You've honed your diving skills, you've memorized your camera's instruction booklet, and you're about to jump into sixty feet of 80-degree water. Now is when you should tell your dive buddy that she's on her own because you're diving with a camera—and that means you won't notice her low-on-air sign unless she happens to be gesturing in front of mating whale sharks. Seriously, underwater shooting can be all-consuming, so remember to keep a frequent eye on your gauges—and your buddy—in between shots.
Unless you have an additional source of light to properly expose the frame, you'll notice that your first underwater images, shot only with ambient sunlight, tend to look monochromatic blue. It's not necessarily a displeasing effect, but it often looks nothing like the real thing. Even the clearest water will absorb the red and yellow light, leaving only the blues, unless you are shooting in less than about fifteen feet of water. The deeper you go, the more the colors (except for the blues) get absorbed by the water. Physics can be a real buzz kill, huh?
To capture the vibrant reds, brilliant yellows, and shocking oranges, you need to introduce artificial light into the equation. Many point-and-shoot digital cameras have a built-in flash (also known as a strobe) that is reasonably effective on land. Once you take the camera underwater, however, these flash units become worthless from a distance of more than a couple of feet. In fact, even the most powerful external strobes built specifically for wide-angle underwater photography are truly only effective to a maximum of five or six feet from the subject you are trying to illuminate.
That means you have to get fairly close to whatever you're shooting, which is when all of those master scuba skills come in handy. The optimum distance for most wide-angle shots is one to three feet, and for tight macro shots, it can be as close as a few inches. While distance and lighting alone won't get you perfect shots, they will certainly help you capture on camera a fuller spectrum of color.
Take a look at two images that I shot at South Emma Reef in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea, earlier this year. Image A (above) was shot with two strobes on full power, but I was too far from the cavern walls for the strobes to be effective. The resulting image is pretty dull, sporting many shades of blue.
In Image B (right), however, I moved to within three feet or so of the sponge- and algae-encrusted wall, lighting it up to show off its various reds, oranges, yellows, and browns. This isn't necessarily a prize winner, but it certainly shows off more color and, I think, has more visual interest than Image A. Take that, Image A!
If you don't have a strobe, get one! Without it, you are going to struggle to take photos that show colors besides the blues.
If you only have one strobe, get two! You can get rid of those annoying shadows, and illuminate a field of subject much wider than you can with just one strobe.
If you already have two strobes, good for you! Now get closer to your subject. Try experimenting with strobe placement and angles. Fun and creative things will happen....just don't forget about your buddy.
Have fun and dive safe,
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