Focus is an important factor in any type of photography and simple minute changes to the focus can have an astounding effect on the viewer’s perspective. Sometimes it is hard to decide whether to make the majority of the image sharp or soft. Sometimes it is hard to decide just where the focus should be. This tutorial is an exploration of creative ideas that can be implemented both above and below the water line. It is in two parts. The first part will deal with what is generally thought to be important to focus on: i.e. eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. Remember that photography is subjective, so these are loose rules. In “Underwater Photography 101: Focus, Focus, Focus! (Part 2)” you will learn how to use the camera’s aperture, light and motion to achieve more artistic focusing ideas.
One of the first things we have to determine is what should be in focus. If you are photographing an animal that can look back at you, then it is essential that you have its eyes in focus, and very desirable that those eyes be looking at the camera.
Sometimes the eyes are very obscure, so making sure they are in focus adds interest to the photograph. Did you know that snails have “eyes?”
If the animal is a nudibranch, it may have “eye spots.” However, in this animal’s case, the rhinophores are the most important, and one, or preferably both, should be in focus.
Sometimes it is more interesting to be artistic than “correct.” But you should know the rules before you attempt to break them. For example, the following images are of the rhinophores and the “gills” on a nudibranch. Since butt shots are not in vogue, it is important to know which side of the animal you are photographing. You want your image to be deliberate, and not an accident. Of the two images below, which one do you think is more interesting? More correct? More artistic? (There’s no wrong answer)
If the animal has an interesting feature, you may want to focus on that. This ribbon eel has a very interesting mouth and flaring nose, so focusing on those features makes an interesting image. Don’t forget teeth! Teeth can be the most dramatic part of an image.
Most photographers don’t worry too much about dust particles floating in the air in front of their subjects, but in underwater photography, particles in the water is one of our main concerns. It may be difficult for both beginning and advanced underwater photographers to get an image with a clean background. By “clean,” I mean that the water around the subject is not full of little white specks. This is known as “backscatter.” Backscatter happens when particles in the water reflect the light from your strobes back towards your camera lens. If the water has a lot of particulate in it, you could get a lot of backscatter. Here are a few tips to help eliminate backscatter.
#1: Pull it back
Some images get a lot of backscatter because the strobes are too far forward and the beam of the strobe is directly lighting all the particles in front of your lens. It might appear as a flare on one or both sides of the image, or just look like a lot of white specks all over your image.
In this selfie, the strobe on the right of the image was behind the dome port and turned out, but the one on the left of the image was a little forward of the dome port and turned toward the subject. The strobe on the left lit up all the particles in the water to the left of the subject. It is obvious that this could have been avoided if the left strobe had been pulled back further, as illustrated by the strobe on the right, which is not lighting any particles.
In the following image, look at where the strobe is placed in relation to the dome port. It is pulled back so that it’s light does not go through the dome. This image is meant to demonstrates how far back your strobes should be behind your dome port.
#2: Turn it out!
The next image is a diagram of the beam angle of the strobes. (You will need to check your own strobes to see what the beam angle is, but it is usually less than 100 degrees.) Imagine that the strobes are turned out slightly, so that the angle of your beam (shown in yellow) from each strobe meets in front of your dome port. If you position your strobes so that the beam meets where your subject is, the area that is not lit should not show any particles. Ideally, you want the light from your strobes to light only the subject, and not the water in front of the subject to reduce the chances of lighting up particulate in the water. You can adjust this angle by turning your strobes further out, or by moving them out away from your housing.
Sometimes, you just get a bit of backscatter no matter what you try. Minor backscatter can be eliminated in post-processing. There are numerous ways to remove backscatter from otherwise great images. I will show you one method I use in Adobe Lightroom CC when I have a background that is black, and a different method I use in Adobe Photoshop CC when I have blue water with backscatter in it. Just click on the title or image below to watch a “How To” video.
This is a post-processing tip inspired by the many almost beautiful photographs I see in my underwater group news feeds. So many of these photographs have great composition, interesting subjects, and good lighting, but lack the “umph” needed to be truly fantastic. It’s an easy fix, too, and one that should be employed as a matter of routine in all post processing. I’m talking about correcting white balance, of course, and using a few other basic tools. Here we will cover how to make a photo go from this:
in just a few easy steps. I use Adobe Lightroom CC for the majority of my post-processing and I will use Lightroom in this tutorial.
Underwater photography has its own unique rules when it comes to post-processing. If you shoot with a DSLR, you have likely been taught to shoot in RAW format, and to use the auto white balance in-camera. This is because it is expected that you will finish processing the photos yourself, rather than letting the camera make decisions about the photograph for you, (as it will if you shoot in jpeg format.) Why shoot RAW files? A RAW file retains ALL the information that the sensor of your camera records. If you use jpeg, the camera picks what information is important, processes it, and throws the rest away. Under water images are affected by the water itself and have issues with lighting, contrast, and loss of color to name a few. The camera is manufactured for images taken topside, so the camera is likely to throw away the wrong information. That is why post-processing under water images is so important.
White balance can be set manually for every shot you take under water, but it is cumbersome and time consuming and can easily be taken care of in post processing. Set your camera to “auto white balance” and use RAW files if possible.
After you have imported your images, you will see them in the “LIBRARY” module. There are several modules in Lightroom along the top right of the screen. After you choose the image you want to work on, you will click on the “DEVELOP” module.
This will bring up a set of tools to the right that you will use to process your image. You can open the tools by clicking on the triangular arrow to the far right of each toolbox. In the toolbox below, you can see that I have the Histogram and the Basic toolboxes open.
I will use the Basic tool box to adjust the white balance of my image. My photo has too much brown/gold in it, and the beautiful colors of the fish are muted. *Unless you are very close to your subject, you are likely to have too much green, blue, or yellow in your image. In the Basic tool box (above), you can see “WB: As Shot” towards the top. You can click on “As Shot” for a drop-down menu of different white balance effects. Try them. You may like “auto” the best. If none of these correct the color issues, you can try adjusting the Temp and Tint sliders or use the eye-dropper tool to the left. Just click on the eyedropper tool, move it over your image until the R.G.B. values in the drop down box are close to 50%, then “click.” (You can also see what your image will look like before “clicking” as you move the eyedropper over it in the small box on the upper left.
Here is my image with only the white balance corrected:
That took only one “click” and it is already much better. I can fine tune it further if I want, by moving the Temp and Tint Sliders.
After I fix the white balance, I will use the sliders from Exposure down to Saturation to bring up the contrast, take down the highlights, etc. The box below shows what settings I used for this image.
This is my final result:
It takes only a few minutes to adjust the white balance and a few other basics. But what a difference it makes!
*The reason you will have too much green, blue, or yellow in your image if you are more than a few inches away from your subject, is because of the distance the light has to travel through the water column from your camera to the subject and back again. Water is denser than air, and has a “tint” to it. This will show up in your images, thus the need to redefine what is “white.”
If you have questions, or suggestions for underwater photography tips, please feel free to leave comments below.