A guest photo tip column by Jason Spitz
In late 2008, Jeff wrote an article entitled "The Lighting Blues," in which he encouraged all underwater photographers to get strobes. I hope this follow-up column will inspire you to be creative with light in your photographs.
As any diver knows, adding light underwater can turn the mundane into the magical. We've all experienced the difference at a shallow dive site when the sun comes out from behind a cloud, and a colorless reef becomes vibrant. Or, we turn on a dive light along a dark wall, and a rainbow of colors becomes apparent.
Once you've purchased an off-camera strobe or strobes, the ability to position these excellent additional light sources becomes the critical factor. Flexibility with your strobe positions allows you to change the direction of light, create shadows and contrast, and avoid backscatter.
There are two primary types of strobe arms. The flexible/loc-line arm consists of a series of snap-together ball joints. These arms are easy to adjust with one hand and are flexible. Individual sections may be added or removed to adjust the length of the arm. However, they may become "floppy" above the water as the length exceeds 12-18 inches, and with use, some may become loose and not hold their position correctly while shooting. These are available from Epoque, Fantasea, Loc-line, and were recently discontinued by Sea&Sea.
The second type of arm has adjustable spherical ball arms and a series of clamps. Using a series of three clamps and arm sections allows great flexibility. As the arms come in a variety of lengths, it is possible to have your strobes within inches of your port or more than three feet away. The arm sections are available in lightweight aluminum or with built-in buoyancy to help make your rig neutrally buoyant. These are available through Ultralight Control Systems, Aquatica TLC, Inon, Sea&Sea, and StiX. Buoyancy floats are also available for several of these arm systems through StiX.
There are many available articles and books on "how and where to place your strobes." These resources can show you basic strobe positions, such as placing your strobe up and above your lens for macro pictures and moving your strobes far out to the sides (typically 12-30 inches), facing slightly outward, for wide-angle pictures. Instead of a comprehensive overview here on actual positioning, I'll give you some of my thoughts on "using" light:
Before even considering the use of strobe light, look at the natural light you have available. The shallower your dive, the more colors of the light spectrum are available to you. In brief, available light will only provide "blue pictures." Use your strobe(s) to balance natural light with artificial light. You can accomplish this effect by setting the exposure for your background and then adjusting your strobes to properly light your foreground.
In this wide angle photo (10mm, 1/100 @ f13) of Salt Pier in Bonaire, NA, I exposed for the blue water above in the afternoon sun and utilized dual strobes to light up the fantastic sponge growth on the closest pillar.
Focusing your light on an individual subject in the water column can provide for dramatic results. By using a small aperture, blue water can turn black. If you prefer a blue background, use a larger aperture.
|These photos of a small juvenile trumpetfish were taken during a night dive. Notice how the selective lighting in the first photo (60mm, 1/80, f13, dual strobes low power) and positioning of the fish in the water column provides a dramatic view of a relatively ordinary fish. The second "more traditional" fish photo shows the same trumpetfish after moving just a few feet away in front of a hard coral.|
Confined dark spaces, such as the interior of a shipwreck, often require wide angle lenses and significant light sources. When I came across this school of glassy sweepers in the bottom level of a wreck, I decided to light the entire interior along with the school.
To fill this dark interior, I utilized three strobes. The left and right strobes were positioned approximately 2 feet to each side of the camera, pointing slightly outward. The center strobe was positioned 12-15 inches above the center of the camera.
Don't be afraid to try something different. Even typical subjects can become exciting by changing the lighting. Think about different ways of positioning your strobes and varying their power settings to create highlights, shadows, and unique perspectives.
This vase sponge with a brittle star inside it was shot from the outside in. Strobes were placed on the outside of the sponge to light the sponge directly through its cells and light the subject inside. This created a glow through the sponge that makes it look almost on fire. (105mm, 1/125, f18, dual strobes full power)
Just because you have them doesn't mean that you always need them! You can use just available light.
At Something Special in Bonaire, NA, in less than 20 feet of water, I turned off the strobes for this natural-light photo of a diver shooting a school of fish. (10mm, 1/100, f16)
Light with the edge of your strobe to avoid backscatter. You're not always required to aim the strobe directly at the subject. By tilting your strobe or moving it away from the camera, you can use the edge of the flash beam to light your subject. By not lighting the water in between the subject and the camera you can avoid or minimize backscatter.
Try shooting your strobe in manual mode. Many of today's cameras and strobes allow you to shoot in some sort of automatic TTL (through the lens) mode. Automatic does not always yield the best or most pleasing results. Don't be afraid to put those strobes in manual and vary the flash intensity. If you have two or more strobes, consider using one as the primary strobe and the other for filling in shadows.
In this age of digital shooting where you have the ability to immediately view your photos, playing with strobe positioning and flash intensity can yield some excellent results. Try shooting the same subject with a variety of lighting techniques. You may be surprised at the outcome.
Practice your buoyancy; protect the reef!
Jason Spitz has been shooting and developing topside photographs since the age of thirteen. He began shooting dSLRs underwater in late 2006. Jason's photography has been featured in CORAL calendars.
Back to the underwater photo tips main page »