8 Tips for Creating Amazing Lighting in Underwater Photos

I breath out, and watch air bubbles gurgle towards the light that flickers from the surface, dappling my fingers in a golden hue. Seduced by pictures of luscious kelp forests and baffling sea creatures, more of us are tentatively dipping our toes into the realm of underwater photography. But how do you make your photographs stand out from the crowd? 

Learning how to creatively light your photographs can be the most important (and difficult) lesson to learn when taking to the water with your camera. In so many ways, light completely structures the ocean environment that we experience. Unhelpfully, it always seems to be in low supply – largely due to how the ocean’s surface absorbs and reflects sunlight. As a photographer, this inevitably means that there is always more to think about before you slip beneath the surface. 

Luckily, there are a few easy things that will keep you snap happy for the duration of your dive. For those looking to delve a little deeper into underwater photography – here are 8 lessons in light to get you started:

#1 Keep it Shallow

Although it may seem tempting to rapidly descend to the seabed in search of a good photograph, keeping your dive shallow can be the perfect way to hone your skills. Not only will you use less air (meaning a longer dive overall to perfect your photographs), but the light will be more vibrant, authentic and colourful. 

underwater light tutorial

As light passes through the surface of the water, colour spectrums begin to slowly fall off at around 5 meters – starting with reds, oranges and yellows. Eventually you are left with a beautiful but endless blue hue, and photographs that have a disappointing case of hypothermia. Staying in the shallows is the perfect way to avoid this, leaving you to capture stunning photographs with boundless natural light and colour.

#2 Slow Your Shutter

Although this is completely dependant on weather conditions, when at all possible I try to slow my shutter. A slower shutter speed allows your camera to retain more light, often bringing to life a photograph that would otherwise fade to the back of your photo library. Although most photographers shy away from this technique with the assumption that they will end up with blurry photos, when paired with good buoyancy control this could be your secret weapon. You can additionally start to experiment with ‘cathedral rays’ and other atmospheric effects when you have maximum ambient light in your photographs. I tend to work best with a shutter speed of 1/100 – 1/125. 

underwater light tutorial

#3 Always Look Up                       

Look up. Where is the sun coming from? Sunrise and sunset dives will leave you in ‘golden hour’ – a photographer’s best friend. Having the sun at a lower angle means that light rays will be warmer and softer as they penetrate the surface. Diving in the late morning or early afternoon means that the light will be harsher and more direct.

underwater light tutorial

You may need to consider backlighting subjects or lighting the foreground with a strobe. Diving when the sun is at its peak will give you the perfect opportunity to play with direct sunlight rays as they drift down to the sea floor. No matter what effect you are aiming for, glancing at the sun will give you a good idea of what to expect beneath the surface.       

#4 Get a Little Closer

We have all fought the frustration of when your photographs don’t quite seem to match the scene that you can see with your eyes. A general rule of thumb is, when in doubt, to move a little closer. As water refracts the light bends, and things will always seem a little closer than they actually are. This tends to be why your camera isn’t quite capturing what you can see in front of you. Moving closer will lessen the amount of water between your lens and your subject – meaning a higher shot success rate. If you’re struggling to stay stable in a precarious position, it helps to pinch two fingers to a nearby rock, making sure you won’t damage anything in the environment around you, and gently ease yourself forward.

#5 Framing and Contrast

Ambient light doesn’t have to be restricted to soft rays flitting from the surface. Silhouetting your subject can sometimes bring a stronger sense of place, and add an almost ethereal quality to your photographs. Look for places where sun beams penetrate through a narrow entrance, and try shooting directly into the light. 

underwater light tutorial

Darker shadows will bring contrast to your images, allowing you to frame a subject and make the most of the natural light. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your camera settings – for this photograph, mine seemed to work best at f/5 and 1/100th second. 

#6 Work with Strobes

Although I personally prefer to work without them, when you’re ready to venture a little deeper you’ll find that strobes will become essential to lighting your photographs. Angrily battling with an extra two arms can seem like a counterproductive way to better your photography, but at depth they insert the necessary light to bring colour and detail back into your photographs. Also extremely helpful in overcast weather, strobes give you an opportunity for fantastic photography all year round.

underwater light tutorial

They are particularly useful when tackling macro photography, but it’s important to remember that less is often more. Angling the strobes away from your subject will evenly disperse the light and avoid backscatter (particles in the water being lit up by flash, ruining a shot), and adding diffusers will soften the harshness that sometimes becomes problematic when shooting with strobes. Try to add just a kiss of light to the foreground – you’ll be surprised at the difference it can make. I work best with INON strobes and diffusers, which come with a handy spotlighting feature.

#7 Spotlight your Subject

Working with strobes can also give you a little more room to be creative. Try a faster shutter speed to get a silky black background, whilst using your strobes to highlight your subject in the foreground. For this technique, it’s important to shoot upwards, or into open water, avoiding any background distractions that may get into the frame. 

underwater lighting tutorial

Using black backgrounds can give your photographs the edge when it comes to isolating a subject – perfect for wildlife portraiture or spotlighting an interesting feature. 

#8 The Kit You Need, and the Kit You Don’t

Whilst it can be discouraging that someone is always trying to sell you the latest (and most expensive) camera equipment, I remain a firm believer in the photographer. My personal weapon of choice is the Nikon D7100 with Nauticam housing – not the newest model of its kind, and by no means the fastest. However, paired with an unhealthy amount of enthusiasm and, most importantly, lashings of light, this camera has created some of my favourite photographs. 

Getting the gorgeous photos you desire is far less to do with what equipment you have, and more to do with your ability to make the most of the light that is available to you. Keep an eye on where the sunlight falls and get down to eye level – you’ll thank me later.

Cherie is an internationally recognised freelance photographer, based off the Cornish Coast, UK. After studying a Bachelors in Marine and Natural History Photography, she has worked on projects with Greenpeace and Expedition Studios, as well as collaborated with numerous publications in campaigns against worldwide ocean degradation. Recent work has been featured by PADI, Wild Film Festival and the Tate Modern.

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