Black Backgrounds & Happy Buddies
“WHERE’S YOUR BUDDY?” cried the dive-guide. “Right here!” the diver shouted back, lofting his camera for all to see.
This story is often repeated within the dive community and holds a great deal of truth. Most underwater photographers are about as interested in the buddy system as a cat is interested in a cold bath.
Frankly, I can be a culprit too and, camera in hand, have often compromised on regimented dive-planning in my search for the best photographic opportunities.
Once my fiancée Jade started shooting under water too, we were often torn between chasing a promising shot and being good buddies.
Over time, we have evolved a technique that achieves memorable macro photos without sacrificing good buddy-team practices.
Underwater photography is a beast that has taken over the life of many a diver.
Once hooked, you make the transition from taking a few photos along your underwater route to diving with the sole purpose of creating images.
It seems absurd to the uninitiated. It certainly did to me in the days when I would poke fun at people with enormous camera-rigs, stumbling into the water and spending an hour plonked in the same spot.
How far removed those days seem now, when I would feel naked if dived without a camera! It’s riveting to capture the beauty of the underwater world, and I believe that once you start to look at the sea from a photographic perspective, the hidden depths will emerge and you'll start to unveil even more of its beauty.
The diver and the underwater photographer are two distinct species in our scuba world and they are often poor at co-existing. Most divers want to see as much of a given location as possible, exploring the various sites and covering the ground within them.
For underwater photographers, on the other hand, the criterion for a good dive is a couple of subjects with which they can work and to which, ideally, they can return and continue their hunt for that elusive “perfect shot”.
It’s just not a good mix and, sadly, many photographers still book trips with groups of regular divers, causing headaches and frustration all-round.
ANOTHER FREQUENT SIGHTING is the diving couple, one half of which is a photo-addict and the other more interested in being an underwater tourist. Usually the photographer wins this battle of wills, his or her other half left wandering around forlornly nearby as the camera-addict lines up the hundredth shot of the same subject!
Unsurprisingly, many photographers go rogue with their diving habits, basically diving solo, with every spare brain-cell devoted to the image at hand.
Mostly this goes without a glitch, and they return to the surface smiling.
The added risk in this style of diving is partly counterbalanced by the fact that many underwater photographers are seasoned divers who have developed strong in-water problem-solving skills.
I’m a rogue diver myself at times, and have loved the freedom it provides. However, the buddy system is based on sound principles and, in almost every emergency situation, you would be better off if you had someone there to help you through it.
I’ll come back to how we can fix that, but first let’s side-step into the world of macro-diving, and the search for weird and wonderful critters along the seabed.
This usually takes place at muck dive-sites, where the bulk of the terrain is sand and rubble.
The macro scene is dominated by photographers like no other area of the diving world. Research has shown that 75% of divers at muck-diving sites have a camera, a much higher proportion than in reef-diving.
This is prime territory for the photographer and, by consequence, sounds a death knell for good buddy-team practices.
Jade and I started our underwater photography journey while working as dive pros in St Lucia. The pelagic sightings off the island were infrequent but the macro opportunities abundant. As such, we developed a great affinity for taking photos of the small stuff, and spent many an evening discussing how we could improve our images.
With macro, the black background is king. This is because the subjects are often stunning but set among a mess of sand, silt and detritus – this poor background translates into a wasted photographic opportunity. The photographer whose images stand out will showcase beautiful subjects against complementary backgrounds.
ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE this season’s most fashionable macro-photography accessory: the snoot. This fits around your strobe and narrows the beam of light it emits, transforming it into something akin to a spotlight.
In the 1990s, Keri Wilk took the underwater photography world by storm when he introduced the practice, winning a succession of awards.
Now snoot lighting is back in style, and you can even buy professionally manufactured models, such as those made by Retra and 10 Bar.
We have a serious affection for black backgrounds and find them a perfect backdrop for other-worldly macro subjects. Take the alien-looking peacock mantis shrimp. Fantastically coloured and draped in its own eggs, this little underwater alien really pops out on black!
Even better from a photographic perspective, backscatter on a black background can be used to your advantage to create a “starry sky” effect!
The tiny doughnut nudibranch, a relatively new scientific discovery, is a wonderfully weird sea-slug and looks even better set against a starry black backdrop.
I bought my first snoot a couple of years ago, and excitedly took it along for my next dive. What followed was some of the most infuriating time I have ever spent under water.
It turns out that snoots are infernally difficult to use. You are essentially taking a light-beam an inch or two in diameter and trying to place it on a subject of approximately the same size. If your aim is off by just a fraction, you end up with a totally black, unlit image.
The minute you line everything up perfectly, if you adjust your camera position even slightly the light and subject no longer match up.
The lighting effect when you get it right is eye-catching, and will keep you coming back for more. But the journey to the shot can be very frustrating.
Last summer, Jade and I developed a new method of achieving black background using a snoot, one that involves a lot less underwater rage.
It’s simple – we now buddy up and divide shooting and lighting duties, exchanging roles as the “snooter” and “shooter” during the dive.
It’s best if you decide on this plan of action beforehand and dedicate the whole dive to snooted shots. At this point, you rig up the camera with minimal arms and a snoot attached to one or more of your strobes.
If you decide to each bring a camera, whoever is doing the lighting will have to put their rig down in the sand.
We started with this method, but ended up taking only one camera down to increase mobility.
On the dive, once you find a subject detach the strobe with a snoot and one-half of the buddy team will now manually position the lighting.
You’ll want the strobe set to high power and the focus light turned on to help with aiming.
The shooter will want to set a small-aperture, fast shutter-speed and low ISO to minimise any ambient light. Black backgrounds can then be achieved in broad daylight.
The buddy left with the camera can now line up his or her preferred composition. You will want to agree on some basic signals to indicate from which direction the light should come. From there you can shoot away, asking for small adjustments in lighting position with a simple hand signal.
AS YOUR EXPERIENCE GROWS, you will find that less direction is needed, because the snooter will already know the image you're trying to achieve and will adjust the lighting without being asked. This form of shooting relies on teamwork, and if one buddy loses focus, the shot will be ruined.
We found that the pressure is actually greater on the buddy doing the lighting. The snooter must ensure that the spotlight falls correctly, and a small hand movement can ruin the image.
Also, the snooter doesn't know exactly when the shutter will be triggered, so always has to be ready. Meanwhile the shooter can take a breath, refocus and decide when it's time to pull the trigger.
Underwater photographers tend to be a competitive bunch, so don’t be surprised if you try this technique and, while on snooting duties, find yourself aching to be the one behind the camera.
This is normal. Just remind yourself that your selfless deed will be repaid in full. You may end up spending half as much time behind the camera, but the results you get in one dive would have taken many more to achieve if working alone. Greater efficiency, high-quality lighting and more memorable images is your new mantra.
How to divide time between each other is a tricky one, and the obvious way is to give each other about half of the total dive-time behind the camera. Generally, if you’re shooting remember that your buddy is craving to be in your position, so once you’re 99% happy with your image (underwater photographers are never 100% happy), hand over the camera.
This process might take one shot or 50. If you’re the snooter, share in the process and remember that the sooner the lighting is right, the sooner you’ll get the camera back!
If you are that diving couple with differing goals, how about dialling down the aggravation by spending half of the dive shooting together, and the other half gently cruising the dive-site?
Once you start using this technique, you and your buddy will be tied at the hip, unable to function without each other. Good buddy-team practices will be back in play, and it won’t even feel like a chore.
WITH DIVER SAFETY enhanced, you’ll feel the photographic benefits of this technique. The main one is that it speeds up the aiming of the snoot onto the subject, in the way that you want it, but there’s more to it than that. This technique also allows you to get more creative with snoot lighting, and to tackle faster-moving subjects.
The recommended strategy for using a snoot on your own is to drop down, find a rock and line up your focus and snooted lighting with that rock. Once achieved, lock off your focus and strobe position, and then go round trying to find subjects to insert into that pre-prepared space.
This is smart, but limited. If you adopt the buddy-shooting technique, you can adjust your composition and lighting quickly to suit your needs.
For instance, we first shot a thorny seahorse using front lighting, and then quickly switched to back-lighting for a different “X-ray”-style effect.
Additionally, snooting has traditionally been used exclusively on stationary subjects such as frogfish and stargazers. By working as a buddy-team, you can now track, snoot and shoot fast-moving subjects such as mimic octopuses or a false clown anemonefish.
With your buddy in charge of lighting, you have created your own mobile underwater studio!
Finally, we believe that if more people adopt this technique it will help to prevent the excessive critter-fiddling that plagues macro-diving.
Too often, macro creatures are artificially positioned onto more pleasing backgrounds. Snooting can create an elegant black background in pretty much any location.
In fact, instead of having dive-guides poking that harlequin shrimp into a better spot, ask them to hold the snoot.
Guides armed with chopsticks are only responding to pressure from photographers to get the perfect shot.
If that can be achieved by getting them involved in the lighting, we have found that they respond enthusiastically to the challenge!
We have found that this shooting technique yields better photos, happier dive-buddies, enhanced safety and is better for the environment. We hope you’ll give it a go on your next dive and discover the benefits!