Colored strobe light can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Here, a brown table coral is photographed bright red. The technique works well with macro or wide angle, and the amount of color you add is up to you. Equipment and Settings: Nikon D4, 16mm lens, Subal housing, Subtronic strobes, f/14, 1/250s, ISO 200
Color is incredibly powerful in our pictures. It transforms atmosphere, grabs attention and communicates the splendor of the underwater world. Cool blues speak of the tranquillity of the deep, while warm primary colors push subjects forward, making them jump out of the frame. The work of the world’s best photographers is often distinguished by how they capture light and color, combining the richest blue backgrounds and all the magnificence of vibrant life.
Colors become even more interesting when we consider how to combine them. A palette of similar hues is restful for our eyes and creates a feeling of peace, such as the blues and greens of a kelp forest or seagrass meadow. Opposite colors jar, increasing visual contrast and the impact of our images. Background water colors are typically blues and greens, so when we shoot foregrounds of the opposite, warm colors—reds, oranges, yellows, pinks and purples—they really stand out strikingly against them.
Warm strobe light has rendered a rich blue color behind these ghost pipefish. Equipment and Settings: Nikon D2X, 10.5mm lens (15mm equiv.), Subal housing, Subtronic strobes, f/10, 1/15s, ISO 100
Think of how eye-catching an orange garibaldi looks framed in front of giant kelp or a yellow anemonefish and red skirted anemone balled up in the late afternoon against the deep blue waters around a coral reef. It is why one of the oldest pieces of advice in underwater photography is simply get a bit of red in the frame! The deeper message is that when we take control of the colors in our pictures, we can truly move to the next level.
Filters on Your Lens
Filters are not new to underwater photography, but in sharp contrast with land photography, their use has blossomed in the digital decade as an alternative to strobes for capturing color in the big blue. Underwater filters, also called red filters (despite all the best ones not being red), are valued because underwater color casts are far greater than on land.
Filters allow us to capture all the color of the underwater world without the need for strobes. The catch is that you have to stay shallower than 15 meters and you need to shoot in the same direction as the sun. Equipment and Settings: Nikon D2X, 12–24mm lens at 16mm (24mm equiv.), Subal housing, no strobes, Magic Filter, f/5.6, 1/80s, ISO 200
White balancing alone will always give inferior results. This is because whatever magic the camera’s or computer’s software weaves, a physical filter ensures that the sensor captures a more evenly balanced picture to start with. Your starting point is much closer to your goal. The difference between using a filter and not using one is often most visible in the backgrounds, which are a much richer, more pleasing blue.
Creatively, filters are exciting because they add color in a different way to strobes, with color penetrating much more deeply into big scenes. They require suitable subject matter, in the right conditions. The best subjects are coral gardens, wrecks, big animals, schools of fish, divers in relatively shallow water—working best in the top 15 meters (50 feet). The best colors come through when we shoot with the sun behind us. Shooting against the sun and particularly up towards the surface mutes color in silhouettes.
Similar colors make images restful for our eyes. The blues and greens here work together to generate a peaceful atmosphere. Equipment and Settings: Canon EOS 5D, 8mm lens, Sea & Sea housing, Sea & Sea YS-110 strobes, f/20, 1/15s, ISO 200
Many of us have our regular haunts, dive sites that we’ve visited and shot repeatedly. These are places where it is hard to get excited about subjects we’ve already shot again and again. Experimenting with colored light is a fun way to transform familiar scenery and critters. Strobes normally produce white light, but we can easily change it by adding a sheet of colored transparent plastic. Photographic lighting gels are not expensive, but colored cellophane gift wrap also works perfectly. Double sheets over for a more intense color. Orange, red and yellow colors will work best against blue underwater backgrounds.
Red gel filters attached to my strobes
Taking Control of Your Strobes
Powerful blue backgrounds are the essential canvas of stunning wide-angle photography. Conditions, the direction of light, and exposure are all critical, but the factor that is often ignored is strobes. It seems strange that our strobes can affect the water color of our pictures, but it happens as a result of how digital images are processed. It is locked into our pictures whether you process them with software or take them straight from the camera.
Strobes produce white light, but some strobes produce bluer, cooler light, and some more orange, warmer light. This difference is small, but since blue is such an important color in underwater photos the difference is very noticeable.
One of the oldest pieces of advice in underwater photography is get a bit of red in the frame. Underwater backgrounds are usually blue, so warm colored foregrounds jump out against them. Equipment and Settings: Nikon D700, 16mm lens, Subal housing, Subtronic strobes, f/10, 1/125s, ISO 200
The effect is easiest to get your head around when we consider how the camera handles colors in a photo. When we shoot, the camera selects a white balance to reveal neutral, correct colors in the foreground. This is determined mainly by the color of the strobe light. If the strobe produces cool light, then the camera compensates by slightly warming up the image. This is applied to the whole image: the foreground is now correct, but the background is also warmed up, and this makes blue water a more greeny, muddier blue. If we use warm strobes, the camera cools down the picture to correct the foreground color and also adds blue to the background, giving a richer blue.
Don’t look at the foregrounds; look at the blues! These photos were taken seconds apart with the same camera; the only difference is that the left one was lit with a warm strobe and the right one with a cool strobe. The camera’s auto white balance then adjusted both to give a correctly colored foreground. But this adjustment affects the whole picture, including the water color. The warm strobe gives a rich, bluer blue and the cool strobe gives an unattractive greener blue. The take-home message is in blue water warmer light is more desirable, while in green water cooler light is preferable. Equipment and Settings: Nikon D2X, 10–17mm lens at 10mm (15mm equiv.), Subal housing, (left) Subtronic strobe, (right) Inon strobe, f/9, 1/50s, ISO 100
It is straightforward and cheap to use mild lighting gel filters to adjust the color of your strobes. A few years ago I even persuaded Inon to make diffusers with this correction built in. So they are now available off the shelf. The effect of warming up your strobes is not huge, but taking control of it will pay you back in every image you take.
The final twist in the tale comes in green water. Here, of course, cooler strobes are preferable, because most photographers want to produce an emerald green water color, rather than push it towards a greeny-blue.
Warm colors look great against strong blue backgrounds. Equipment and Settings: Nikon D4, 15mm lens, Subal housing, Seacam strobes, f/14, 1/125s, ISO 320
About the Author: Dr Alexander Mustard, from the UK, has been taking underwater photographs for 30 years and has worked as a full-time underwater photographer for the last decade. His photographs have attracted many awards including being category winners in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and in 2013, he was named European Wildlife Photographer of the Year as overall winner of the GDT contest. He was one of the team for the 2020VISION conservation photography project in the UK. He also runs popular underwater photography workshops at top diving destinations around the world. www.amustard.com
This article originally appeared as “Mastering Colour” in the Intermediate Techniques section of the print magazine Scuba Diver Ocean Planet (SD Issue 8/2015, OP No. 6, pp. 98–101), published by Asian Geographic Magazines in association with DivePhotoGuide.