An Introduction to Blackwater Photography
Blackwater photography is photographing planktonic creatures during the phenomenon known as ‘vertical migration’, at night, over depth, in the open ocean. It is a land of aliens, galaxies, strange formations, and a final frontier.
Also referred to as the diel vertical migration (DVM) or diurnal migration, vertical migration is an occurrence where planktonic and pelagic organisms rise to the top ocean layer from the depths to eat (or be eaten) under the cover of night.
They then return to their deeper zones by dawn.
We’ve discovered that the larval forms of many ocean critters look nothing like their adult versions, can be ornate, and are usually quite transparent or sparkly.
This has launched a photo mega-madness to seek out and photograph the craziest-looking creatures you can find.
Believe it or not, this is the largest migration on Earth… and it happens every night in all oceans and lakes! The opportunities are off the charts for underwater macro enthusiasts, and the scientists are lining up to see what they can find.
The first photos of this type were introduced in a National Geographic feature by Bill Curtsinger and Christopher Newbert and later featured in Chris’s book “Within a Rainbowed Sea” in 1984.
Then, Jeff Millisen’s award-winning image of a larval cusk eel from Hawaii piqued curiosity among underwater photographers and the initiative began to emerge.
This new wave has underwater photographers around the globe excited by the infinite possibilities to document living creatures never seen before.
Pura Vida Divers in Singer Island is one of my favourite dive operations, and they have perfected safety protocols and techniques.
With their support, I’ve learned how best to photo-document the mysterious creatures from the deep and will share some of this helpful information in this article.
What is blackwater diving
Imagine you’re over depth (600 feet or more), diving down to 60 feet, drifting with the current, at night. You are close to the deep-water chasms (superhighway) used by the larger pelagic animals like sharks and sailfish.
You are in their world now. They will investigate, and it can send your heart rate sky-high.
Not for the faint of heart, blackwater diving is recommended only for advanced certified divers. The conditions can be scary, and it is vitally important that you are a comfortable and confident scuba diver in dark water.
A regular night dive is normally conducted on a shallow reef, with an anchored boat above you. You get in, go down, and return in 45 minutes.
It took me years to get over my fear during these experiences. Blackwater diving kicks that up a notch. It is truly pitch black, and your lights are the only hope of guidance.
The protocols for blackwater diving with dive operators around the world may differ, so be sure you are aware and comfortable with your specific operator. Some, like in Hawaii, may tether you to the boat. Others (e.g., Florida) won’t.
To give you an idea of what to expect, with my operators, we typically drop a 60’ weighted lifeline in the water with bright lights attached every ten feet and a coloured light mid-line to use as a visual reference for your depth.
It is very easy to get so focused on a subject that you can lose your perception of depth. At the surface is a huge white ball with lights and a dive flag. At the top and bottom are blinking lights.
The divers must stay with the ball, which the captain follows. The dive boats will retrieve any divers who have strayed to keep the group together.
It is easy to get disoriented with nothing but open black space to reference, and sometimes there are cross currents. Therefore, seeing your depth and having a lifeline is crucial.
We dive self-reliantly with a dive guide in the water who keeps an eye out for mishaps. Excellent buoyancy control, safety precautions, and backup systems are key.
Never take part in a blackwater dive if you are uncomfortable with the protocol.
Underwater photography is hard at the best of times, but it is made even more difficult under the cover of darkness. You’re in shifting water, the critters are moving, the current may be strong, and it is raining white backscatter.
On top of this, you need to sustain neutral buoyancy, always be aware of your depth and air consumption, keep up with the group, and not blind your dive buddy.
- Do not kick your fins too hard as this can catapult a strong wave at your subject, whizzing them away from you.
- Never dive under another diver, as your bubbles will blow their subject away.
- Try to find your ‘zen moment’ mentally and enjoy the show, even when you may be bombarded by a school of fish evading a predator. (Yes, they are there. Always be aware!)
Read more: 8 Essential Skills and Techniques for Underwater Photographers
Depending on your budget and commitment, you must decide if you want to go with a housed DSLR, (full frame or cropped sensor), mirrorless or compact camera.
Most include a video feature. Video needs stronger focus lights with great battery life. These days, many people are moving to mirrorless cameras.
If you are just starting out, you may opt for a less expensive rig until you get the hang of it. For blackwater, I like a DSLR because they focus faster, although they’re heavier.
When shopping, keep in mind that underwater housings are made specifically per camera model. No one has made one that can be used on your next camera upgrade either.
Nauticam, Ikelite, Marelux, Olympus, Sea & Sea, Sony, and Isotta are some of the main manufacturers. Some manufacturers make complete systems.
For folks who just want to give it a try, Sealife makes housing just for smartphones! The housing protects against depth pressure on the camera.
Compact cameras are typically cheaper, and lighter to carry. Also, you don’t have to be committed to one lens for the entire dive as most have a built-in zoom. However, they can suffer shutter lag and their housings may not be as sturdy as you’d like.
I absolutely love my Nikon D500. Its focus is wickedly fast – with underwater photography, the faster the focus, the better. I also want to protect my expensive camera from getting knocked around, broken, or flooded, so I use Nauticam for my housing.
Read more: What Equipment Do You Need for Underwater Photography?
You’ll want a 60mm or comparable macro lens for blackwater photos. For Olympus OM1 series users, a 30-40mm seems to be a go-to lens due to the size of the cropped sensor.
Compact users can go from macro to wide-angle instead of being stuck to a specific lens for the entire dive.
You’d think you want a zoom lens, but honestly focusing quickly in the dark is difficult, and requires lots of focus light, thus the shorter lenses focus faster. Longer lenses tend to hunt. By then your subject is off and gone.
So, what about a wide-angle lens?
Truthfully there isn’t that much to photograph requiring a wide-angle lens on a blackwater dive.
Remember, we’re photographing plankton, pinhead to pea-sized things. Most of the subjects range in size from a grain of rice to a Q-tip.
However, a ‘money shot’ big animal comes out of the darkness on occasion – like the sailfin fish that got its sword caught in my BCD, the tiger shark that emerged from the black, the silky sharks, or the holy grail: a full-sized adult female blanket unfurling her skirt!
For that moment, there are only a couple of lenses that would accommodate your every need.
One is Nauticam’s MWL-1 (macro to wide angle) on a flip holder. Available with two flip mounts, the MWL-1 can be quickly engaged or disengaged or swapped for a CMC-1 diopter, going from wide-angle to super macro in seconds.
The other is the Kraken KRL-09s Macro to Wide Angle Lens that can convert a 60mm macro lens to 154° fisheye compatible with full-frame, APS-C, or micro four-thirds cameras. But, be aware that these lenses are quite heavy.
Lighting and strobe positioning
You definitely want two strobes on arms, either short or extended, and at least two focus lights with red light capability. Strobe positioning is everything on a blackwater dive.
Depending on the ocean’s mood that night, it is always raining powdered sand or light flecks of churned-up moultings and scales.
One key trick to reducing backscatter is to hug the strobes to your lens port but set it behind the port at least half an inch.
If you can, angle them outwards on either side to a 9 o’clock – 3 o’clock angle. This cuts the backscatter to nil, and instead of lighting it up, hides it, affording you those perfect black backgrounds ‘au natural.’
There are many ways to set your strobes, but that is a great beginner go-to set-up.
On a blackwater dive, you simply do not have a lot of time to start fooling around with settings. You want to lock focus and keep your eye on the subject and shoot. If you get more than 3 shots of any subject, consider it a cooperative subject.
Remember what it was and look for it again next time and be ready with your best settings. Once you know what to look for, you will find it.
Your focus lights (very expensive waterproof flashlights) also matter. They have different beam radii and hotspots.
Typically, I will use one to light up the ‘near’ in front of me and have one set to focus on whatever gets too close to my lens port. Some critters are attracted to your lights, and others are completely blind and will run right into your lens.
Larval octopus may even sucker onto your port! So, you need to be ready for either situation.
You will visually learn the sweet spot your subject needs to be distance-to-lens to get the best depth of field too, depending on your lens set-up. It just takes practice!
You want the focus lights to last the duration of your dive, so you’ll need ones with at least a 60-minute dive life. There’s nothing more unnerving than sitting in the dark without a focus light, which is also used to flag the boat for pickup.
Don’t forget that your strobes can also be switched to open “on” should this happen. This eats battery life, but beats freaking out alone in the dark!
Finally, I have heard many divers return to the boat saying, “I need more light!” Keep in mind that bugs and worms flock to brighter lighting. I use a Sola 800 lumen and a 1200-2400 lumen either Kraken or Big Blue light.
Always carry at least one extra backup light to at least flag the boat. Don’t turn that one on unless you need it, and make sure everything is fully charged before you go.
Note that also you’ll normally need to flag the boat with a red light to not blind the captain.
Read more: An Introduction to Using Strobes in Underwater Photography
Manual settings & understanding the subjects
My ‘baseline’ settings are F/13, ISO 100, and 250 shutter speed, with my strobes at half power as almost everything in this environment has something white or reflective on it. If I don’t blow that spot out, I can lighten it in post-production in Lightroom.
There are four types of creatures that you can expect to shoot, each requiring slightly different settings. You will learn to adjust as you get familiar with your equipment.
Transparent- 1/250th f/13, ISO 100-200 (jellyfish and other larval critters)
Semi-Transparent- 1/250th f 13, ISO 200 (new-born fish) softer strobes-move out
Solid Reflective – 1/250th f/20, ISO 160 (juvenile fish-flying fish) strobes kiss of light
Solid – 1/160th f/16-18, ISO 160 (fish in a pyrosome) strobes kiss of light- diagonally out
Read more: Underwater Photography Ethics and Code of Conduct
As you first submerge, allow your eyes to acclimate to the ocean colour and beams from focus lights, and find your buddies and the lifeline. Check your depth and air.
As you stare into the darkness you will begin to see things moving about. Study them. Look for specific movement and home in on it.
Start with jellyfish. They are slow-moving usually and have their own predictable beat. Take some practice shots and check your viewer to make any adjustments.
Keep in mind that light travels through transparent creatures, so you need more light.
Light bounces off ones with reflective surfaces, so you’ll need less light. If you can’t manually run the dials the way you need to, just back up or move in once you’ve locked focus. (We did that for years on film in the old days, and it still works.)
What you can expect to see
Every dive is different, but most importantly, you’ll want to be covered head-to-toe. Night-time is hunting time, and many creatures sting to stun prey, so always “look but don’t touch”.
Some types of jellyfish can trail their tentacles up to thirty feet long – and yes, those really sting! I’ve hit a patch that was like diving through hot harp strings.
Jellyfish also can be a haven for juvenile fish under their caps. This makes for interesting shots, while it defies imagination how they don’t get stung.
Siphonophores are incredible creatures. They can contract and expand up to 40 metres and as cnidarians, they all sting. Their tentacles are often hairlike whispers. You won’t even know what stung you, so leave as little skin exposed as possible.
A full wetsuit, gloves, and hood are necessary. You don’t want anything getting caught in your ears or hair, especially amphipods. They buzz about but often can be seen taking a ride atop a jellyfish.
If you are lucky, you may see larval lobsters spinning about collecting jellyfish for a late-night snack. One of my favourites is the glass eel. Incredibly fast, and completely transparent except for the eyes and ferocious teeth.
The usual suspects in the zone can be colourful flying three-part larval crabs, that look like something from Cirque de Soleil.
Larval mantis shrimp (the caped crusaders) are likely to be seen too, as they fly around in circles doing whirly-gigs then suddenly stop to strike a pose with attitude as if you have some nerve swimming in their ocean.
You may observe white silly string with coloured bulbs – those may be sleeping larval basslets or pearlfish that will take off the minute your lights hit them. Look for a specific movement that is moving to its own beat, and for any hint of colour.
There are some very wild pure laser colours here. Don’t disregard the tiny newborn fish! Though remember that many larval fish require you to photograph with a red light to not scare them off.
Read more: How to Take Charismatic Portraits of Marine Life
The chance to discover
The variety of things I’ve seen in ‘the zone’ is truly incredible, and they’re all usually less than an inch long! Some are deep sea creatures originating in the mesopelagic and bathypelagic zones (or deeper) which have come all the way up.
You won’t know what you’ve shot until you get it up on the computer.
I was lucky enough to photograph the first live larval tripod fish here in Florida! I had no idea what it was. It went around the world, forwarded to every scientist trying to figure out what it was.
Previously, only the adult of this fish had been documented from a bathysphere on a scientific expedition, in the Marianas Trench in the western Pacific at 15,000 feet.
It turns out The Florida Trench, which is between Key West and the Cuban shore, has been sounded to a depth of 6,000 feet (1,800 m). The strait carries the Florida Current, the beginning of the Gulf Stream, from the Gulf of Mexico up to England and back.
From the image, we learned we have tripod fish in Florida. Since then, larval tripod fish have been documented all around the world. Recreational underwater photographers are mapping ocean life – isn’t that amazing?
While blackwater photography may be one of the most challenging types of underwater photography, the good news is the same principles can be applied to most other underwater shoots.
As this particular environment is so changeable, the patience and extra care you take in achieving neutral buoyancy will help improve any underwater image.
Lighting angles, finding your ‘inner chi’ balance, and not creating your own backscatter from over-finning all work towards achieving the perfect shot.
If the excitement of diving in pitch black, surrounded by weird and wonderful creatures isn’t enough to tempt you to blackwater, perhaps the chance of contributing to ground-breaking science, or possibly discovering new species will!
A great Facebook page to join is the Blackwater Photo Group. It is good for getting assistance with identifications, seeing what and where people are photographing all over the world, and finding dive operators worldwide that accommodate this.
(Note that some of my photos here were taken in West Palm Beach, FL and others with dive operator Anilao Photo Academy, Philippines).