STYLE NEVER GOES OUT OF FASHION, so the saying goes. The message is that while fads come and go, some looks are timeless.
Fear not, this is not an article on the sartorial elegance of neoprene. Instead, after a few months discussing new photographic trends, I want to return to one of the classics.
Among fashionistas each season, a new colour seems to be elected as the new black. Pink, orange, red, brown have all had their turn as the new black. But for underwater photographers, good old black continues to do a damn fine job.
I have recently returned from Lembeh, the muck-diving nucleus in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Lembeh is undoubtedly one of the wonders of the diving world, reminding us that some of the ocean’s best experiences come in the smallest packages.
It is a great location for a photographer, the only downside being all that dreaded black sand!
Volcanic-sand diving doesn’t just mean more O-ring cleaning, but it also creates one of the worst backgrounds imaginable for pictures.
That is the photographic paradox of Lembeh, it is a destination with the best subjects, but the worst backgrounds. If it was just pure grains of basalt it would be fine, but the problem is that mixed in are white shell fragments, jagged stones of different colours and snotty algae. Muck is an appropriate name.
The key to producing eye-catching muck diving images is not in finding a good subject, but in controlling the background. And the more of the muck we can hide, the better.
BLACK BACKGROUNDS are the underwater photographer’s default. Route one – the simplest approach to powerful pictures. A clean, black background enhances the graphic qualities of your composition and makes colourful subjects pop out.
Black backgrounds are not difficult to produce, but they don’t happen by accident. To produce a black background during daylight, we need to use a closed aperture, a fast shutter speed and a low ISO.
These combine to cut ambient light from our pictures, so that the only light is from our flash or strobes.
Then we need to light the subject and not the background, most easily done by framing against open water. Water does not reflect the strobe light back to the camera, so it will appear black.
Often, finding the right viewpoint to unlock this composition requires a bit of contorting – something we call earning the black background.
If you’re too comfortable, you’re not trying hard enough!
Subject selection also plays a vital role. Look for subjects that are perched on top of something, rather than those sheltering in a depression!
Unfortunately, in Lembeh many of the subjects are on the seabed, so we have to modify our lighting technique.
I have two favourite techniques for creating black backgrounds when working with subjects sitting on the sand: Snooting and Inward Lighting.
These two techniques allow us to light the subject and not the background, meaning that wherever the critter is positioned, we can light it and not what is behind, leaving it black.
Both techniques have a reputation for being fiddly to set up, but the key is to maintain the same camera-to-subject distance throughout. This means that when we look at our pictures and make adjustments to the aiming of the strobes, it has the desired effect.
The first step is to frame the subject as we want and then lock the focus. If you already use back-button or thumb focus, it simply means not pressing the focus button any more.
Alternatively, we can just switch the camera from autofocus to manual focus, so that it does not refocus.
For macro snooting, I favour optical snoots, such as Retra’s Light Shaping Device, which use a lens to concentrate the beam to a spotlight.
This makes the spotlight much brighter and therefore makes it easier to produce a black background, because I can still use a low ISO and small aperture.
I always work with the snoot in line with the lens, either vertically above my port or horizontally beside my port. This makes aiming much easier, because the adjustments are just forward and back, not in three dimensions.
If you have a willing buddy, it is easier still to ask him or her to hold and aim the snooted strobe. However, it can be hard to hold it totally still and I actually prefer the slower, but ultimately more accurate, method of aiming it for myself.
INWARD LIGHTING is a technique that illuminates the foreground subject and not the background. It is also more than a simple problem-solver, because with the light angled in from both sides it accentuates the texture in a subject.
The powerful effect of inward lighting appears only when we set it up properly.
First we must push our strobes way forward, so that they are in line with the subject. They need to be kept wide enough apart that they are outside the angle of view of the lens, to avoid flare.
This means that we can use this technique only with subjects where there is space around them to work.
The next step is to rotate the strobes around so that they are pointing back at us. This means that only the inward side of the beam will light the subject, and behind it will be black. It might take a few shots to get the lighting absolutely spot-on, while making small adjustments to the strobe-aiming.
All these techniques use the classic combination of low ISO, fast shutter-speed and closed aperture to quell the ambient light.
Then it is all about carefully illuminating only the subject, either with our framing, or with advanced lighting techniques to ensure that black never goes out of fashion.
Some compact cameras are limited to more open apertures (f/8 being the maximum). This makes it harder to create black backgrounds in bright conditions.
Use the lowest ISO and also increase the shutter speed as much as possible. Sometimes you might have to wait for darker conditions, deeper or towards the ends of the day.
To create black backgrounds in low visibility, it is important to be as close to the subject as possible, which will keep backscatter to a minimum.
In some conditions you will always gets some backscatter, which is pretty easy to clean up on black backgrounds when processing images.
Black backgrounds should not be overused, otherwise your friends will end up asking if you dive only at night. So select this option when it’s the best fit with the subject.
Black backgrounds work particularly well with graphically strong subjects, with symmetry and/or rich colours. They are also the best option with busy subjects, creating simple, powerful pictures.