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Understanding Lighting

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Divers lit up with lots of strobes

By Don Constanza

In the last two articles we talked about building a solid foundation as a diver to become a proficient underwater photographer.  Buoyancy is one of the crucial pillars of our foundation, which we discussed a couple months ago.  With solid buoyancy skills you are a much more stable camera platform and more likely to get the shot you want.  Then we looked at some basics last month to get us thinking about how to “frame” or “compose” a shot.  We want to draw the attention of the viewer to our subject by initially utilizing a guide referred to as the “Rule of Thirds.”  This month we are going to talk about something that will help bring “life” and vibrancy to our images and that is lighting. There is much more involved with this topic than what I can cover in a few paragraphs, but perhaps this will get you thinking about various ways to set up your shots.

As divers, one of the lessons we learn in our dive class is that water absorbs light.  The deeper we go, the more colors are absorbed.  Have you ever noticed on a dive that if you stay relatively shallow, the colors are vibrant and rich and the deeper you go the image you see turns to shades of green, blue and grey?  There is a simple reason that occurs.  Once we understand the why, then we can take steps to improve our images immediately.

Without getting too deep into the discussion of wavelengths and frequency, allow me to throw out an acronym you may recall from middle school science class. The acronym is “ROYGBIV” which we may remember stands for Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet. These are the hues that make up the color spectrum of a rainbow and what we perceive with our eyes.  Those colors get filtered out at various depths and that is what we must understand if we want to take actions to make our images look vibrant and colorful and avoid bringing back images of only shades of green or blue.

How do we do bring back colorful images?  Well, as underwater photographers, there are several factors we need to consider.  The first is, do we need to bring additional light? If our dive will be relatively shallow, say twenty-feet or six meters and the water is gin-clear with a bright sun and minimal clouds, it is quite possible you won’t need additional light. For all the other times, we must bring our own light sources which then fall in to two categories as either video lights, sometimes referred to as “constant light,” or strobes.

Strobes have the capability to produce very intense yet high quality of light at fractions of a second. Video lights, while giving us the benefit of seeing what we are illuminating before the shot, are not generally as powerful a light source as strobes.  We also run in to a potential issue of scaring away the critters we are trying to photograph.

Depending on your camera platform, you may or may not have the option of using either lighting sources. Many “point and shoot” cameras, such as the very popular “action cameras”, have no way to trigger a strobe, so you will be forced to use video lights.  

If the camera you use has the option of using either, generally speaking, strobes will produce a much nicer light than video lights.  That being said, there are incredible advances with LED technology in the video light arena and perhaps down the not-too-distant road we will have a viable option that rivals the light output of a strobe.

As we have already established, water is a medium that greatly reduces light so we need to get close to our subject as water is much denser than air.  That means light isn’t going to travel as far underwater as it does above it.  The image below shows an example of the close proximity I needed to be to my model, thus ensuring my model is properly lit with my strobes.

Let’s look at another example and compare a couple simple images I shot recently for this article. One image is without strobes and one with strobes.  I took these images inside the fuselage of a plane at our local quarry to show the positive impact having extra light can be to your final image.  My very patient model (Matt) is inside the plane and I fired off a shot with my strobes turned off.

One of the nice things about modern DSLR cameras is you can push the sensitivity of the camera via the ISO setting, shutter speed and aperture…that is what I did in the above image.  Normally it would be much darker and by making my camera more sensitive, it picked up ambient light from the windows.  The other light you see reflected is my canister light which I am holding close against my drysuit, but since my camera is now much more sensitive, it is picking that light source up.  You may think, “I’ll just dial up the sensitivity of my camera and won’t worry about strobes,” and you would be somewhat correct.  There is nothing wrong with that belief and you will get an image, but will that image meet your expectation and will it have quality light?  Generally the answer is no.

Now let’s take a look at the same position where the strobes on my camera are turned on.  I also like to add additional strobes, which you see behind Matt.  I think we can all agree the image with the strobes is a little more interesting.

The second image is exactly what we talked about in our pre-shoot brief prior to us splashing in. Having additional light, be it strobes or video, will greatly enhance your underwater images the majority of the time.  It helps to create separation of your subject and background elements as well as bring back colors that may have been removed depending on where you are in the water column. The question, then, is which lighting solution best meets your shooting style and camera platform?

This short article was merely to get you thinking about lighting options available to us as underwater photographers.  Whether you shoot in a quarry, Great Lakes, caves or extensive reefs, adding additional light will generally make your images stand out.  It takes practice to get the hang of working with additional light sources so be patient with yourself and with consistent practice, I am certain you will see an improvement in your images.