Harnessing the power of the sun to illuminate your subjects underwater can be a challenge but can also yield some amazing results. Whether you have chosen to turn off, take off, or simply do not have strobes, let’s dive into what has worked well for me in the past in terms of my photographic approach, techniques, and camera settings.
Unlike making wildlife or landscape images on land, there are no “bad” times during the day to go out shooting underwater as far as the light is concerned. High noon? Bring it on. Dappled afternoon light? Of course. Bright, cloudless sky? Yes, please. The water is our friend in terms of filtering any harshness unless, of course, you’re right at the surface … but I digress.
During a recent trip to Tonga to photograph humpback whales, we were prohibited from using strobes due to their effect on the critters. Besides, the strobe light would be largely ineffective anyway due to the sheer size of the critters, their average distance from us, and the bright ambient conditions. Of course we knew this in advance so we were able to get into an ambient light state of mind.
I would have to say that the number one priority of using the sun as your sole light source is simply being aware of where you are in relation to it. Unless your goal is to create a silhouette, it would be ideal to have the sun at your back or at least to either side of you. Although this may not always be easy especially when trying to position yourself around a huge subject like a humpback whale (or three), the effort can make a huge difference in the quality of your image.
I use the following settings for just about all of my ambient light underwater photography:
Manual mode with Auto ISO
Highlight-priority metering mode (it’s called different things by different manufacturers)
Group- or Auto-Area AF
Auto White Balance
Exposure compensation (value depends on conditions and lens/camera combinations)
Try This: The next time you go photograph something, whether it’s topside or underwater, choose a scene using manual mode with Auto ISO. I like Auto ISO because it allows you to dial-in the exact shutter speed and aperture you want/need. Try different exposure compensation values until the exposure is what you’re looking for. You may notice that different camera/lens combinations will give different results.
Of course you’re not limited to having the sun at your back. Utilizing side-light can offer dramatic results. In the image of the garibaldi below, I utilized the sun beams of the setting sun to highlight the lone fish.
More recently, I enjoyed a few dives at my favorite location in all of Southern California - the offshore oil rigs near Long Beach. These unique dive sites provide a vast array of photographic subjects, but few as charismatic as the California sea lion. When they are finished sunning themselves on the structure above the water, they plunge into the sea to hunt and play. For the image below I turned off my strobes, dialed-in my exposure for the scene, and waited.
Try This: Since we are typically using strobes in some capacity, it’s easy to be limited by the shutter sync speed of our cameras (the sync speed of my Nikon D850 is 1/250). Remember that you are free to use any shutter speed you want once you turn off those strobes. Faster shutter speeds help freeze the action when you’re photographing fast moving subjects like sea lions.
Of course creating silhouettes against the sun or bright sky is one of the most effective ways to make an image pop. Just like any other ambient light image, once you have metered the scene and adjusted your exposure, you can focus on the composition. The image below is of our skiff squad during a recent trip to Tonga. When the humpback whales had moved on, our group seemed to be the next best subject.
Try This: Since I use a 45º viewfinder on my Nauticam housing, it is really tough for me to shoot straight up (and straight down, for that matter) while using the viewfinder. On my second attempt at this image I turned on Live View so I could simply use the LCD on the back of the camera to compose and focus the image.
Although our underwater rigs typically come complete as a miniature studio with portable strobes on articulating arms, it’s sometimes necessary, if not required, to turn them off. Does every scene need artificial light? Absolutely not. I would encourage you to experiment on land (gasp) with different metering modes and settings. After all, unless you’re a studio or wedding photographer, you probably make a majority of your topside images using just sunlight anyway.
Before your next undersea adventure, pre-visualize an ambient light image and try to execute that vision during your next dive. Push your creative self and have fun!