Blackwater Diving: First installment of article series by Mike Bartick

This is the first installment of a series of articles by Mike Bartick of Saltwater Photo. Mike is a professional underwater photographer who is widely published and also manages the Crystal Blue Dive Resort in Anilao, Philippines. Wetpixel will be publishing a series of articles and images by Mike chock full of invaluable underwater photography tips and techniques.

Blackwater Diving

It’s late in the evening with hardly any moon to speak of. But, instead of thinking about sleep, we are thinking about diving, not just any dive though, blackwater diving.

Jumping into the open ocean at night certainly isn’t for everyone. Just the mere thought of div-ing in open ocean can sometimes create a bit of anxiety with some divers, adding in the caveat of diving in the open ocean at night and it positively spooks them.

Blackwater diving is not your typical night dive and we’re not heading to the bottom to explore the sand. In fact the bottom is the last place you would want to find yourself on an open ocean dive like this. Exploring, however, is what blackwater diving is all about.

Blackwater diving is an advanced style of diving that is done well off shore, over deep water, and away from any structure. The target subjects on a dive like this are planktons. Each even-ing as the sun sets, the planet’s largest animal migration begins as planktons move up from the depths to disperse and feed. This vertical migration carries with it many incredible ocean oddi-ties that would never be seen on a typical night dive. By inserting ourselves directly into the food chain, and with a little luck, we might be able to see some of this action and hopefully capture a few unique frames. Vertical migration is one of the the buzz word’s enthusiasts in-volved in blackwater diving will use to describe the upwards movement of planktons from the depths to the shallows. The deeper the water, the stranger the subjects, is one school of thought on this. The truth of the matter is, if you don’t get out there and explore, you will for sure not see anything.

Blackwater diving takes a bit of practice and requires a little dedication. Late nights are the norm, so resting during the daylight hours becomes a part of the daily routine. Because the experience is so unique, new dive skills must be learned in addition to learning how to shoot in this sometimes turbid environment. The other skill that must be learned is how to hunt for your subjects while drifting in the black night sea with nothing more then a torch to light your way. After a few blackwater dives, though, you will feel it all coming together and the whole routine becomes second nature. Soon, a regular day dives will seem like fluff and everything, including the computer you use, will be adapted for blackwater diving. At least that’s what happened with me.

The equipment needed to do a blackwater dive safely can be organized in several ways. We’ve developed a rather extravagant “Downline” set up over time that offers a great visual reference, both above and below the water line. Our downline has a lit orange buoy on the top with a 33 meter weighted rope. The rope has several high powered lights attached to it that helps to at-tract the planktons and allows the divers to free swim at any depth, without being tethered.

Three basic tips for Blackwater diving:

  1. Dive Skills: Safety first for BW diving. Be sure to have great buoyancy skills before ventur-ing out. On the dive move slowly and try not to fin too much as it creates a pressure wave. Each movement creates turbulence and many of the delicate creatures could be destroyed outright or sent spinning away, curl up or dash off.

  2. Photo Skills: Much of what will be seen is very small. I suggest using a 60mm macro lens on an APSC camera, or 100/105mm on a full frame and without diopters. Float arms and a clip to secure your camera to your BC just incase you need both hands. Using a soft focus light trained over your lens port for fast focus and using strobe angles that will help to eliminate backscatter.

  3. The Hunt: Hunting for your subjects in the water column during your BW dive is a skill that most of us don’t have but can develop pretty quickly. Using a torch with a tight beam will allow for better water penetration even if the water is turbid.

Jump Settings: ISO 400 F22 1/200

Compact shooters: ISO 400 F5 1/200-500

I prefer to shoot at a higher ISO and higher f-stop’s to gain better depth of field on the sub-jects. If my subject is reflective, I’ll roll the f-stop up to a higher number. This helps to bring the exposures back to where I want them and if I need more light, I’ll roll it back down. Unlike standard macro shooting, depth of field isn’t as much of a worry as is overexposures. Don’t get too hung up on the aperture settings, just use it like a dimmer switch. Your camera will be able to pick up the little details and colorations that can only be revealed in post, so exposures are everything.

Backscatter is also inevitable, again, don’t get too hung up on backscatter unless its critical and destructive to your image. Having some backscatter in the image gives the subject a sense of space in my opinion, although yours may be different.


Image 1- Settling flounder-Shot during a “bonfire” dive when torches are planted in the sand or hung from a boat in shallow water. Hovering in mid water column, this style of diving is a great training process for divers that want to do blackwater but don’t have the opportunity to use a boat or the ability to get off shore. The subjects found on a bonfire dive can be similar to those found in deeper water but closer to the settling phase of their development. Settling is a phase prior to juvenile but after the larval phase when the subject is nearly strong enough to settle to the sand.


Image 2- A larval sole shot in open ocean. Notice the eyes on this sole compared to the first one. They have not migrated as of yet indicating that this sole still has some time before it set-tles to the sand. In this open ocean world, transparency rules the night, or so it seems. Shooting these guys can get tricky, as the water is often turbid. Strobes, angled in and near-ness to your subject work well. Strobes facing slightly outward also help, but can leave your subject in the shadow if too close.


Image 3- Soapfish in their adult phase aren’t all that attractive, but the larval soapfish is quite amazing. With a small body, extremely long pennants, and gold/green pectoral fins, they are fast swimmers that can change directions quickly and often. I prefer a 60mm lens to help track my subject through the viewfinder and offers a slightly wider angle of view when close to the subject.


Image 4- It’s not always the subject that gets me excited on a blackwater dive. I was very lucky to have this subject swim straight at my lens and pause long enough for me to capture some-thing a little more special then an I.D. photo. Shooting at a higher F-stop will help to knock down the reflectivity of your subject and allow for more control over your exposures, revealing the colorful details.


Image 5- This winged scorpionfish is very, very small, perhaps 5mm. Massive cropping in some of the images is a given, so be sure your shooting at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. I shoot as fast as my strobes will synch with my camera. Each camera/strobe marriage can have a different synch speed, but in general, 1/200 is where you want to be.


Image 6- A gelatinous predator. The night sea is full of small mollusks, interesting worms, small shrimps, and of course the things that feed on them. The Heteropods are a single winged mol-lusk and voracious carnivores that feed on smaller subjects like, Pteropods (another type of mollusk that has two wings).


Image 7- The Immortal Jellyfish can live forever, reverting back to the polyp stage when stressed or after it has reproduced. They are very small, measuring approximately .2-4mm at the bell, but can extend their network of lacy tentacles when hunting which makes them ap-pear much larger. I find these hard to photograph well, as they are a bit sensitive to light. Gain-ing focus can be a bit tricky so I often times focus on my hand, then move into the subject. Many subjects drift in a static position but will begin to rotate if lit for an extended period of time or if you make quick hand/fin movements. I find some jellyfish easier to expose at a lower aperture like F14, but be careful of the strobe power as they are also easy to overexpose.


Image 8- Pelagic squid. Often times we will see small puffs of ink that slightly resemble a dirty cotton ball drifting through the lights. This is our signal the squid are there and using the light to hunt. Squid often times show up in small packs, hunting together or schooled together for safety. When actively hunting, the squid can release a cloud of ink, creating what looks like a smoke screen, giving them their nickname “Smoking squid”. The smoky ink temporarily stuns small fish and enables other squids to snatch them up for a quick meal.


Image 9- Hunting squid. Squid will grab the stunned fish right from the ink cloud and for a few moments pause. It’s at this time that you can grab a quick photo, but be ready for it. Once the strobes start flashing, the squids will quickly dart away, catch and all.


Image 10- During the cooler water temperature months in Anilao (January-March) we are treated to a plethora of jellyfish and salp chains. After seeing a small larval octopus on a salp chain I was intrigued. I had never seen this before and began researching the relationship between the two. Little did I know at that time, this wasn’t an octopus at all, but a male paper Nautilus, or A. hians. It turns out, the male paper nautilus (5-7mm) do not produce a shell, this is exclusively for the female. The female A.hians will trap air in her shell at the surface and use it for buoyan-cy to come to the surface in the evening when it is safe. The males also travel up to shallow waters using the salps, mollusks, or anything else they can for protection from predators in hopes of meeting a female.


Image 11- Female Paper Nautilus- The female paper Nautilus is a pretty incredible thing to see in the open ocean. These are naturally occurring, are not baited and certainly not baited and captured for a photo. These gals are fast and really a unique, high valued target that would never be seen on a regular night dive. Extreme sexual dimorphism exists between the male (very small) and the female (large and robust), one of the most extreme known in nature. This one is approximately 7 centimeters across and riding a banana leaf.


Image 12- Blanket octopus- Talk about an insane photo opportunity! Again, this would never be seen near shore or on a regular night dive. The blanket octopus uses its webbing to trap the nautilus and other ocean going subjects. This one, photographed at 30 meters, danced a bit for me then dashed away and into the dark. Again, extreme sexual dimorphism occurs be-tween the male and female. The male is measured in centimeters as the female can be meas-ured in meters. The webbing on their arms can also be casted off when they feel threatened, in an attempt to escape and evade by diverting the predators attention.

Blackwater diving offers a bounty of new and unique subjects and photo opportunities for the adventurous photographer. Concentrate on your dive skills and the rest will quickly fall into place as you gain a comfort level in the open ocean. Look for the small subjects first, and if something a bit larger appears, do your best to capture the action. Remember to save some air for the surface too! Flying fish and other incredible larval fish are often times in the last few me-ters.

Have fun and enjoy the adventure!


Image 13- A flying fish at the surface. At the end of the dive and near the boat a flying fish, dis-covered by my boatmen. Excitedly yelling to me, I was very lucky too get a few shots of this remarkably beautiful and skittish subject.

Find more of Mike Bartick’s images here.