THERE ARE MANY truths in underwater photography, but an annoyingly inescapable one is that this hobby is expensive. This is especially so at the start, when the “to buy” list is at its biggest.
At times it seems like an exclusive club with a very big price on the door.
It is at this time when almost every aspiring photographer considers how much he or she really needs those expensive underwater accessories. And I’m afraid I don’t have good news.
Another truth of underwater imaging is that the right accessories, such as wide-angle lenses, make all the difference. In fact they are far more important than the camera to which you choose to fit them.
Many divers own powerful and expensive torches and I am often quizzed about whether these can be used for lighting still images instead of buying expensive strobes.
The quick answer is no, but that isn’t the whole story. The aim of this month’s column is to encourage you to use your torch’s beam as a creative light source.
BUT BEFORE THAT, it’s important to understand why torches aren’t ideal for photography.
Continuous lighting, like torches, has been available far longer than cameras or flashes, but flash was invented for a simple reason – it is far more suited for photography.
The first problem of using torches is a lack of power, which might sound surprising, especially if your buddy has shone a torch right in your face on a night-dive. Many dive-lights are powerful, but they deploy their power in the wrong way for photography.
Much of the art of underwater photography is in balancing ambient light and artificial light in our photos. This is far easier with strobes because they are, photographically speaking,
an instantaneous light source and therefore not affected when we adjust shutter-speed.
This gives us the tools to balance light – adjust shutter-speed for the ambient light and strobe power for the flash.
Torches are continuous lights, so they are affected by shutter-speed in the same way as the ambient light. They also rarely have multiple power settings. This makes it much harder to balance them with the ambient light.
ANOTHER PHOTOGRAPHIC truth is that technology continually marches on, and we should always be willing to test established wisdom.
Recent advances in LED technology have yielded a generation of portable focus and video lights that are much more photographically friendly. They are powerful and produce wide, even illumination, or can be set to produce narrow, focused beams of light. In short, they are much more suited to making images.
At the same time, most digital cameras can now produce high-quality results across a range of ISOs, allowing us to turn up the ISO and really make use of LED torch light.
The brighter the ambient light, the brighter (and bigger) your torch needs to be. For this reason it’s easiest to work with torch-light in darker conditions, such as in our home waters, at deeper depths or in poor weather/visibility, all of which make it easier to balance the torch-light with the ambient, or overpower it for black backgrounds.
The main tool we have for balancing torch-lit exposures is moving the light source closer or further from the subject. The closer we position it, the brighter its effect on the subject.
To reduce or increase ambient light levels, we can also head deeper or shallower, or wait for a cloud to pass!
When shooting the reef scene example, I found that it was too bright for my torches to properly light corals in the sunny shallows of the Cayman Islands. So I descended over the wall, and in the darker conditions my torches could easily light a colourful sponge. It is a reminder of how convenient strobes are.
THE LATEST generation of LED lights are being designed with still photography in mind.
My current beau is Inon’s LF800, which is designed to create a beam of light or a spotlight. This can be used just like a snooted strobe, but is easier to work with because you can see exactly what the light is doing.
Just like using a snooted strobe, the easiest way to use it is to ask your buddy to hold and aim it. For these pictures I asked my dive-guide Neil Andoque to aim it for me.
He found that the torch was more fun than a snoot, because he could actually see the effects and felt fully involved in the creative process.
For the frogfish photo, Neil even blocked part of the beam with his fingers, so that it illuminated only the fish.
If you don’t have a guide or photo-buddy, the best way to aim the torch is to fit it to a long strobe arm. The key to this technique is to focus on the subject and then lock the focus. This keeps the camera at a fixed distance from the subject (assuming that you keep the subject in focus!), which allows you to adjust your lighting precisely.
I know it’s obvious, but the big advantage over working with a snooted beam of light is that you can really see what the light is doing through the viewfinder. Also, because you’re not relying on strobes, you can shoot on rapid-fire if you wish, to help capture that critical moment.
Continuous light has many disadvantages for photography compared with strobes, but as LED and camera technology continue to advance we can finally start to exploit some of the benefits.
Torch-light is harder to use than strobe-light for photography. Strobes give an instantaneous flash of light. A torch might give out the same amount of light over half a second, but this is too long for sharp photos.
Higher ISO settings let us use faster shutter-speeds and get sharp torch-lit photos.
Darker ambient conditions are best for lighting images with torch-light. Plan your diving carefully if you want to use this technique, or carry the torch in your BC pocket so that it’s ready to use at the right moment.
The latest narrow-beam LED torches, like Inon’s LF800, are specifically designed for photography. They are easiest to use when aimed by a buddy, so consider splitting the purchase cost.
When you dive with the torch, spend time aiming it for each other’s images. You’ll often come up with the best ideas when you’re lighting and not shooting.