‘Snell’s window’ was named after the Dutch mathematician, Willebrod Van Roigen Snell, who lived between 1580 and 1662. A professor of mathematics at Leiden University, he discovered the law of refraction known today as ‘Snell’s law’.
In underwater photography, Snell’s window is portrayed as an arc or half-circle through which the sky is visible. The area around the circle is a reflection of the seascape, and as such is much darker than the sky. Many newcomers often claim never to have noticed it. Here’s how you do it:
- As you descend, look back towards the surface through a wide-angle lens; it’s important to keep your vision directed in this way.
- You will see an arc or, depending on your depth, a half-circle.
- This window, arc or circle, call it what you may, is your only visual access to the world above.
- If the visibility is good and the surface is flat, you will clearly see the sky through the water.
- You don’t need to be in the sea to see Snell’s window; it’s clearly visible through the surface of a swimming pool.
- On a full frame sensor (FX) a 16-mm fisheye lens will capture the majority of the circle, but not all. I was once under the impression that the deeper you went the more could be included. This is incorrect! To photograph the full circle, you need a fisheye lens equivalent to a 12-mm lens on a full frame FX sensor.
The best conditions for shooting Snell’s window are when the surface of the sea is glass calm and the sky is blue with (to be very persnickety) white fluffy clouds.
1. The silhouetted diver
2. The view through the window (the inner circle)
3. The reflected circle of light (the outer circle)
4. The portion of reef at bottom left