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Dive Photo Guide

Underwater Snoot Photography

 
We are now well into the digital era, and there have been some dramatic changes to underwater photography that have made it very accessible. What was once a very expensive niche hobby, pursued only by the most determined and passionate individuals, has now become an activity that can be enjoyed by the masses. As a result, the number of properly exposed, sharply focused, and well-composed images is growing rapidly. 

Additionally, the advent of image-sharing sites is allowing unprecedented access to other photographers’ images. Since photography is often an inspiration-based art, and since there are now so many images available at one’s fingertips, there is a tendency for images to be imitated. While this may not necessarily be a bad thing, it means that your photos will blend in with the crowd unless you do something different. You can either hope to get lucky by finding many high-impact subjects on your dive trip, or you can take control of your images and put a different photographic spin on ordinary subjects.

Enter the snoot.
 
 
A sailfin blenny meets the tip of my snoot 
 
What is a snoot?

Definition

Snoots are devices used to reduce beam angles from light sources in order to provide photographers with more control over the illumination of their subjects. In their simplest form, they can be no more complicated than conical or cylindrical pieces of tubing which attach to the front of light sources.

Some designs incorporate a fine grid (egg crate works well), resembling the grill of a car, at the snoot’s aperture, to further direct the exiting light beam. They can be constructed very easily from common household items such as toilet paper rolls, funnels, and PVC piping. Take a look around the room you’re in right now – chances are that something there can be made into a snoot!
 
 
The diameters of a snoot’s entrance/exit apertures and their proximity to the light source are two factors that affect the angle of the beam that will be projected from it. The smaller and closer the entrance aperture, and the smaller and farther the exit aperture, the narrower the beam—and vice versa.
 
 
The intensity (technically, energy per time per area) of a snooted light beam is highly dependent on the reflectivity of the internal surfaces of a snoot. When constructed from highly reflective materials (i.e. white, silver, mirrored, etc.), it’s possible to create a more concentrated light beam than the un-snooted strobe, so battery life can be prolonged. Conversely, when constructed from highly absorptive materials (black), you may need to boost the strobe power to maximum in order to obtain enough illumination.


Why use a snoot?

Isolate the main subject
Since a strobe’s beam angle is greatly restricted by a snoot, the light can be projected exactly where you want it, eliminating distracting background/foreground elements or giving a spotlight effect. Photographers often strive to create images with black backgrounds to make the subject in the foreground “pop”, but it’s sometimes difficult to prevent strobe light from hitting the background as well. A snoot can solve this problem.
 
 
This sand-coloured snake-eel normally blends in with its surroundings. Snoots allow subjects like this to stand out from their sometimes drab backgrounds.


Minimize backscatter
Backscatter is seen in images when stray strobe light illuminates suspended particles between the camera’s lens and the subject. By snooting a strobe, you decrease the beam angle, make it easier to control stray light, and minimize backscatter.
 

 
This porcelain crab was in a cloud of silt, but by using a snoot, backscatter was greatly reduced


Illuminate directionally
Light coming out of a heavily-snooted strobe is strongly narrowed and therefore much more directional than without the snoot – as if it were coming from a source which is much further away. Because the snooted light rays are more parallel to one another, they create harsh, sharp-edged shadows when cast over a textured surface (almost like rays from the sun). When using a snoot to create these shadows, remember that narrower beams produce sharper shadows. This property can be used to emphasize textures of corals, create dramatic shadowy images, or give common subjects unusual moods.
 

 
A single, heavily-snooted strobe casts a strong directional beam of light over the face of this devil scorpionfish, creating strong shadows
 
 
Directional lighting brings out the textures of this coral head, giving this blenny’s home a more dramatic feel


Create unique images
The above-mentioned uses of snoots can be combined to create exciting, thought-provoking, and most importantly, unique images. Even the most common subjects can be given a “wow factor”, which can make your trip’s image gallery instantly more memorable than others.

Because of their creative lighting capability, snoots should be of particular interest to shooters interested in entering photo contests. For the past year, a pair of home (Depot)-built, variable-aperture “micro-snoots” (see below) have been a bit of an ace up my sleeve in the competition circuit. Here are a few shots that wouldn’t have been possible without them:
 

 
1st B&W – Antibes 2009
 
 
1st Jury Prize – Epson Red Sea 2009
 
 
2nd Young Underwater Photographer – SDAA 2009
 
 
1st Macro Traditional – OWU 2010
 
 
1st Super Macro Traditional – OWU 2010
 
 
2nd Macro – BTS 2010


Design and Application
Snoots can be used in both wide angle and macro/super macro photography. However, their design and method of application to each of these branches of photography differ greatly.
 
Wide Angle
Wide angle snoots are the simplest to construct. In most cases, sharp-edged beams are not necessary, so very short and wide-aperture snoots are often enough to do the trick.
 
When I first took a stab at this lighting technique, my snoots were made from old wetsuit sleeves that were cut into 6-inch bands and held on my strobe heads with trusty zip-ties. The distance that the neoprene snoot was extended controlled the amount of beam restriction. The ability to vary the beam angle like this is an important characteristic of any snoot, since it expands your creative possibilities.

Aiming strobes with laser precision isn’t necessary in wide angle snoot photography,  since you can usually eyeball proper alignment relatively easily. Don’t be afraid of taking some initial test shots to make sure that light is being directed where you want it—but when the time comes for the money shot, make sure you keep the framing consistent with the test shots, or else you may end up back at square one. If your strobe has a strong modeling light, switch it on and use it to simplify the aiming process.

 


If the subject you want to photograph is somewhat deep, you might want to take a single photo of it with “normal” lighting (for your reference), and then find a shallow area where you can fiddle around with your lights all day long, using a simple non-moving subject as a stand-in. Such use of a reference image combined with experimentation in the shallows should reduce the bottom time you need to spend with the actual subject.
 
Proper control of the ambient light in a scene can really showcase what snoots are capable of. By increasing the shutter speed and/or decreasing the lens' aperture appropriately, the main subject can be well exposed by the "spotlight" from the snoot while the rest of the scene remains intentionally dark, thereby creating a sharp contrast that draws attention to the subject. Alternatively, by using two strobes—one snooted and one not—you can gently illuminate the general foreground to add colour, but still have the main subject pop out of the scene.

 



Macro/Super Macro
Since the field of view in macro photography is very small, you’ll need a correspondingly small beam of light to selectively illuminate a portion of it. This requires the use of a snoot that is further away from the source and has a much smaller aperture (compared to wide angle snoots).

 


My micro-snoots consist of a few mutilated plumbing components that I roughly pieced together while wandering the aisles of Home Depot and refined to their current state back in my workshop. I designed these snoots to accept various custom-designed variable-diameter tips (a.k.a. chopped-up black pens). With one of these snoots, at normal shooting distances, I can produce a directional spot of light as large as 30cm (12”) in diameter or as small as 2mm (~1/16”) in diameter!

 

 
My snoot. The white pieces are removable to widen the beam, and additional pieces can be inserted in the end to narrow the beam

 
As with wide angle snoots, it’s very important to have the ability to vary the beam’s angle to maintain creative freedom… so keep this in mind if you’re trying to design your own.
 
Aiming snoots for macro imaging is far more difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming than snooting wide angle images. This is especially true for super macro photography, since subjects are often no larger than a grain of rice.
 



When using a snoot to shoot a macro scene with a broad, directional lighting effect, you can follow the same aiming procedure as explained for wide angle snooting. However, if you want to effectively and accurately create macro/super macro images with a spotlight effect, you’ll have to follow a very different, and somewhat tedious, route.
 
Trying to hit a 2 cm subject with a 1 cm (1/2”) beam of light is no easy feat. While it is possible to aim a mini-beam like this with the strobe still attached to the housing, I find it far easier to detach the strobe from the camera system altogether. Being able to move the camera without disrupting the strobe configuration makes a world of difference.

Life can be made even easier if, instead of hard-wiring your snooted strobe to your camera with a sync cord, you connect it to a remote trigger. This gives you total freedom, because there are literally no strings attached! You can even take it one step further and mount this remote strobe on a tripod (a Gorillapod fitted with a ULCS ball-head works very well), allowing you to position the strobe in just about any orientation, with a rock-steady base. This will ensure that if you do manage to get your snooted strobe perfectly placed, it will remain there while you compose your image.

 

 
My Ikelite DS-160 strobe, fitted with my micro-snoot, and mounted on a tripod (Gorillapod). It is connected to an Ikelite EV controller which remotely fires the strobe when hit with a flash of light.
 
 
A narrow beam of light escapes the small snoot tip
 
 
A small ribbon eel investigates the tip of my snoot

 
Of course this means you will need to choose subjects that are very slow-moving or, better yet, that don’t move at all—scorpionfish, frogfish, stargazers, coral polyps, etc.


Conclusion
The relatively small underwater photography world is now noticeably saturated with “typical” images. Without bringing new tools and/or techniques to the table, the art of underwater photography will quickly become stagnant and boring. This is precisely why tools like the snoot are essential—to advance this discipline. Whether they’re used for creating black backgrounds, spotlighting, or hard-edged directional lighting, there’s no doubt that snoots are very capable tools for creatively lighting underwater subjects.

However, as capable as they are, they can be (and usually are) very difficult to use. Aiming them for macro/super macro photography is often a mind-numbing experience, and finding slow-moving/motionless subjects suitable for snooting is up to the scuba gods. Therefore, to successfully use snoots, you’ll need to have plenty of patience and a little bit of luck. If you’re willing to suffer through the inevitable headaches, and are looking to expand your underwater photography skills, you might want to consider the snoot.
 



About the Author
Keri Wilk is an engineer and underwater photographer with 15 years of experience exploring the world's oceans. His photo credits include many international awards and publication in magazines, scientific journals, books, and field guides. He currently designs new products (e.g. SubSee) and leads underwater photo expeditions for ReefNet Inc. You can contact Keri about custom made snoots through ReefNet.

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Steve Williams
Mar 16, 2010 11:32 PM
Steve Williams wrote:
Wonderful Article and info Keri. Thanks for sharing all your hard won experience. Truly amazing work.
Nigel Wade
Mar 18, 2010 6:01 PM
Nigel Wade wrote:
Mr. Wilk you are a genious, nice one big guy, and a massive thankyou for sharing.
In my part of town "You're the Dogs Bollo**s"
Mike Luzansky
Mar 19, 2010 4:33 AM
Mike Luzansky wrote:
This was a fantastic article Keri!! Very well done.
Ralph Mortimore
Mar 19, 2010 10:50 AM
Ralph Mortimore wrote:
Very useful article, clearly explained and I only wish I'd read this earlier todsy - having just come back from a DIY store!
Keri  Wilk
Mar 19, 2010 11:34 AM
Keri Wilk wrote:
Thanks for all the kind comments, everyone. I'm glad you found this information useful! Let me know if you've got any questions, and I'll be happy to help out with your DIY projects.
Mark L Fuller
Mar 19, 2010 11:54 AM
Mark L Fuller wrote:
Thanks so much Keri for sharing your tips. Think I would have kept quiet myself and bagged a few more guaranteed years of prizes :-] You are truly in another league not just super macro but snooting it aswell. Im very inspired. I would like to see what the inside of your snoots look like? do you use a reflctive paint in the black rubber section and how far in does the pen like piece go in? Tks again for posting . Mark
Jason Heller
Mar 20, 2010 12:36 AM
Jason Heller wrote:
We rarely see innovation these days. Keri really did such a great job of creating a DIY snoot and took the time to select proper subjects, and develop shooting techniques. With his existing skill, this took it to another level and the crop of awards speak for themselves. Great job amigo!
david salvatori
Mar 21, 2010 6:09 AM
david salvatori wrote:
Hi Keri! Really interesting and instructive! thanks for sharing...

I have bought 2 Smith Victor snoots F/110 I for taking wide angle pictures. I received them yesterday so I haven't tried them underwater yet....but from the "dry" test I made yesterday I suspect the exit aperture is too wide, even for wide-angle.

In order to make the spotlight smaller I have to near the strobe so much that it enters in the pictures, if I move it away instead the spotlight is too wide, so you basically loose the spotlight effect...

The exit aperture of my snoots is 5 cm....how wide is the aperture of the snoots you use for wide angle?.....any suggestion?
Debi Henshaw
Mar 18, 2010 4:11 AM
Debi Henshaw wrote:
Brilliant information packed article - better get my plumbing bits out!
Bob Huckabee
Mar 18, 2010 11:19 AM
Bob Huckabee wrote:
I was very fortunate to see Keriâs winning work first hand at OWU 2010. Iâd say he has raised the bar for underwater photography. Thank you for your generosity in sharing your technique.
Cathy Church
Mar 18, 2010 12:41 PM
Cathy Church wrote:
Sea and Sea manufactured a wonderful set of snoots several years ago. They were plastic and fit over the front of the strobe and made it look like a hair dryer. They were harder to use with film because you never knew if you had it just right, so I always had a helper aim it with me. Now with digital you can check it immediately. Also, the newer strobes have built-in aiming lights so you can be sure. I have always loved the effect. Thank you Keri for renewing interest in this fun technique. Anyone who can locate the Sea and Sea snoots will have have a treasure.
Erik  Larsson
Mar 18, 2010 3:10 PM
Erik Larsson wrote:
Great article! Can't wait to try myself this weekend!
Mohammed Hazli Mohammed Hassan
Mar 26, 2010 8:13 AM
Mohammed Hazli Mohammed Hassan wrote:
True, most interesting. Would like to try this out with my Inon. One thing to ponder from the subject perspective. Several burst from the strobe directly to the subject, will it blind or kill the subject?
Paul Colley
Mar 28, 2010 7:20 AM
Paul Colley wrote:
A hugely informative article, Keri (which answered all the questions that I had about the subject). Thank you.
Keri  Wilk
Mar 30, 2010 3:04 PM
Keri Wilk wrote:
Thanks for all the comments everyone. Sorry for being slow to respond... I just got back from Costa Rica this morning.

Mark - To narrow the beam as much as possible, I used all black inner snoot surfaces to cut down stray reflections. The thin white tubing sticking out of the snoot can be slid back and forth as much as I want.

Mohammed - The intensity of the light coming out of the tip of my snoot is actually less than the strobe when it is un-snooted. When the strobe was set to full power with the snoot in place, the limit for proper exposure (@ ISO200, 1/200s) was around F/25. So, in my case, shooting with this gear is actually less harmful than normal.

Alex - Thanks back at you for letting me use your photos!
Steven Anderson
Mar 25, 2010 2:27 PM
Steven Anderson wrote:
Very interesting! Thanks for the info! Very informative.
Alex Mustard
Mar 25, 2010 4:30 PM
Alex Mustard wrote:
Thank you Keri for an excellent article.
Mohammed Hazli Mohammed Hassan
Mar 31, 2010 9:52 AM
Mohammed Hazli Mohammed Hassan wrote:
Thanks Keri for the explanation. its a relief. Dun want to roast the subject just to get great pix
Enzo Troisi
Apr 10, 2010 2:22 PM
Enzo Troisi wrote:
It's very interesting technique, the project recalls a funnel to me! I think it works much more better in macro than in wide-angle situations: in wide-angle the impression one could have is of a partial coverage of the scene, an error in directioning strobe. According to me it might be good to isolate a subject from similar others in the same scene, as a sea fan among many others along a wall. Surely it is not easy finding macro situation good for, but when you get it, as the eyes of stargazer the result is outstanding!
Enje Im
May 12, 2010 7:19 AM
Enje Im wrote:
Great article! Thanks Keri.
Joshua Barton
Apr 12, 2011 2:07 PM
Joshua Barton wrote:
Keri - this is great! I found that a standard bathroom plunger fits perfectly over the Ikelite DS125 as a snoot cover. Buy one with a plastic tube handle. Saw the handle off to a 2"-3" length, and saw off the last cm of the end that screws into the plunger head and you have a great snoot in under 5 minutes....
John de Jong
Oct 25, 2011 3:23 PM
John de Jong wrote:
I am still practicing with the snoot, but I like it. Nice article. Regards, John
John de Jong
Oct 25, 2011 3:24 PM
John de Jong wrote:
I am still practicing with the snoot, but I like it. Nice article, Keri. Regards, John de Jong
Alexis Golding
Nov 28, 2012 10:36 PM
Alexis Golding wrote:
Good Job, I made my our snoot wth optic fiber and flex arms, are so good.
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