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Underwater Photography in Bright Light
By Andrew Marriott, June 14, 2019 @ 04:00 AM (EST)

Putting the sun and waves in the background can create images that really pop

Perhaps the most useful pieces of gear for an underwater photographer are lights—in some sense even more important than the camera: You can take great photos with a simple camera if you have the proper lighting, but the opposite is not true. Even if you have the most amazing and expensive camera ever built, if your lights don’t measure up, your pictures could well fall short.

Shooting in bright light in shallow water presents particular challenges. There are three things to think about: The first is what artificial lights you brought with you and what to do with them. The second is how much ambient light there is and what position the sun is in. Finally, you need to properly set your exposure and strobes to use the surface to maximum effect.

Shallow water, bad viz, sun, no problem: Just bring the right lights


The Light You Bring

Before we examine using the ambient light, let’s talk about the lights you bring with you. If you have continuous lights for photography, you need to really think about how you use them. They are incredibly versatile in certain situations, but they generally don’t put out enough lumens to overpower bright natural light. Be creative with how you use them, but don't expect to be able to employ them as primary lights in every situation.

In cases where you are shooting shallow and using the surface, or the sun, as a backdrop, you’ll need strobes that have some serious punch. You need the power to light up your subject, which will be virtually black otherwise. For shots using the sun, waves, or intense ambient light, you will be setting your exposure for the background and not your subject. This is why you need to crank up your strobes: You will be fighting against the single greatest light source in existence—the sun.

Video lights are often best used for creative effects and off-camera lighting


How to Use the Sun

If you are an experienced land photographer, then this section is pretty self-explanatory. However, many of us seem to forget the rules of light and sun placement when we get underwater, as often they are not an issue. But when you are shooting using ambient light and using the surface as a background, you need to be just as aware of sun placement as if you were shooting a wedding outdoors.

There are three primary ways to use the sun: You can put it in your frame, put it at an angle, or put it behind you. Each one has a different look, and you can use them to spectacular effect, but only if you plan correctly. It makes no sense to put the sun in the frame if the viz is so bad that it is only a vague glow. If the sun is just a lighter patch of water, then break out those strobes and go to work—no need to get cute.

On the other hand, if you can see the sun, then it can be a crucial element to your image. If you want nice, even lighting on your subject then position the sun behind you. To get nice contrast and shadows, you can position the sun off to the side, but remember to set up your strobes correctly. You want to leave the shadows intact; if you position your strobes to try and fill the shadows, you will just end up creating more shadows. You want to position the strobes to illuminate only the subject without creating a bunch of new shadows.

Finally, you can shoot straight into the sun and use it as your background. These photos are very popular, so let’s discuss them in a little more detail.

The sun in this image is set off to the side, creating contrast on the reef and fish

The sun here is behind the camera, creating nice, even lighting


Using the Sun and Surface as a Background

Some of the most memorable underwater shots are sunbursts and textured surface shots. They are eye-catching and provide a great background, which is one of the hardest things to find underwater. While good backgrounds aren’t easy to come by, nature has provided you with two of the most spectacular you will ever find: the sun and the surface.

If you want to shoot into the sun, you need to get that aperture up as high as it will go—f/22 will work great. Then you want to crank up your shutter speed to the fastest your strobes will sync to—1/320s is usually the fastest that works. Now, line up that shot and shoot with your strobes on average power and you will end up with a beautiful black subject. No, you will need to blast those strobes on full power to compensate for your fast exposure.

If you get lucky, the sun’s rays will be visible penetrating into the dark blue

The other background is the surface. Nothing says underwater shot like being able to see the waves behind your subject. Many people try these shots, but they end up with a well-exposed subject with a glaring, bright, unattractive background.

The solution is actually quite simple: You need to set your exposure based on the background surface light, not on what is directly in front of your lens. Once again, you will end up with a dark subject. To compensate for this, you will need to increase the power of your strobes. Get used to controlling strobe power manually; it is mandatory for these shots.

These types of shot will take a lot of trial and error, fiddling with strobe power to get it right, but if you persevere, you should eventually be able to achieve a balanced, attractive image with popping colors. For more advice on how to photograph scenes containing a complex mix of natural light and strobe light, check out Alex Mustard’s Technique article, “Balancing Ambient and Artificial Light in Underwater Photography.”

Capturing a sunny surface is a challege, but the results are worth it


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