Friday, May 7, 2010

The MOZAÏK H2O, underwater art

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UNDERSTANDING HOW TO WORK with light is as important as composition for photographers, who can spend their entire careers in a quest to capture and recreate magical light. Underwater photographers have a particular challenge: Water absorbs light in ways that air does not, reducing color and contrast and limiting the ability to accentuate detail. While it's generally accepted that strobes are required to create rich, colorful underwater images, there are plenty of opportunities to create brilliant shots with ambient light alone.

In some instances, you have little choice other than ambient light--even if you're armed with strobes--such as with subjects farther than six feet from you, often the case in open water with big animals that might not come close enough to light with strobes. Another situation is with wrecks or large reefscapes that strobes simply cannot light entirely.

Regardless of circumstances, shooting in ambient light requires following certain guidelines that help ensure pleasing results. Here's how to make the most of your ambient-light shoot on your next dive.


Because light gets absorbed quickly underwater, your best chance at capturing color and detail without strobes is to shoot in very shallow water where you can maximize the available sunlight. Depth and its corresponding degree of light absorption is the No. 1 factor that impacts ambient-light images.


When the sun is your sole light source, be aware of its position and apply the same principles and approach you would on land, keeping the sun behind you and maximizing the light on your subject. Use the hours when the sun is highest--between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.--where the least amount of light is being reflected off the water's surface.


Filters, which can be used on compact and DSLR cameras, offset the loss of color underwater while adding contrast and detail. With practice, you can produce images using filters that have color across large portions of a wreck or reef that could never be achieved using strobes. The two most popular are Magic Filters and UR/Pro.


If you can manually set white balance--sometimes referred to as custom white balance--you should do so every time you change depth by about 5 feet, or when lighting conditions change. Remember that lighting conditions differ throughout the day, with changing weather and at different angles from the sun.

To adjust your white balance, access the dedicated function on your camera (WE) and set the reading by shooting a white slate. In a pinch, you can use white sand, although anything other than a true white surface will throw off the setting accuracy. Basically, this enables your camera to understand the color of the light and compensate for some of the color loss from absorption.

Some compact cameras have an "underwater mode," a preset white balance that emulates a red/orange filter, brightening some colors that are absorbed the fastest underwater. This is hit or miss, but if you can't manually set the white balance, this is an option with which you should experiment.


Most photography guidebooks will advise: "Never shoot into the sun." Even underwater, shooting into the sun can blow out the primary subject, and everything else will be underexposed. Often secondary objects are completely devoid of color. However, this doesn't always present a problem. Shooting a subject against a bright background--so the subject becomes a black, featureless object--is called a silhouette, and it can make a very effective, dramatic image.

The first step in taking a good silhouette is to recognize a subject that will be effective as a black shape against the blue (or green) water background. The most common silhouettes underwater are sharks, turtles, mantas and divers, because they form recognizable shapes. Additionally, these subjects swim in the water column, so they are easily placed between the bright background and the camera.


Remember that shooting in ambient light does have its limitations. You can't fight the physics of light absorption underwater. Stay shallow, work with the sun's positioning and experiment with filters and custom white balancing. Mix it up with some silhouettes, and you'll be on your way to creating some great ambient light images.

Housings to get you in the ambient-light game

FOR MORE INFORMATION on Shooting in ambient light, visit and

Making Your Digital & Film Underwater Images Better

Source Citation
Heller, Jason. "Solar-powered shooting: using ambient light has challenges and rewards." Sport Diver May 2010: 27+. General OneFile. Web. 7 May 2010.
Document URL

Gale Document Number:A224522045

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