Underwater Photography 101: Let There Be Light!

Most photographers know that light is crucial to good photography.  The way light is applied to a subject can drastically change the way we perceive it. When I first began taking pictures under water, I had a compact camera with an on board flash. But my images came out looking blue or green. There just wasn’t enough light. Then I purchased a small strobe and everything changed. The strobe had enough power to light my subject and some of the surrounding environment. As my skills improved, my lighting needs evolved and it wasn’t long before I was using two strobes.

I am always learning new lighting techniques. Some of my favorites include using a snoot, using fill light, and strobe placement. I think they all take a lot of practice to master, but the snoot seems to be many a photographer’s arch nemesis. Put simply, a snoot is tool that channels light from a wide beam down to a small area. It is used to light just the subject and not the surrounding environment. There are different types of snoots, too. Some, funnel light from the strobe into a beam that looks like a spotlight. Others use fiber optics that enable the photographer to articulate the light in any direction.

Many-Lobed Ceratosoma image created with a fiber optic snoot

Many-Lobed Ceratosoma image created with a fiber optic snoot

This nudibranch was photographed using a fiber optic snoot positioned directly above the subject. In the image following, the same nudibranch was photographed using one strobe on the right side.

Many-Lobed Ceratosoma lit with one strobe.

Many-Lobed Ceratosoma lit with one strobe.

Notice how much of the surrounding environment is lit when the strobe is used. It can be very creative and pleasing to light only your subject or even a portion of your subject.


Snoots can also be used for wide angle photography. In this case, the snoot is used to reduce backscatter, or light just a foreground subject. The snoot used in the image below was nothing more than an old wetsuit sleeve that was cut off and placed over the end of the strobe so that the beam angle would be reduced to something like a spotlight. This enabled me to light up just the foreground subject without lighting any particles in the water.


The “go-to” article on using snoots was published by Dive Photo Guide and Keri Wilk. For more in-depth information on snoots, check out the article HERE.

Fill light is another technique I have come to appreciate. It was only recently that I learned that I didn’t have to have both my strobes set to the same power when I was taking an image. When one strobe is set to a higher power and one to a lower power, you can have a subject that is strongly lit on one side, while filling in with a little bit of light on the other. This can create more dramatic texture and shadows in your image.


In this image, the strobe on the left was set to half power, and the strobe on the right was set to 1/4 power. That allowed the texture in this nudibranch’s rhinophores and branchial plume to appear more defined.

Finally strobe placement is probably the most important and most used technique I have up my sleeve. I am continuously moving my strobes around. It is important to think about the direction the light is coming from in order to properly light your subject. Sometimes you want the light to come from directly above the subject. Such was the case with this jawfish that would not come out of its hole. In order to light it properly, I had to aim my strobes directly down on the fish.

Jawfish with eggs

Jawfish with eggs

Other times you may want to isolate the subject against a black background. In this case, the subject has nothing behind it but water, and the strobe light is coming from directly in front of the subject.


You can also isolate the subject from a busy background by turning your strobes in towards your camera housing. This way, only the edge of the strobe’s light beam reaches your subject, and the background remains dark.


All of these lighting techniques take practice and patience. Often, no matter how I aim my strobes, I just can’t get the subject lit to my satisfaction. But the point is, don’t be afraid to try all kinds of different lighting techniques. You may find you have a whole new stock pile of tools in your photographic toolbox if you do.

As always, if you enjoy my images please visit my website, waterdogphotography.com, or give me a like on facebook at Waterdog Photography Brook Peterson.  Don’t forget to follow me here at waterdogphotographyblog and please feel free to share on Facebook or other social media.

My photographs are taken with a Nikon  D810 in Sea and Sea Housing using two YS-D1 Strobes.
All images are copyrighted by Brook Peterson and may only be used with written permission.  Please do not copy or print them.  To discuss terms for using these images, please contact me


Underwater Photography 101: “Face the Music!”

One of the challenging things as an underwater photographer is getting your subjects to face the camera. Marine critters are inexplicably camera shy!  Most likely, it is because of the bright focus light you are shining in their face, but it could also be that your dome port looks like a big eye and that can freak out any little beasty. Luckily for photographers, there are some tricks we can try, and common sense we can apply.

Trick #1:  Red Light!

Underwater camera gear manufacturers are aware of the lighting issues photographers face.  On one hand, we must have enough light that our camera can focus on the subject and the thing we want in focus the most is our subject’s eye.  On the other hand, shining a bright light in our subjects eyes causes it to turn away before we can get the shot.  The solution to this is a red focus light. Several lights on the market have a switch that will turn the light red, a color that is theoretically not seen by marine animals.  The following image is a good example of critters that don’t tolerate light well. The pygmy sea horse has no eyelids and cannot shut it’s eyes.  Because it is so small, it is a challenge to focus on, even with good light, and the moment you get it in focus, it turns away.


However, with a red focus light, there is enough light for the camera to focus, but the animal is not as sensitive to it and it is more likely to face the lens, such as in the image below.  (Don’t worry about the red showing up in the image.  When your strobes fire, all the red will disappear.)

Pygmy Seahorse

Pygmy Seahorse

Trick #2:  Fake them out!

Another trick to help turn a camera shy critter toward the lens is to hand hold the focus light behind the animal, or have your dive buddy hold the light so that it faces the camera.  The animal will turn away from the light, toward the camera.  There will be enough light for the camera to focus, and walla!

Flamboyant Cuttlefish

Flamboyant Cuttlefish

Okay, on to using some common sense:

#3 Patience is a virtue

Sometimes you just have to wait for the critter to get used to you.  Most marine animals have little or no brains.  Instead, they have fight or flight instincts.  If you are not perceived as a threat, it only takes a few minutes for the critter to forget about you.  As far as it knows, you may have been a feature in it’s environment for months or years.  Give your subject time to forget about you, and eventually it may face the camera without being coaxed.  This goby and shrimp took only a few moments to forget I was there, and go about their business of shoveling sand out of their home.


This leads me to a cardinal common sense rule,

#4:  Don’t be a Predator!

Nothing is more displeasing to an underwater photographer than getting pictures of fish butts.  Sometimes we become so excited to get a shot of that rare critter, just to prove we saw it, that we sacrifice good photography.  The following image is of a goby on eggs.  I really wanted this image, but unfortunately, in my excitement, I was not patient, I did not use red light, and I stalked this poor fish.  The result is a fish facing away from the camera, eye blurred, and generally just an uninteresting photograph.


 Chasing the animals produces the same result.  This poor harlequin shrimp felt very vulnerable and could only flee from my big bubble blowing self.


 So remember, try red light, move your focus light behind the subject, wait for your subject to forget about you, and don’t be a predator.  Using these tips will help you get good “face on” shots.

Jawfish with eggs

Jawfish with eggs

 If you have suggestions for underwater photography tips, or questions, please feel free to leave comments below.

As always, if you enjoy my images please visit my website, waterdogphotography.com, or give me a like on facebook at Waterdog Photography Brook Peterson.
All images are copyrighted by Brook Peterson and may only be used with written permission.  Please do not copy or print them.  To discuss terms for using these images, please contact me