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A Different Light
By Aaron Wong, February 9, 2010 @ 03:03 PM (EST)
It is a painting in many ways. A form of expression. An interpretation of reality through the eyes of the artist. I am talking about a photograph. Instead of painting with a brush on canvas, we paint with light on film. Or, in more recent times, a sensor.

Like any artist, as a photographer, how you ‘paint’ with light is your interpretation of reality. Many would call this a ‘style’ or a ‘look’ that separates great photographers.

Many years ago I chanced upon a painting by Wyland, a painter known for his surreal images of the underwater world. I was immediately drawn to it. The real underwater world is of course far from these imaginary paintings, but somehow, in my eyes, they are all but the same. Magical and surreal.

soft coral and sunburst by aaron wong

The camera is a tool I have mastered over the past 13 years as a commercial photographer. And, like any tool, with enough practice, it can be controlled and manipulated to produce the results that you want. It has been done by many great wildlife and journalistic photographers—Why not so in underwater photography?

cuttlefish underwater photograph

To me there is a great divide—photographers who loyally reproduce nature perfectly in all her splendor, and the photographer who shows it differently through his creative interpretation. I am the latter.

Goby in shadows by Aaron Wong

A lone starfish against a dark evening sun, a single reef fish dancing for the camera in the dark.

A lone starfish against a dark evening sun

single reef fish dancing for the camera in the dark

Not your usual underwater pictures I must say, but never the less, shot in the sea like everyone else’s. So why did I make my style look so different?


The secret is all in the light and how you use it to paint your image. To many, light illuminates objects. But light also controls what you see or don't see. Darkness is measured by the lack of light, not how ‘dark’ things are. So with a good control of light, you can effectively show what you what to be seen while removing what you do not want.

Boxer Crab Underwater photograph

Day can become night, a mid day sun can become dusk, things you don’t want in your picture can all disappear into the shadows.

reef fish with black background

The camera is a tool that allows you to do all that, but of course, you must start with the right ideas. Look at a subject and visualize how you want your picture to look. Much like how a painter would have at least have a rough idea of what he wants to paint before brush meets canvas.
Soft coral and sun

Experiment with the placement of your strobes instead of the usual 45-degree. Light it from the side, back or top. Unscrew the strobe from the arms if you have to. Don’t light up what you do not what to show. Separate your subject from its background so they stand out more. Speed up your shutter speed to reduce the ambient light, giving more contrast to you strobe. These are just some ways you can control light.
Lionfish underwater photography by Aaron Wong

Perhaps all these years in the studio has given me the opportunity to understand that in great details. Let’s face it, in the darkness of a studio, all the light you see in the final image is specifically placed there by the photographer, and you when spend 4 hours to light up a single product (ie; a latest model of hand phone) for an advertising campaign, you begin to see light differently.

Lighting is more than illuminating a subject; there is an art to it.

Crinoid close focus wide angle underwater photograph

The other key factor is of course the angle in which you see your subjects. In other words,  how you frame and compose your shots. With the right angle, even a common nudibranch or a feather star can look interesting. Use your composition to tell a story instead of doing the usual ‘fish ID photos’. Put emotion into your pictures. The saying that a picture tells a thousand words does hold true.

over under photography by Aaron Wong

The trick is to look at everything differently, even the most common placed subjects. A picture of a boring subject brilliantly shot in a way never before seen can beat a bad shot of the rarest animal anytime.
Macro wide angle photograph by Aaron Wong

Explore different lenses and play with the prospective. Focus on a single subject and do a wild angle close up instead of the usual seascape shots. Look not at the beauty of many, but the sheer brilliance of one.
Close focus wide angle starfish by Aaron Wong

Once you find something that might make a good picture, take the time to see how you can light it. Try to visualize the results that you want to achieve and work towards it. Do not shoot for the sake of shooting or go into rapid fire mode.

As I always say, a great shot can do what a dozen ‘ok’ shots can’t. Its quality versus quantity.

underwater lighting
fish portrait by Aaron Wong

But visualizing the shot is where many get stuck, similar to how many get stuck on a blank canvas.  Look through some good photographs and study how great photographers shoot. This will give you a better eye for what makes a good picture. In time, it should come naturally. This is not to say go and copy other images, but looking at great pictures is the best way to  give you a better sense of what is nice. Once you have mastered that, explore and find a style of your own.

soft coral and diver

I was a big fan of dark pictures at a time when it wasn’t well received, but over the years, it became a look that I have been known for and widely emulated. While it is good to be able to follow trends, its even better to start your own. So go out there and explore the possibilities.

soft coral, sun and shadows

Lastly, while we pursue perfection we must remember that no good photos is worth damaging the environment for. Many times while judging in competitions, I have seen countless brilliant shots disqualified because subjects show clear signs of stress or being handled.

Even if you are not in a competition, a picture of a pygmy seahorse on a sea fan with polyps in full bloom will beat one that is on a damaged sea fan with polyps closed—a clear sign that the animal has been badly handled. Sadly a very common sight for those who can spot the difference. Give the animal some space and try to capture them as naturally as possible.

mantis shrimp in bottle
creative underwater lighting

With all that said, go out there and explore the different ways of shooting. Carve out a look of your own. Tell a story through your pictures. Put the ‘extra’ back into the ‘ordinary’. Make them extraordinary. 

Whip Coral with sunburts by Aaron Wong

About the Author
Aaron Wong is a professional photographer based in Singapore. For over a decade he has been commercial photographer shooting for fashion magazines, celebrity profiles, and advertising campaigns all over the world with clients like Levi's and Elle. You can see more of Aaron's work in his DPG gallery and on his webpage.


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