Underwater Photography at Night
At the end of a long dive day, you might be less than thrilled at the thought of getting back in the dark, chillier water for a night dive. A cold beer or cocktail is probably higher up on your wish list.
But night dives can be one of the most rewarding opportunities for underwater photographers. Animals that you might otherwise never see during the day—crustaceans, eels, and cephalopods—come out to play at night. And then there are a ton of wonderful behaviors to photograph such as predation and cleaning.
Introduction to Night Diving
If you’ve never been on a night dive before, it can be a bit intimidating, since you can only see what’s within range of your dive light. With a little planning and the right safety precautions, you’ll feel more comfortable and ready to take underwater images at night.
The first step is to have both a primary and secondary dive light. So, if you’re using continuous video lights on your camera, you’ll want to bring an additional torch as well—just store it in a BCD pocket. You’ll be glad to have an extra if your primary fails for some reason. If you’re just getting into night diving, it’s best to start at a site you’re familiar with, ideally having completed multiple day dives in the same spot. If you haven’t been on the site before, make sure to pay extra attention during the briefing to familiarize yourself with the topography.
Also, the buddy team is extra important during night dives—not just for safety, but also to help identify potential photography subjects. Go over signals before the dive, including how to gain the other’s attention with the light. (Note: Never point your light directly at a subject, but rather illuminate it with the softer edge of the beam.) And always make sure to shine your light onto your hands when giving hand signals.
There’s no reason to be scared of the dark: Diving at night brings you subjects rarely seen during the day, or unique nocturnal behaviors. Here, a manta ray munches on microscopic krill in Hawaii.
Night Dive Underwater Photo Subjects
While the specific species you are likely to encounter on a night dive differ from location to location, there are some subjects that are essentially nocturnal and only come out for photographers when the sun goes down. Many species of cephalopods, such as octopus, cuttlefish, and squid are frequently seen at night.
Also, many crustaceans such as shrimp, crab, and lobster are far more active at night, often hunting their prey. Other subjects that bolt around in the daylight, such as parrotfish, become sedentary at night, making for a much easier shot. And although it’s probably not what the first-time night diver wants to hear, many larger predators are active hunters at night.
Some specialized photography opportunities are also available when the sun goes down. "Black Water" underwater photography involves photographing the rare invertebrates of the deep that rise to the surface at night to feed. Photographing the natural fluorescence of marine life using specialized filters is a new trend in underwater imaging, best accomplished during night dives.
Parrotfish zip around the reef during the day. But when they sleep at night, it's a perfect opportunity to take an abstract image of their eye and colorful patterning.
Equipment for Underwater Photography at Night
Essentially, the underwater photography gear you use during the day will serve you well at night. However, there are some modifications and equipment selections that can streamline the experience.
Use a Dedicated Focus Light and Strobes: Even if you have a focus light built into your strobes, it’s best to have a dedicated focus light (or two) attached to the housing. You’ll want to keep your continuous focus light consistently directed, even while you move your strobe positioning. You will also need at least one powerful strobe (ideally two) since this is the only source of light that will illuminate the subject. For the most part, you will use the continuous lights to focus on your subjects, and your strobes to light the scene. Use of continuous light is recommended only if you have sufficient power (2,000 lumens or more) or for specific circumstances, such as to create a spotlight effect (see below).
Two Focus Lights Are Better Than One: We already addressed the importance of having a backup light for safety, but there are also photographic advantages to having dual focus lights. First, you’ll have more power to illuminate a wider scene, and second, you’ll be able to feather the lights so that the softer inner edges are lighting the subject—rather than just a single light pointed right at it.
Using two lights allows you to more evenly illuminate the scene in front of you, which is helpful not only for finding subjects, but also for not scaring them away by “bullseye-ing” with a single beam.
Label Important Buttons: Some manufacturers include glow-in-the-dark labels on the housing. But if you don’t have this and you are struggling to find needed controls in the pitch black, then consider taking small strips of differently colored luminous tape and marking the controls you use the most. Depending on your needs, we’d suggest the playback, function, or any other buttons tightly grouped together.
Lens Selection: Unlike during the day, when you’re able to scan the reef as a whole for wide-angle subjects, your vision is essentially limited to the spot illuminated by your focus light. For this reason, macro is usually the way to go. A 105/100mm macro lens will be the best choice for photographing nocturnal behaviors from further away.
Try Wide Angle: Although the vast majority of subjects to be photographed during night dives are medium-sized and macro, there are opportunities for wide angle as well. These include specialty dives such as Kona’s famed manta experience or shark feedings. But wide-angle reef scenes and close-focus wide-angle opportunities exist as well. For more on this, see our article “Wide-Angle Underwater Photography at Night.”
Although many night dives provide strictly macro opportunities, some unique sites offer the chance to photograph predators in action.
Underwater Photography at Night: Tips and Techniques
The big thing to have success photographing on a night dive—as previously mentioned—is to be comfortable in the situation with or without your camera. If this means going on several dark dives without your camera, then that would be encouraged. Once you feel comfortable to juggle your rig in the dark, here are some key tips and techniques:
Dive at Dusk: If possible, try to begin your dive at dusk, rather than once it is completely dark. Getting in the water just 10 minutes before sunset will provide the available light to fiddle with your settings and get settled in the underwater environment. It also provides a transition from the familiar day dive to the nighttime.
Diving at dusk is a great way to transition into the night. It’s also a unique time on the reef, as it undergoes a change. Here, mandarinfish mate at dusk.
Use a Fast Shutter Speed with Strobes: Many people are worried about how continuous focus lights will impact their strobe-lit image, especially at night when they appear to put a spotlight on the dark background. This can easily be avoided by using a fast enough shutter speed to cancel out the continuous focus light. It works much the same way as when shooting in daylight with strobes, where using a fast shutter speed limits the amount of ambient light from the sun hitting your camera sensor. The shutter speed required to do this at night varies based on the output of the focus light—which can typically range from 400 to 4,000 lumens. For most lights, however, 1/160s is a good place to start.
The appropriately named stargazer is a popular nighttime subject in the Coral Triangle. Using a fast shutter speed eliminates the spotlight beam coming from a focus light.
Use a Continuous Light Only: Sure, you can go the traditional route to eliminate the spotlight effect of your focus light with fast shutter speeds. Alternatively, you can go the opposite direction for a snooting effect (without an additional light-shaping device). This spotlight effect works nicely for critters in the sand or environments where they tend to blend in. Turn off your strobes and use the focus light to shine a spotlight on the subject. Slow your shutter speed a bit (roughly 1/80s) to let more of that continuous light in. You’ll need to use the spot mode on your focus light and have sufficient output (more than 800 lumens).
You can also use the spot beam of your light to create a snooting effect, which in this case spotlights a crocodilefish hiding in the sand.
Focus on Behaviors: During your night dives, you may want to be more selective about which subjects you spend time with and those you may pass on. Many subjects are active only at night (hunting, feeding, cleaning, etc.)—so keep an eye out for these unique behaviors rather than the mundane. Also, it’s a good idea to ask your guide what behaviors are common on a given dive site at night.
Spending extra time with subjects at night will likely lead to unique behaviors to photograph, such as the yawn of a frogfish.
Experiment with Strobe Positions: One reason why night diving is a great opportunity for novice photographers is because it simplifies the lighting situation. During the day, underwater photographers are required to balance two light sources: ambient sunlight and the artificial light from strobes. But at night you only have artificial light to contend with. This provides a great opportunity to master manual control of your strobe output and using various positioning to achieve different lighting effects.
Take Advantage of the Black: When most people see a macro image with a black background, the initial response is often to assume it was photographed at night. However, most of these images are photographed during the day with a more advanced technique to create a black background. But if you’re just getting started, you can take advantage of the dark water to achieve this look with much less effort. Just make sure to frame your subject against open water so that the only lit portion of the frame is your foreground subject.
Creating black backgrounds at night doesn’t require manual exposure control: Just make sure there is open water behind the foreground so that your strobes only illuminate the subject.
It seems much of the trepidation to start taking underwater images at night lies with a sense of unease in the dark. But as any seasoned night diver will tell you—the ocean truly comes alive when the sun goes down.
If you’re feeling nervous about taking your camera with you when diving at night, then it’s best just to go on a few night dives without it. Being comfortable diving in darkness will let you focus on the photography and experiment with the techniques discussed here.
Some nighttime subjects can be focused right near the surface, like this juvenile needlefish.
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