By adding a little creativity to your shots, both in camera and in post, you can create amazing images even in very poor viz
Over the past three articles in this series, we have discussed how to shoot when the viz at your local dive site just plain sucks. The reality is that the diving accessible to most divers is going to be a pond, quarry, or a dive off a sandy beach. None of these will deliver the visual punch of the Red Sea, but it is what we are given. Poor visibility is something that most divers experience far more often than they would like, but it is not the end of the world—even for photographers.
We started this series on how to take great pictures in challenging conditions by picking the right subjects and getting creative. And we moved on to addressing backgrounds and some simple manual settings in your camera. Then we continued with creative lighting—following up with a fantastic feature by Zul Ng on that very subject. Now, in this fourth, concluding part of our series, we wrap it all up by addressing one of the most contentious, and least discussed, topics in underwater photography—post-processing. Often just referred to as “post,” this is the process of fully developing your images after the shot. (Many people dismiss it as “Photoshopping,” but this is a lazy description.)
In the following, we show you three easy techniques you can use to give your images that final punch. We limit ourselves to methods that are allowed by most underwater photo competitions. However, we may go a little beyond the rules in our examples to make it very obvious what we are doing. The aim is to show you how to develop your images, as opposed to wholesale manipulation.
This frogfish shot shows all the things we shared in this series: close-focus wide angle; looking upwards; background; light placement; and ultimately using post-processing to clean it up and adjust color
Highlights and Shadows
Underwater images are full of areas that are too bright, drawing the eye to the wrong place, and shadowy areas that look flat and uninteresting. You can go a long way to addressing this problem if you move and adjust your strobes, but at some point, you can only go so far in-camera. This is where the highlight and shadow sliders become your friends.
Just about every photo-editing program will have a slider for highlights and shadows. Take a minute and find them in whatever app you use. The examples here are all from Adobe Camera RAW, which is the precursor to the extremely popular Adobe Lightroom. When it comes to photo editing, the best advice is to go crazy and experiment! It’s not like you can destroy your picture—just don’t save it. More-advanced programs, like Adobe Photoshop, work on layers above your original. This means the entire post-process can be non-destructive—your original image is never touched.
When it comes to shots from poor viz dives, I find that I usually make the same adjustments to start. They are straightforward: reduce both highlights and shadows. This has the effect of getting rid of those too-bright areas and making the shadows deeper. Now your shot will begin to have a better feeling of depth, and the viewer’s eye will hopefully be drawn right where you want it.
In this shot, we have made the shadows much darker and reduced the highlights. The backscatter was also hit with a spot removal tool in Photoshop and the color was corrected—read on to learn more about these steps
Color Balance and Correction
Dives in crappy water conditions also usually mean that the water is not a sparkling blue. Your viewers expect to see blue water—water is blue, right? There are several ways to tackle the green water problem. Of course, you could leave the water green; however, often what you see on your computer is not what you saw in your mind’s eye. Your goal with color correction should be to make the image look like what you remember.
To fix this during the dive, you could use color filters on the outside of your camera. If you put a magenta filter on your lens and then dive green water, the result will be blue. This is just color wheel 101. The problem with doing this in practice is that you will be applying only a single filter to all your shots—some may turn out great, but others may come out, well, purple.
This shot of the Irako in Coron, Philippines was shot in very poor conditions. With a little TLC shown in these steps we can get a respectable image out of it
An easier way to address green water is in post. In this step, you want to adjust the tint and temperature. Tint is usually defined as a range between magenta and green, and you should go here first. If the water is green, then push that slider towards the magenta end. Boom! Now you’ve got blue water! How blue you want it is up to you—you’re the artist here. There will usually also be a lot of yellow in the image, as lights tend to be on the warm side. To bring that yellow under control, nudge that slider towards blue a little bit.
Everything you do in post during this step you could have replicated with filters, or even by changing camera settings, during the dive. It is just much easier done after the dive. Think of it this way: You aren’t Photoshopping your image; you are merely developing your RAW negative. These two little sliders—tint and temperature—can create massive changes to your photo, so try and be subtle. Nobody expects your local quarry to look like Raja Ampat.
It's amazing what adding magenta did to this image of the main gun on the USS New York in Subic Bay, Philippines
We won’t spend as much time on this, as not all software packages have a spot removal tool. But if you are serious about underwater photography, then you should seriously consider a program that has a spot removal tool. Nobody wants to see a bunch of backscatter, and competitions often allow for the removal of some of the more egregious snowflakes in our shots. Even judges get annoyed looking at those little dots over and over.
Another shot applying all three lessons: highlights and shadows, color balance, and spot removal
In Photoshop, the spot removal tool is extremely powerful, and you can easily take out backscatter. Well, it may be easy, but it can also be super time-consuming. Making simple adjustments to your strobe position during the dive can save you hours in front of your computer later. This is true with everything in post: The better your original shot, the better you can make your final image and the more time you save.
If nothing else, just get up-close and personal with some common subjects
Hopefully, you picked up some useful tips during this series, and it inspired you to appreciate every dive for what it is—and not what it isn’t. Next week, we will wrap up this bad viz month with a look at some of the best crap water sites in the world.
Andrew is a diver, photographer, writer, and trophy husband. Oh, he is also the Editor of DPG! You can find him on all the usual social media stuff if you feel like harassing him.
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