Howto: Low-Key Underwater Macro Photos

Why Low-Key?

Low-key photography is a well-lighted subject with a black background.  After I learned how to do low-key photography, I spent a couple of months taking low-key photos of everything: people, Christmas ornaments, small toys, pets and food….

If you look at macro photos that win contests, you’ll see a large amount of low-key photos that are winners.  Why?  Because it takes a high level of mastery of light to do and it makes a very dramatic feelings in people.  In other words, you get points both for technical merit and for emotional impact.  And that’s what good photographs do.

Getting Started

So, you might ask, how do you get low-key photos?  For starters, you have to be able to take a black picture.  This is different between fully manual shooting on a mirrorless or DSLR and shooting on a compact camera, mirrorless in shutter-aperture select, or DSLR in shutter-aperture select.

Setup for Fully Manual Mode on a Mirrorless/DSLR:

  • Start with a normal picture exposed correctly.
  • Use the lowest ISO available.
  • Reduce the aperture and shutter speed until the picture is black and the subject is barely visible.  Something like F14-32 and 1/125-1/600.
  • Lock your focus.

Setup for Compact and Shutter/Aperture Priority:

  • Start with a normal picture exposed correctly.
  • Use the lowest ISO available.
  • Reduce the exposure compensation (EC) to -2.  This tells the light monitor on the camera to reduce the exposure by 2 stops.  This makes a dark picture.  On some cameras, use an EC of -1 and brighter lighting.
  • Lock your focus.

Now, Add Some Lighting

  • Use a hand-held spot torch with a sharp edge to the spot.  Get it 2-3 cm above or to the side of the subject and pointing directly at the subject.  That will light up the subject and nothing else.
  • I use my left hand to hold the torch and I squeeze my wrist against the left side of the housing.  This stabilizes both the torch and the camera and lets them move together as one unit.
  • Wide-angle torches don’t work because they also light up the background.  This ruins all hope at a low-key photo.  Better yet, use a torch with a small diameter spot like the snoot torch I describe below.
  • You can place a torch on the ground to the side of the subject 2-3cm away from the subject.  Better yet, put one torch on each side of the subject.  The light should hit the subject and maybe the ground to the sides of the subject but not in front or back of the subject.  This is tougher to do than it sounds, especially for a moving subject.

This nudie taken with TG4 and handheld torch….

Take it to the Next Level

Some awesome things can help you take better pictures and experiment with low-key photography….

Take Low-Key Portraits

You can use the same concepts to take low-key portraits of your friends and family.  You use a flash or a very bright studio light to light up the subject. Try one light from the side for shadows on the face and a bit more “edgy” look, or use 2 light sources to even out the portrait.  You can even do this outdoors if you have strong enough light.

Take Low-Key Photos with Your Phone

You can use your phone camera to take low-key images.  By either using an exposure compensation function or touching the screen in the dark parts of the image to change the exposure.  You can even use the torch function on a second phone to act as the light source, although most of the time I use a bicycle light.

Use a Snoot Torch

I have a ScubaLamp MS30V3 which is an 1200 lumens torch with a snoot attached to it.  This focuses the beam into a 5-degree circle.  There are a handful of manufacturers that make similar gear.

The benefit of using a snoot torch is that it makes a very fine dot of light.  This reduces the amount of light that spills out of the subject and lights up the surrounding environment.  That way, only the thing that you want to be lit is lit.

Snoots also help to reduce backscatter because they don’t put the light in front of the subject.

Use a Strobe

With normal strobes without a snoot, it’s hard to do a low-key photo.  This is because in most shots your strobes also light up the background.

However, you can still do it if you pick the right subject and composition.  Look for isolated subjects on “shrubberies” where you can get the camera underneath them and shoot looking out into open water.

If you’re shooting like this, you can slow down your shutter speed to 1/125 or 1/150 and some of the light will reflect back off the water.  This makes a blue background.

I took this nudie using a strobe….

Use a Snoot on Your Strobes

Combining the last 2 techniques, you can use a snoot on your strobe.  They’re a tube that only allows a small focused beam of light out of the front of the strobe.  The more advanced ones have laser pointers so that you can position the snoot.

I have some friends that use an ingenious method for a remote snoot.  They mount a normal strobe with a snoot on a triopod–usually a GorillaPod–with tape and a half-kg weight for stability.  They cut a fibre optic strobe cable down to strip the plastic sheath off and lay the exposed fibre onto the ground next to the subject.  That way, it makes a remote trigger for the strobe.

All this comes with a warning: snoot strobes are hard to use.  Get some practice time in before you try it underwater.

 

See You Underwater!!!

–Mike

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