Diving in dark places takes special training, planning, and a lot of patience
Who doesn’t love a picture-perfect seascape bathed in beautifully defined sunrays? Or a finely detailed multihued critter portrait with an exquisite blue backdrop? Nothing wrong with that. But when it comes to creating mood in an underwater image as well as getting more creative control over lighting, venturing into the ocean’s darker places is the order of the day. Whether it’s wrecks, shooting in caves, night diving, or black-water photography, mastering how to manipulate the dark—rather than the light—is a critical element in producing more-creative pictures.
In the following, we’ve prepared some essential, yet simple, tips for getting the most out of your upcoming dives in the darkness. This advice is pretty general, and it will apply to any type of shot: Our objective here is to get you thinking about how to get that amazing image, not hold your hand through the entire process. We’ll leave the details of how you get specific shots to other articles.
So, here are four necessary steps you need to take for any shot in the dark:
You should always go into a dive with an idea, but for dark shots, you really need to plan what you are going to do. Unless we’re talking about a comfortable night dive, there is often an extra element of danger in shooting in darkness. This is true specifically for wreck and cave shooting. There is no more dangerous environment in diving than those without a clear path to the surface, so when you are heading into caves or wrecks, make sure to have a rock solid dive plan to start with. People get so wrapped up in the pictures that they sometimes lose track of where they are—don’t make this mistake. Make a dive plan and stick to it.
Shooting this engine of a Japanese patrol boat took an entire dive to set up
The next element of planning is to think through the shots you want and map them out. In caves and shipwrecks, you need to get pretty specific, as you won’t have time to figure it out as you go along. Do research beforehand on your subject and identify areas that offer the best shots. Then go through and figure out possible angles and how you want to light it up.
If you plan on using light painting or long exposures with models, you need to get them totally up to speed on what you are going to do. Figure out where you want your lights, where your model is going to be, where your camera is going to be positioned, and tell the other divers exactly how long they have to work.
For black-water dives in open water, you need to plan your dive profile. It is very easy to lose track of depth and time as you chase that amazing little plankton around. Plan your depth and stick to the area around the line; you don’t want to get disoriented and lost in the dark, open ocean.
There is a lot of cool stuff on black-water dives, but don’t forget to keep your bearings and stick to the plan
Get the Proper Gear
The camera rig and lights you use for these types of shots can often be very different than what you shoot on a typical dive. In fact, it’s not unheard of for photographers to have a completely different camera rig for use on shoots like these. Darkness usually means long exposures, and there is no better way to shoot these than with a tripod.
A tripod?! Yes, you can shoot with a tripod underwater! Whether you get a cheap one from the local Walmart or order a custom diving setup, a tripod is a tripod. You need it to be heavy, so make sure to bring a lot of zip ties with you on these shoots. Don’t worry about bringing weights: You can use the lead on the dive boat or from the shop you are diving out of. Also, consider where the tripod is going to be standing. If you are shooting on the metal deck of a ship, you don’t want legs that have sharp metal points, they will slide across anything that isn’t flat—and wrecks are hardly ever perfectly flat.
Pete had to do many hours of planning to execute this shot (which is also the cover of an upcoming book)
You need to think through all these little details. Another thing is the lights: You’re probably not going to be shooting your strobes off arms on long exposures. Are you going to be remote triggering them, or using continuous video lights? How are you going to keep the lights oriented in the proper direction? Your best bets for these situations are gorilla grips, which you can mount anywhere. Just put a ball mount on the screw, and you are good to go!
Needless to say, if you are going to use a tripod, please be very mindful of where you place it. The marine environment takes enough of a beating as it is, so only use a tripod in places with sand, rubble, or exposed metal.
The engine room of Shinkoku Maru, Truk Lagoon: Think about where you put that tripod
Know Your Camera
Not all cameras are created equal, and some are much better in certain situations than others. You need to take a hard look at your camera and be realistic about what it can do. For example, most compacts are going to struggle to focus fast enough for fast-moving little critters on a black-water dive. But if you are shooting off a tripod and using off-camera lights, you can pretty much use whatever camera you like.
If your dives in darkness will be black-water dives or even simple night dives, you are going to be happier with a camera that has lightning-fast autofocus. Shooting tiny plankton while they move about is very difficult, and they swim a lot quicker than you think! Full-frame probably cameras are going to be your best bet here. You can shoot with other cameras, but you will have to work a little harder for that epic image.
You are going to want lightning-fast autofocus to capture the tiny critters in black-water
Things move fast in black-water. You need to be able to focus and fire off a whole series of shots very quickly when you have the chance. This is another case where you need to know your camera—and your strobes. Ideally, you want to use an electronic trigger to fire your strobes. They fire much faster than most optically triggered strobes, and they will preserve your camera batteries for all the intensive autofocusing it will have to perform.
Don’t give up just because your camera isn’t perfect for something; just be honest with yourself. If your rig isn’t up to a certain kind of shot, then try something different. For example, use manual focus with continuous lights. Then fire away as much as you can—hopefully, one or two good shots will emerge. Be honest, be creative, and have some fun with it!
Not every picture is a keeper: There were many unusable images from this dive, too
Accept Failure and Learn
Your shots will suck—guaranteed! Embrace the fact that the vast majority of these types of shots don’t turn out, and you will be well on your way to conquering the greatest challenge of underwater photography. Failure is our greatest hurdle, but that is how we learn. By learning, we can come up with new and innovative ideas.
You can always crank up your strobes, put them at 10 and 2, set f/22, 1/200s and ISO 200, and you will get a pretty good shot of an eel on a night dive. However, to get those genuinely memorable images, you are going to have to experiment. If you want to stand out, you need to go that extra mile—and failure is a big part of the journey.
Just as with knowing your camera, you need to know yourself. Study your shots after a dive and think what you did wrong and how you can do it differently next time. From here, the cycle begins all over again, taking us right back to planning our next shoot. So go plunge into the dark and shoot something amazing—we can’t wait to see what you come up with!
Experiment, have fun, and get creative!
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