Creative Lighting Techniques
Please scroll down for photo descriptions.
For the purpose of this blog, I'll define underwater creative lighting as the utilization of artificial lights that are in addition to or exclusive of the primary strobes synced to the camera. This can be dive lights, video lights or additional strobes with slave triggers.
Someone smarter than me once said, "Photography is all about light, without it you have only blackness". The most common questions I'm asked by budding photogs is inevitably about lighting. How many strobes to use, how to position them and how much power is needed? My answer is simple, "put the light where it's needed". The techniques on how to achieve this when talking about creative lighting are more complicated. Here are a few tips to get you going.
Using on-camera strobes by themselves has its limitations. They can only cast light so far from the shooter regardless of how powerful they are. Add too much power and your foreground is overexposed. Too little power and the background is underexposed. In addition, if there is even a hint of turbidity in the water the strobe will produce excessive glare (or backscatter). The more power = the more glare. It's like driving with your brights on in fog.
By manually placing remote lights in your background they will light up areas you couldn't with on-camera strobes and thus open up a world of photographic possibilities.
The first images that had impact on me using creative lighting were of caves. To truly appreciate the vastness of caves a lot more light than what is attached to your camera is required. When illuminated properly the results were stunning.
On the wrecks of Truk Lagoon I attempted to use ordinary strobes set on slave mode as my remote light sources. This went abysmally. If the strobe was too far away or the slave sensor was not facing the camera they wouldn't fire. I abandoned the technique not to revisit it for many years. That was until I began seeing images of fellow shooter and friend Pete Mesley a few years ago right here in Truk. By adding one or more high powered video lights strategically around the inside of the wrecks, he was capturing a whole new essence of these ships. It was time to rethink how I was going to work with lighting.
What Lights to Use
Technology in underwater dive lights has come a long way from the clunky, heavy, under-powered and pricey dive lights from 20+ years ago. The lights today are more powerful and compact. Presently, I am using a pair of Big Blue 33,000 lumens video lights for all of my creative lighting and video needs. These are powerful lights and more than what is needed for 3/4 of my shooting conditions but they have rheostats to step down the power as needed. Big Blue has a variety of lights in different powers, weight and sizes for every application.
•When shooting in low or zero ambient light conditions it is best to use a camera that logically shoots well in low light, has a high dynamic range and is forgiving with high ISO settings. With my Nikon D850 I often shoot on ISO 5000-6400 with a shutter speed of 1/60th and F stop 4-5.0. This camera is ideal for this application.
•By shooting with higher ISO's you can reduce strobe strength greatly thus reduce the backscatter or glare in turbid water. The trade off shooting at high ISO's is image degradation from noise; some of which can be filtered out in post-processing.
When it comes to creative lighting there are no rules set in stone. Experiment and learn by trial and error.
•Scout out dive sites, find a composition that has potential and see if it is feasible to set up lights in it or around it.
•Do not point the lights directly towards the camera. You will get nothing but a big blob of white hot mess.
•When shooting wrecks look for dark corners that you want lit and set up the lights accordingly.
•Place lights behind objects to help define their edges and make them pop.
•In the beginning, work with a single light adding additional lights only as needed. I believe too many lights is a distraction.
•Try to hide the source of your light from the image to imply that the scene was not constructed. It may look more natural.
•Persistence is important. You may spend an entire dive dedicated to shoot one scene only to find you don't like it and want to do it over again.
•Try not to create silt when placing lights. One wrong kick and your shoot is done for.
•Strategize. Maximize your time in the water by not stumbling around without a plan.
•Above all else. Be smart! Be safe! Do not place your self in a dangerous situation just to get the shot.
Photo Descriptions - Top to Bottom
Fujikawa Maru Machine Shop - Two 33,000 lumen lights were hung from the ceiling with low power strobe settings.
Heian Maru Control Room - A single light was placed behind the pipes lighting up the two telegraphs with a low power strobe settings.
Hoki Maru Prop - Two lights were used; both not visible to the camera. One for back lighting
Fujikawa Maru Engine Room - A single light was placed on the ceiling shining down on an angle towards the camera far enough away to reduce the intensity of the light. A second light was not needed. Strobes for foreground were used. Conversion to black and white was made due to turbid conditions.
Kiyosumi Maru Control Room - A single light was used shining down the stairs while strobes exposed the control room. Strobes also used.
Nippo Maru Engine Room - Two lights were placed on opposing sides. Strobes on low power were used.
Nippo Maru Boiler Room - A single light hung from above to show scale of the room.
Mike has been shooting for more than 15 years and is currently the captain of the Odyssey liveaboard in Truk Lagoon where he shoots the famed Japanese wrecks of WWII on a daily basis. He is the sole proprietor of Evolution Dive Travel and uses his vast knowledge to organize and conduct photo/video expeditions to a variety of destinations around the world. His work from Truk can be seen in this web site along with portfolios from other destinations. Visit the "Travel" tab in the main menu for trip dates and destinations.
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