 IS
UV filter on the lense

I usually shoot at F4.0 on aperture priority. I've tried different white balance settings (the built-in cloudy, sunny, and AWB), and removing the UV Filter. I generally shoot in JPEG.

My photos always turn out washed out.
Mid afternoon photo: https://i.sstatic.net/13hUw.jpg
Later afternoon photo: https://i.sstatic.net/CDWqS.jpg

The actual blue water in these photos is very rich and almost day-glow. Almost like this photo (which seems to be over saturated, although the ocean color is true to what mine should look like) http://www.caribbeanphotographyservices.com/images/photography-production-caribbean.jpg

Photos at home (outdoor green spaces) and elsewhere the colors look good. It's only when I get around this blue that I have a problem.

This photo has good greens, sky looks perfect, although the water is darker than in real life

  • What are some things I can do to bring the blues out?
  • Is what I'm expecting done mostly in post processing?
  • Should I be looking for a polarizer?

Looking for any advice that I can find.



4 Answers 4


I see two main issues: a) the photos are are too dark- thats why the water and sky colors look murky b) their hue is shifted too much towards red - this is why they are not turquoise enough

both of these things can be easily corrected with any image processing software. For example this is what i came up with using gimp to give a basic idea of what I would change (this is by no means perfect, just a general idea):

increase in brightness, hue shifted towards green, slight saturation boost

My recommendation for better sea photography:

Good exposure in camera. It is quite common to under or overexpose images of the sea when using automatic exposure because it has a combination of dark blues (deep sea) and reflections, and this fools the automatic exposure system. To get the most out of your photos in camera I recommend using manual exposure (see for example the "sunny 16" rule) a good place to start during early afternoon is usually 1/400 sec, f8, iso 200 and then adjust based on the histogram.

Circular polarizer If you want to get even more brilliant colors of the sea I highly recommend a circular polarizing filter, it gives a look that you cannot achieve by post-processing alone. This is what was most probably used to create the image you referenced as the perfect water color. It gives a distinctive look that not everyone likes, but brings up the saturation, decreases the sky brightness (makes clouds really pop) and enhances the colors of the sea (darks become darker and lights like dunes become lighter). You can look through photos (ex. on flicker) to see if it is a look you like before you decide to buy one.

Things to consider to improve image quality of similar photos, response to the "camera specs" provided in the question

  • A UV filter doesn't do much in digital photography, except guard the lens surface from scratching. Sometimes it can increase flair when shooting very high contrast or against a light, and very slightly reduces image quality (I personally don't notice the difference in practice if it is kept clean). FYI I would defiantly not use it in combination with a polarizing filter if you decide to get one.

  • A lens hood, on the other hand, may help increase micro-contrast in some situations especially in the full sun if you are not using one already.

  • I notice you are using the Canon kit lens, if you stop it down to by 1-2 stops (to around f8) it may give you more crisp photos (more "micro contrast") and less of a vignette (you can see it in the photos you posted, it becomes more noticeable when you increase brightness and contrast), it may not make a huge difference, but if you're looking to get the most out of the gear you own, this maybe something to try.

  • If you decide to use a polarizing filter there are basically 3 things to know: 1) rotating it changes the strength of polarization 2) polarizing strength will depend on where the sun is with respect to the scene (at 90 degree angle from the sun it will be the strongest) 3) wide angle shots look weird because of no. 2, to avoid this try not to use a focal length much below about 25mm on an APSC sensor camera (around 35mm on a full frame).

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ As Chris Novak said cilcular polarizer is very important! I would add also two small things. Try to compare shots from the morning hours (after sunrise) with afternoon session. The color of the light at sunset is different to the one at sunrise. And try to set optimal white balance (WB) in post processing. WB has great impact on colours on the picture. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 6:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ I started to play with the histogram in Gimp and noticed the vignette.So when I'm shooting at f4 I'm too low for these situations? Is there a "rule of thumb" for the histogram on the camera? In Gimp I can play with this values and see the result. In the camera, what should I look for in these situations? \$\endgroup\$
    – Linuxx
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 13:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Linuxx concerning the vignette: there is always some light falloff on a sensor but it is more noticeable in kit lenses, shooting an f-stop or two above your minimum f number will usually reduce this to non-perceptible levels. Histogram rule of thumb if you are fine with a bit of post-processing (rising mid tones): expose to the right, so highlights don't clip (see for example: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/23003/…). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 14:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Linuxx If you "really" don't want to post process, and are fine with clipped highlights, then the mid-tones of your image (usually the "hump" on the histogram) should usually fall somewhere in the +.75-1.5 EV range depending on how bright the water is, also set the WB to "sunny" (if it is sunny). Getting comfortable with the sunny 16 rule by trying it out will usually produce much more consistent results, because the histogram mid-tones can vary quite a lot when shooting water. Details of how to learn to judge this would be best asked in a separate question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 14:34
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisNovak So I should stop dropping my camera down so low on the f-stop, practice using the Sunny 16 rule, and keep an eye on the histogram and keep the colors shifted to the right if possible. I assume I should use ISO 200 when possible to keep the noise down? I have read that blue colors tend to get noisy at the higher speeds (I also have noticed this in playing around). Thanks for all your help BTW! \$\endgroup\$
    – Linuxx
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 14:34

Because you're working mostly on JPEG, you may benefit from using User Defined Picture Styles, specifically Color Tone and Saturation. Another thing you can do is Customize your White Balance settings towards the bluer spectrum. These settings will affect your entire image, so play with them to see if you can achieve the blue you're looking for for the water without affecting the rest too much. By working in RAW, you may achieve much better results, as the camera's own picture and white balance settings aren't recorded along with the original RAW image, and it allows you to push those pixels way more than in a JPEG, as well as allowing you to work on the water alone without touching the rest of the image. For the record, you can do that in post with JPEGS as well, just not as effectively as in RAW. A polarizer is not a bad idea, but it forces/restricts your composition a bit.

I hope this helps in any way. Regards!


Basic tips:

  • increase your exposure (use the Exposure Compensation feature to brighten what your camera is choosing if necessary).
  • ditch the UV filter. 90% likelihood it is doing nothing but hurting the quality of your photos (the remaining 10% is if you bought a very high-quality filter, in which case it isn't hurting but also not really helping).
  • purchase a good quality circular polarizer.
  • get a lens hood for the lens (flare is not apparent in the samples, but a hood is cheap and easy protection from flares and haze).
  • shoot in RAW if you are comfortable doing post-procesing in Lightroom or equivalent.

A good quality circular polarizer makes the skies "more blue" by reducing light which is reflected off whispy clouds in the atmosphere (leaving the more-likely-to-not-be-polarized scattered blue wavelengths (reflected light will generally be undulating left-right; the polarizer only lets light through which is undulating top-bottom, so you reduce a significant amount of haze). The effect is even more dramatic on water, which can go from very blah due to surface reflections to a nice relaxing blue-green, although in your samples I'm seeing much less water reflections than whispy cloud reflections. I say "good quality" because, while polarization isn't a dark science, allowing as much light through (and thus keeping a nice bright exposure) while keeping flares and such off the finished product.

On that particular lens, the front element does not rotate with auto-focus (which makes using a circular polarizer much easier). However, if you zoom in or out, there is a very slight front-element rotation. So, if you get the skies a perfect azure zoomed in, then zoom out for a more panoramic shot, expect to need to twist that polarizing filter just a little bit to get it back to the same orientation as you had had it before.

UV filters are not necessary for digital cameras. They were moderately useful for film as film is sensitive to UV light and so you could end up with "not what you saw" on the film without a UV filter at times. But not so with digital. It is primarily just a quick checkout throw-in that camera stores make a killing off of.

The hood for that lens is fairly expensive, but there is nothing magical about the Canon brand name on it. I just bought one from Altura for about a third what Canon was asking (the same kit lens).

A lot of subtle corrections can be made in post-processing to make those blues really "pop". As a warning, though, if they are dull and drab out of camera, any post-processing is just going to make them fake looking. Don't use post-processing to rescue or edit; use it to enhance what you captured in-camera.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is excellent information. I had already planned to ditch the UV filter, so this makes that decision easy. I already have a polarier on the way and plan to play with it using the histogram and a laptop to review the results. Like you said, I wanted to prefect the camera work, and get the best shot i could before post. I need to look into RAW, although I dont own Photoshop, so I would have to find equivalent, or just pony up the cash for PS.... p.s. posting from phone, sorry for any grammatical errors. Thanks for the helpful information. \$\endgroup\$
    – Linuxx
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 23:58

Is what I'm expecting done mostly in post processing?

Not at all, or at least not necessarily; here's a SOOC JPEG, and the EXIF if you're curious. Note in particular the manual exposure, it's really the key to get the result you want without spending a lot of time in post (though some detractors say this comes at the cost of having to spend time tweaking your settings on the field; this has never been a problem for me). You could push it even further in post, but the basic "blueness" is already there.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I will practice manual exposures before I leave. Thanks for the tip. \$\endgroup\$
    – Linuxx
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 14:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Links in answer are dead. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 0:52

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