Light up your underwater life
Paul Duxfield discusses different ways of lighting up your underwater photographs, and looks at the pros and cons of strobes and video lights
It’s dark down there. And it’s deceptive too. I don’t mean when it’s obviously dark in the bowels of a wreck, or on a deep dive, I mean it’s darker – and significantly so – even in gloriously sunlit parts of the world. Descend a few metres and your camera is registering much less light than on the surface.
The problem for a lot of beginners is that it can be quite hard to reconcile what they think they are seeing, and experiencing what the camera is actually seeing. You see, we have a brain that tends to trick us into thinking that the conditions are actually providing more light than we think we've got access to. Our cameras are less forgiving and tell it like it is.
It’s pretty obvious a lot of the time, if you're used to diving in the UK when it’s overcast, but can be difficult to gauge on a sunlit tropical reef.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch
Even if you're shooting fully automatically using just the available light, then your pictures can suffer as the light drops. So while your camera is quite clever at keeping the settings stable on the fully auto modes, there is a payback in low light.
And that is that the camera, if totally automatic, will adjust the ISO itself to try and maintain a shutter speed that will prevent camera shake, typically above 1/60th second. As the light drops then this ISO, which is the sensitivity of the camera’s chip, will get higher and higher, and this unfortunately produces a noisy or grainy picture. It will eventually start dropping the shutter speed too, which can end up causing camera shake, or failing to prevent subject movement.
With most cameras, though, you can disable the Auto ISO, which is generally switched on by default, and make the decision yourself to adjust the ISO to suit. This will mean that you will have to keep a close eye on the shutter speed – not always possible with action cameras like GoPros, so you'll just have to put up with the drop in quality. To be honest, if you're not that fussy, then for web or small prints it’ll be fine.
However, if you want to learn about underwater photography then for about the same price as a GoPro you can pick up second-hand cameras and housings that will provide you with everything necessary, from full automatic to full manual, in an easy-to-handle package.
They're usually good video cameras, too, so if you’d like to learn more just get in touch with me and I’ll give you more details about the specifics.
While these auto modes are handy, and I still use them myself on occasion, eventually they will become limiting and you’ll want to take charge of all the camera controls, which are the ISO, the Shutter Speed and the Aperture.
It can seem daunting at first, but honestly this stuff is less technical than learning to dive and the basics can be picked up in a few hours with the correct tuition. A lot can be self-taught, and there are great aids available online to help you.
There’s an app for that
Most cameras with a manual mode – M on the mode dial – have a handy scale that pops up to guide you. And by adjusting your shutter speeds and apertures, then you will see this scale swing left or right dependent on the light entering the lens and your current settings.
Have a play with it, if your camera doesn't have a Manual mode, then all is not lost, there is a fantastic piece of software called CameraSim that is available on all platforms, and simulates a camera with manual modes, and allows you to play and have fun with your phone, tablet or on your regular computer simulating a proper camera with manual controls.
It’s great for folk who would like to learn but haven't taken the plunge and bought a suitable camera yet. It’s always a big hit on my workshops and is a great way to learn the fundamentals of photography called the Exposure Triangle, which is vital if you want to go on and master using strobes to perfect your lighting, but more of that later. Again, if you’d like pointing in the right direction about the app, just drop me a line on: firstname.lastname@example.org or ask on our new Facebook group: Blue Duck Photography Q&A
At some point you’ll realise, like most of us did, that while shooting available light is in some ways more straightforward, it has big limitations, the biggest being that there often isn't enough of it.
So you’ll need to switch on the flash on your camera. This works well on land for shooting snaps up to a few metres away, but underwater it’s really only good for a fraction of that distance.
The main reason is that even in lovely clear water, there are lots of suspended particulate in the way, and this becomes very apparent to those folk using their built-in flash further than about 20cm away.
This particulate becomes illuminated, and we call it backscatter, and in its worst form it completely blights the picture, looking like big, white, out-of-focus blobs.
We get round this by relegating the camera’s own flash to working as a trigger to fire an external strobe – oh, by the way, a strobe is just another name for a flashgun, that’s all.
As we are able to move the external strobe to a position away from the central axis of the camera lens, then we are able to reduce the problem of backscatter, as it’s not directly in the firing line.
With an external strobe we’re also able to light our pictures in much more creative ways, and in another article soon I will look at some of those fancier techniques, but for now we will address the basics.
When you’re first shooting with a strobe, you may well be tempted to utilise some strobes’ automatic modes, I would suggest that you jump straight to learning how to shoot manual strobe.
You’ll end up using it the end anyway, as it’s more reliable and consistent.
Underwater conditions don't mimic on land when it comes to auto modes, and particularly with strobes these auto settings like TTL rarely deliver the goods all the time.
Shooting manual strobe will be picked up very quickly, and will actually prove a quicker way of working, which is why you need to get to grips with the cameras manual settings.
A lot of folk stop me at this point and say things like ‘by the time I've set everything the fish will have swum away!’ This is actually not the reality, for two reasons, as you practice you will get quicker, and you'll also find that your settings actually stay very much the same a lot of the time anyway.
Which is why manual ends up being quicker to use than auto often, as you're not trying to second guess how the camera is going to react from shot to shot, which can happen in TTL ( Through the Lens) mode.
One of the most-popular questions I get asked about shooting strobes is how to get a nice dark background for a macro shot, or a lovely deep blue behind a foreground turtle or, as Mario showed in last month’s article, behind a shark.
Being able to adjust your camera’s shutter speed, apertures and ISOs is the key to doing this.
And is why learning it using the app mentioned above is vital to progression. A lot of people worry about this, but honestly with the right tuition you’ll learn it quickly.
I’ve recently formed a new company with a couple of friends, and we’ve already had great reviews teaching people these basics on land, so just check out our Facebook page – it’s called: Blue Duck Photography, and there’s a connected Group called: Blue Duck Photography Q&A, where you’re free to join and ask any questions about underwater photography from the team. In short though, if you're basic exposure looks correct, i.e. the strobe is illuminating the foreground and the background looks like it does in reality, you can darken the background by raising your shutter speed. How much or little you do this depends on your camera’s range of shutter speeds, but is basically how it’s done.
Strobe or video light?
A very common problem these days, which in the past was never an issue, is that with the rise in popularity of action cameras like GoPros and most cameras now having great video modes, it’s tempting for the uninformed to buy a video light as a replacement to a strobe. And they can be forgiven in thinking that this will work, as modern video lights of many thousands of lumens are now becoming available. I would urge you to rethink this though, for a couple of reasons.
Simply put, even a video light of around 50,000 lumens – and they now exist – struggle to compete in brightness with even a modest strobe.
The difference is that the strobe is releasing an intensely bright flash of light, but for only a tiny fraction of a second, this is enough to give a reasonable aperture at around a metre or two, and the beneficial side effect is that it will also freeze the action in the picture.
And to be honest, you’d lose lots of friends and risk cooking the marine life if you directed a continuous stream of light of such high lumens like some of the megalumen lights now available.
The really big ones are also quite bulky too, so to get one of a similar size as a typical strobe, you’d get around 3,000 to 5,000 lumens, which is fine for video, but woefully underpowered for stills use.
Pound for pound from a value point of view, a strobe is much more efficient for still photography than a video light.
You can use a video light if the subject is within the macro range, and only a few centimetres away but they are nigh on useless for most examples of wide-angle photography, if you want to keep the quality up.
Personally I’d suggest just getting a single strobe, to start off with, and learning how to get the best from it, this will keep the costs down and can be used for both wide-angle and macro shooting.
The Inon S2000 is our current favourite pick for size, weight and output, though there are others available, but the S2000s are quite small and in keeping with a compact-based system.
I personally use two of them and they've served me well.
So while it’s added expense, I use separate video lights for when I shoot video, however with a lot of video I like shooting available light, and video is often more forgiving when shooting in low light conditions, so the lights don’t get a run out as often as the strobes.
Get some tuition and then put your new skills into practice
With the new company we’re offering free help and advice on our Facebook pages as mentioned above, so by all means join in. Although you may want to gain some skills by a more-formal route and we can teach you this, but there’s lots of resources besides us out there, my ex-mucker Mario runs courses too, and of course, there’s general photography courses on lynda.com and a number of other training websites.
I think that before you get anywhere near the water, it’s important to get the basics right, and the good news is that this will keep you in good stead for any types of photography you may want to indulge in.
Like any skills though, it’s vital that you put them into practice regularly, and this way you won’t be rusty and spend the first few days of a trip going over what you've already learnt.
My suggestion once you've got the basic stuff boxed off is to just keep your camera close by. And a few weeks prior to a trip, when you’re watching television, and the ad breaks pop up, then have a few minutes play re-familiarising yourself with your camera’s settings and controls.
And after a few days of this, put the camera into its housing and repeat these skills, this way you'll get reacquainted and it’ll save you a lot of task loading when getting back in the water. If you've got access to a pool for dive club training sessions, then maybe after this, have a go in the pool.
Duxy Escorted Trips
A great way to learn how to use new kit and develop your skills is on a dedicated trip. My escorted trips are for all and if you have a GoPro or compact, I can improve your skills and realise your full potential in an easy-going, relaxed environment. If you’re a more-experienced shooter, my itineraries and locations are carefully picked to be very photographically productive.
Duxy will be leading a Red Sea liveaboard in 2023 – book now.
Since returning from Egypt working as a guide in the early noughties, Duxy has been at the forefront of underwater photography technology and how it has changed the way we all now take underwater photographs.
Working as sales manager for the two leading underwater photography
retailers, and more lately as the photography travel specialist for a multi-award-winning dive travel agent, his light-hearted take on the iving world and underwater photography has resulted in him being a regular speaker at the Dive Shows and at clubs up and down the country, sharing his knowledge and experience with all levels and abilities of underwater photographer.
He likes nothing better than to get a beginner started on the route to rewarding pictures, and approaches the subject with an inclusive, rather than exclusive, manner. He now has more than 40 escorted trips under his belt and is continuing to develop new ways to pass on the knowledge and share the love. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter as @takeiteasyduxy and Facebook as Take iT Easy.
Photographs by Paul ‘Duxy’ Duxfield