Night Photography Part I

Introduction

Underwater photography opens up a whole new world to photographers – taking pictures at night gives you the option to capture images and creatures that are unimaginable during the day. Taking photos at night is something any underwater photographer should try, since they will be able to capture some impressive images, and as a bonus a lot of images taken at night tend to be more eye catching than their counterparts taken during the day. Night photography presents its own unique set of challenges and limits, so read on to find out what to do to master underwater photography at night. It is important to note that most of the advice in the next two articles is aimed at divers using compact cameras not DSLR’s.

Getting started

Before you even consider photography at night there are a few critical steps that need to be taken to enhance your experience and safety. Divers need to improve their night diving skills; if you are not 100% comfortable in your night diving skills and comfort levels there is little chance you will be able to fully take advantage of night photography. Similarly, to day-time photography, you don’t take it up directly after your open water course, but more than likely after several dozens of dives.

Improving night diving

There are several steps to improving your night diving skills. Firstly, you need to master all the hand and light signals you will use when night diving. Good communication is one of the keys to safer night dives, so practice and remember all your signals, particularly those associated with emergency procedures. Secondly, you need to perfect your navigation techniques, since one of the biggest problems when night diving is the risk of getting lost. Practicing and improving your navigation at night is another key factor to enjoying safe night dives.

There are another couple of habits that divers should get used to when night diving. Generally, divers should aim to stay shallower than they would on day dives. Furthermore, divers should always try and dive sites they know well and have dived recently during the day. Finally, a good habit to get into as a photographer is to ditch the wrist lanyard attached to most torches and use a clip system, that is attached to one of the D-rings on their BCD. This is because once you start taking pictures, having a powerful torch swinging from your wrist is inconvenient to say the least, and the flailing light beam will interfere with your photo lighting.

Creatures of the night

Obviously with limited lighting it is much more difficult to find creatures at night. That is why any decent photographer will invest the time and effort necessary to learn about the creatures of the night. Learn where interesting animals live, when they are most active and any other behaviour patterns they may have; this will make it much easier to find and capture images of nocturnal creatures. You need to find the haystack before you can start looking for the needle! In addition, study the dive sites you will be diving to know what to look for and where to look for it.

Composition

When it comes to composition the rules at night are very similar to those during daylight, stick to the rule of thirds, but keep in mind that the best shots are those that capture behaviors. At night, it can be a good idea to shoot slightly upwards, this can create stunning images especially in shallow water with a strong moon overhead. Furthermore, the dark background of black water can create some interesting opportunities to add artistry to many photographs.

Post production

For your personal use, some post production is acceptable, although only a light touch is recommended. Some editing to remove particulates, and slight adjustments to the tone, contrast, and brightness are OK, major editing is not. One very useful tool is cropping; it can be used to create some interesting images and effects that are not normally possible during the day.

Safety first

Whenever it comes to diving, safety is paramount. Make sure you are comfortable with your buddy and have well-coordinated emergency procedures. Get used to what is around you and resist the temptation to “dive through the lens”. Finally, a good idea for most photographers since they have a habit of separating during a dive is to have a fully independent air source such as a pony bottle, it could save your life in case of a catastrophic equipment malfunction.

Finally

So far we have covered some of the basics of night photography, in part two we will look in more details at lighting, camera settings, and other more technical aspects of underwater night photography.

I have seen stunning pics of a colourful creature against a black background – How?

These pictures are absolutely stunning since they really make the creature jump out of the pictures. These pictures can be taken during daytime as well as night conditions, although taking them during the day is quite difficult and does require more complex and advanced photography skills. At night, they are very easy to take. All you need to do to achieve these results is to shoot the subject against a background of open water. Since the sea is dark you will end up with a pitch-black background. You can achieve this simply by adjusting the angle at which you take the picture. Instead of taking the image from above, drop down and take it from a lower angle, pushing more water into the background of the picture.

What is the best thing to buy to improve my night diving?

One of the biggest mistakes divers make when sorting out their night diving equipment, is to purchase a great powerful torch for night diving, and buying a backup as somewhat of an afterthought. This means in case of a light failure you are switching to a cheap light which is not the best idea. If the diver is on a limited budget it is better to not spend as much on the main torch to be able to purchase a good backup.

What is the key factor of composition?

When it comes to composition, there are many factors that need to be considered. Arguably the most important aspect that creates emotion and atmosphere in an image is the behavior of the creature captured through its eyes. Focusing on the eyes is a simple method to create interesting and emotive images. Firstly, because the eyes convey a sense of atmosphere and emotion. Secondly, because a lot of eyes in the animal world are simply stunning, a close-up of the eye can be an eye-catching picture. To fully understand this just check out they eyes of a mantis shrimp – they are simply magnificent.

What is the biggest safety factor when night diving?

Arguably the biggest factor to increasing safety during night dives is not something that can be taught or bought. It is simple spatial and environmental awareness; this is something you will develop over time and eventually will become second nature to you. What is meant here is being totally aware of what is going on in the water around you at all times, whether it be every other diver’s position, to sea urchins that are walking along the bottom just outside your field of vision. Being aware, anticipating and avoiding problems before they occur is the key skill. Until you develop it you must remain hyper vigilant and make an effort to look around more and take in the situation.

Night Photography Part II

Carrying on with our series on how to develop and improve your underwater photography skills at night, today the main focus will be on lighting and understanding the more technical aspects of mastering night photography.

Lighting

When it comes to night photography lighting is key, choosing the right lighting method and deploying it properly will make all the difference to the end results. Without a shadow of a doubt, lighting at night is the hardest skill to master. To understand what and when to use it first photographers should know what are their options. There are three main methods of lighting up you images at night: Torch light, Strobes, and Video lights. Each brings its own strengths and weaknesses.

Torch lighting

Normally the first style of lighting that underwater photographers will use when they venture into night photography. It is by far the easiest of all lighting forms, and can produce some excellent results particularly if you are using a powerful HID (high intensity discharge) or LED torch. Most of these are umbilical style torches where the battery is separate to the light head and are connected with a cable. These powerful beams can make some fish freeze, making them easier to photograph.

The downside to torch lighting is that they tend not to have a variable focus, making it difficult to light up a subject properly. In addition, they do have a bad habit of creating a significant amount of backscatter, since the beams will pick up a lot of particulates in the water. The final drawback to using torches to illuminate your pictures is that they can be quite unwieldy to use since you need one hand to hold the torch, which makes handling the camera in its housing more difficult, even to the point of making it impossible to access all your camera setting with just one hand.

Strobe lighting

Without a doubt the king of night and daylight photography lighting options. It is the best value for money and when it comes to taking Macro images or images of smaller subjects then it has no rivals. As an additional bonus, since the strobe only fires when taking the picture there is much less chance of spooking the fish or creature.

The main issue with strobes is that they are not great at capturing wide angle images since only the professional high end strobes have sufficient power to illuminate everything properly. In addition, at night the strobes on arms can be somewhat unwieldy and cumbersome to move around, although with practice this becomes less of a problem for most divers.

Video lights

Although traditionally they have been associated with taking video, they can be used to great effect by underwater photographers. Video lights come into their own when capturing wide angle images since they have a much broader scope of lighting. In addition, video lighting is perfect for use in totally dark overhead environments such a as a cave or a wreck.
The main disadvantage of video lights is that they are quite expensive, to acquire a decent powerful system the cost can run into thousands of dollars. In addition, when using video lights, it is difficult to produce good Macro images.

Snoots

Snoots are a relative new addition to the arsenal of underwater photographers, but not as a main source of lighting; these small lights mount on top of the camera and produce a very narrow focused beam of light. They are a perfect addition to strobes for shooting Macro during daylight and at night.

Camera settings

Although proper lighting is the key to night photography, camera settings still need to be manipulated to get perfect results. While it is a good idea for novice night photographers to use Auto settings, to truly develop your skills, ability, and improve your results, Manual settings are the way to go.
When it comes to the shutter speed, you’ll need to use a relatively fast shutter speed since strobes produce an enormous amount of light, producing an overexposed image when the sensor is hit. As a good rule of thumb for compact camera systems, start with a shutter speed of 1/500s and experiment, adjusting your speed dependant on the situation and subject distance.
ISO settings at night are very similar to daytime settings although it is often recommended that you use lower ISO settings to avoid grainy images. However, to get perfect results photographers have some scope for experimenting with ISO settings.

When it comes to f-stops the saying goes f8 and be there! This is great for daytime, however at night you might need to use lower f-stops. A good place to start is f5 and to experiment depending on the situation. As a rule, you want to avoid opening the aperture too much to reduce the risk of overexposing the images.

Finally

Night photography can be a very rewarding field for most underwater photographers. With some practice and patience, you can truly produce some stunning and eye catching results of creatures and critters that people don’t often encounter.

Can I use one strobe only?

Yes you can, like during day diving. When using one strobe you must ensure that the strobe arm is bent so that the strobe head is positioned directly above the camera. Having it to one side will cause unacceptable shadows and dark areas of the image. Just like when you use one or two strobes during the day, take care to bend the strobe head above the subject so as not to overexpose the images.

Should I keep getting overexposed pictures?

This can be a big problem when taking pictures at night against a light-colored background especially sand or light coral. To avoid this, you should try and point your strobe further away from the subject than you would normally; this reduces the amount of light arriving to the subject and reduces the chance of producing overexposed photographs.

Should I focus on Macro or wide angle?

This ultimately is up to the individual photographer, although as a rule it is better to start with macro and smaller subjects. It is much easier to take these kind pictures since they don’t require powerful professional lighting systems. It is also much easier for the inexperienced photographer to master lighting and composition of smaller subjects before graduating to wide angle photography.

I can’t seem to be able to get the big stuff right?

This is very common for most photographers, to capture great well-lit images of big stuff at night, you need some very serious lighting systems. Generally, most photographers do not have systems either in terms of strobes or video lights that are strong enough to properly illuminate the subject. If you really want to capture some great pictures of big stuff, then you need to save up and invest in some seriously heavy lighting equipment.
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