Underwater Snoot Photography
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.
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!
Why use a snoot?
Isolate the main subject
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
In my part of town "You're the Dogs Bollo**s"
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?
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!