Guide to using ambient light in underwater photos

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Sometimes, natural light is the best light for capturing a specific underwater scene. Shooting ambient light photos is the art of taking underwater shots using the natural sunlight available. This could be a lot of light during midday, or more subdued light when it’s evening. Here are the benefits of using ambient light in underwater photos. We also give you some handy tips for making the best of this light.

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Benefits of ambient light in underwater photos

You underwater camera kit is lighter

Because you don’t have to worry about attaching strobes or lights, you can leave it at home. It means that your housing and camera will feel much lighter. This, in turn, will give you more mobility and quicker movement underwater. 

Lighting will be more even

Since you’re using the available light coming from the sun, the lighting in the scene will be evenly spread. With strobes, most of the light would have fallen on the focal point or the area closest to your camera. The even light is perfect for photographing coral reefs, shipwrecks, silhouettes or larger schools of fish. 

Less backscatter

With the sun as your light source, you won’t have to worry as much about backscatter or particles in your shot. Backscatter can ruin a shot if you shoot in murky conditions or don’t use your strobes correctly. One less thing to worry about when you’re shooting with ambient lighting!

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Tips for using ambient light in underwater photos

Use manual white balance

Either set your white balance manually, or adjust it when editing. Either way, the contrast and colours won’t be as great when you’re shooting in ambient light. Therefore, manual white balance is the way to go.

Check your exposure settings

Ambient light causes lower light conditions for photography. Thus, you’ll need to adjust your shutter speed, aperture and ISO according to the scene. Check your photos after taking it, and make sure that your subject is not blurry or underexposed. Shooting in aperture mode is recommended. However, if you’re looking to freeze motion in your photo, shoot in shutter speed priority. 

Shoot close to the surface

The close you are to the surface, the less water the sun needs to travel through. Remaining close to the surface will ensure the best light and colours. 

Work with the sun

The more light, the better. So, when planning a shoot, make sure the weather will be clear and sunny. This will ensure there is enough natural light to light up your subject. A lot of sun is especially important for over-under shots. Make sure you shoot with the sun behind you for the best and most even light. When you’re shooting silhouette shots, on the other hand, you’ll shoot directly up. The sun will then be behind your subject. You also need to shoot towards the sun if you’re trying to capture sun rays underwater.

Get close to your subject

There will be less light available than when you’re shooting with strobes. As a result, you need to get as close as possible to your subject to ensure a sharp foreground or focal point.

Fix the colour afterwards

Colours might go a little lost with ambient light. However, you can adjust this and the contrast when editing in Lightroom or Photoshop. You can also improve your shots by adjusting the warmth, clarity and vibrance of the photo. 

Keep these tips in mind and try using ambient light for underwater photos on your next shoot. In South Africa, the sun is almost always shining. So, our underwater photographers enjoy shooting with ambient light. For the ultimate kickstart in your underwater career, build your portfolio with our underwater photo and underwater videography programs.

Rouxne van der Westhuizen profile

Blogger Profile - Rouxne van der Westhuizen

Rouxne has an Honours degree in journalism and media studies. She is the course director for the Travel and Environmental Journalism program and specialises in wildlife conservation writing, travel journalism and blogging.

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