Light. It’s the basis of photography; without light we can’t take photos or capture “one of a kind” moments to share with our friends. In underwater photography, we are at a major disadvantage compared to land photographers; as the light absorbing properties of water work against us. In order to overcome this, we have to carry expensive and bulky lights in order to illuminate our subjects and create rich, saturated colours. Lighting subjects correctly plays a big role in the composition of images; it’s not a question of throwing the most amount of light on our subjects but rather what we do with that light that counts. In simple terms, we have two light sources underwater, strobes and natural light. By learning to control these elements properly and experimenting beyond the basics, we can take our photos to the next level.
One of the first things people discuss when it comes to underwater photography is the need for external strobes. The majority of folks who are new to underwater photography will start with one and eventually add a second depending on how serious a hobby it becomes. Although this is a great idea and it never hurts to have two strobes, using both strobes at the same time on the same power setting is not necessarily the best way to properly illuminate your subjects. The use of two strobes results in flat/even lighting that does not lend itself well to exposing the subtle colours and shadows of subjects both large and small. This is not to say that using two strobes is a bad idea, but relying on this setup for each and every shot you take is certainly not the best way forward from a creative standpoint. There are several options you can try with your strobes in order to produce a different result and expand your portfolio.
Use only one: using one strobe is a great tool to create shadows and texture around your subject. This is especially pertinent when it comes to macro photography when strobes are the sole source of illumination. By using one strobe you will be able to cut down on how much of the background is illuminated and control distracting backgrounds such as bright hard corals. Try lighting the subject from only one side while leaving the other in blackness, this will allow your main subject to really stand out. Another important part of creating original lighting is observing the situation that your subject is in. Is it a nudibranch struggling to the top of a sponge? Or a frog fish perched on the side of a wreck? By noticing the surroundings and concentrating on the “negative space” around your subject you can use it to your advantage by choosing to illuminate it with your strobe or not. Don’t get so caught up in capturing your main subject that you miss the other important elements of the photo.
With recent advantages in technology, it seems most camera/strobe combinations are able to utilize TTL (Through the Lens) metering. Although this is a great tool to make sure you get a proper exposure the majority of the time, it doesn’t allow the photographer to impose their own creative lighting. By taking manual control of your strobes you create an unlimited amount of possibilities in painting light onto your subjects. One simple way to create a difference in your lighting is to shoot two strobes as normal but have them set to different strengths. If you typically set each strobe to ½ power, try keeping one on the same setting but switch the other to 1/8 power. This will provide the majority of the illumination from one side while filling in shadows on the other. Other tricks to try include moving one strobe further back or further forward than the other.
Another interesting idea is backlighting. This is the act of illuminating the subject from behind with a torch or strobe in order to make your subject look like it’s glowing from within. Backlighting can be accomplished in several ways but it takes a lot of pre-planning and preparation to get it right. One of the key factors is finding a suitable subject, as not just any old subject will do. Several factors come into play when looking for subjects: first, they must be big enough in the frame to be able to block the brightest part of the strobe light, and second, they must have a certain amount of translucency in order to allow the light to be visible through it. Suitable subjects include soft corals, thin bodied fish, and even nudibranches. In order to backlight a subject you need either an off camera slave strobe or strong torch placed properly behind it or a strobe on a long arm that you can hold off the camera behind the subject. Remember to use a low power setting on the strobe in order not to blow out the shot.
Blocking and Snoots.
An area in which I pursue a lot of creativity is trying to block the effective illuminating area of my strobes in order to light only a portion of the subject. Three ways of doing this can be effective: the first is to utilize what is called a “snoot”, a special fitting that fits on the end of the strobe and concentrates the light into a tight beam. These are easily made at home by cutting a plastic bottle in half and attaching it to the strobe with duct tape. Although it will cut down on the power of the strobe, you can selectively choose what area of a subject you want to light.
If you don’t have a snoot handy, there is an easy solution at hand. On many occasions I will turn off my right strobe and cover the left strobe with my hand. By spacing my fingers appropriately, I can control to a certain degree the amount of light that escapes and lights the subject. The third method of selective lighting is using the natural surrounding area to block the strobe. Many underwater subjects perch on the edge of walls or natural platforms. These situations can provide the perfect cover for a strobe; by angling it slightly behind an outcrop or coral, you can cut off a good amount of light before it hits the subject. These methods are very much a trial and error experience and often require a lot of shots to get right, so don’t get discouraged when it takes a while to nail it.
Obviously strobes are not the sole source of light underwater, the sun is a very important part of photography and can make a big impact on your wide-angle photographs. It’s not so much what you do with the sun in your photographs but rather what you don’t do. Many of the most effective wide-angle shots feature sunlight in the composition to enhance the main subject. The key to capturing effective sunrays in the digital age is to exclude the sun from the main scene and allow just the rays to filter in from the side of the frame. Including the main ball of the sun often results in overexposure and ineffective composition. One thing to keep in mind when shooting sunrays is that you will need a minimum of 1/125 shutter speed (and preferably higher) in order to create the classic frozen beams of light. The sun can add a sense of mystery and glamour to even an otherwise average photo by actually keeping it out of the photo! It’s one of the few times in life where you actually get more for less.
On your next dive to your favourite site don’t get caught up in the idea that you need to capture a photo of every subject you come across. Instead, concentrate on just a few subjects and play with light! Attempt multiple combinations in your lighting angles and intensities along with your composition. You may not come back with a memory card full of keepers, but the photos that work will add stunning images to your portfolio.
About the author: Originally from Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Wetpixel moderator Mike Veitch is a professional underwater photographer and trip leader. After spending many years working on boats and resorts in the Indo-Pacific region, Mike has settled in Indonesia where he spends his time photographing the worlds richest marine bio-system and conducting photography workshops and leading trips throughout the country. For more information please visit his website.
Mike is a frequent contributor and field editor to Scuba Diver Australasia magazine where he wrote the “how to” underwater photography column, “In Focus” from 2006-2009. This series is a collection of his “In Focus” articles that originally appeared in the magazine during that time, the format and photos have been updated for Wetpixel.