Howto: High-Key Underwater Macro Photos

I previously discusses low-key photography, now moving on to high-key photography.  High-key photography is a subject on a white or light background.

Why High-Key

High-key is a great way to bring out other colors in the photo.  The trick is to overexpose the photo except for the subject, which you leave as normal or just a little bit overexposed.

Getting Started

The process is relatively simple.

You need a lighter background to bounce light off of.  The important thing is that empty water does bounce light back but only with a slow shutter speed and only if you want a blue or brown background.  There are a couple of ways to get the right background:

  • Pick a subject with a vertical backstop.  Coral, anemones, etc.  Even colors like orange or red work.
  • Shoot looking down on the subject so that the sand or coral serves as the background.
  • Use a dive slate as a mobile background.

The next thing that you do is to light the background and try to avoid getting excessive light on the subject.  This could mean many things:

  • 2 Strobes or Video Lights with Diffusers: point them forward or outward.  Try to “kiss” the subject with the inside edge of the light beam.
  • 2 Video Lights: cross them behind the subject.  Without diffusers, it’s easier to see where the edge of the beam is, so you end up adjusting your lighting more.
  • Single Focus or Video Light: Use a longer arm to reach over the top of the subject and light behind it.

The most nuanced part of the setup is to make sure that your subject isn’t in silhouette.  If you have to, add weaker light from the front or top to add a small amount of light to the subject so that some of the details are restored.

The last thing to do is to adjust your exposure.  This depends on your gear, but it’s usually one or two of the following:

  • Manual Mode: Use a wider aperture like F4 or F6 and a slower shutter speed.  The hard part here is to avoid a super-thin depth of focus (with a supermacro converter, I usually have a paper-thin focus plane) or to slow the shutter speed down so much that you introduce blurring from moving: yourself or the subject.
  • Automatic Mode: Adjust the Exposure Compensation to +1 or +2 to trick the camera into exposing a lighter photo.  The amount that you have to adjust depends on how much light the background and subject reflect.
  • Turn Up the Lighting: With some setups like strobes and video lights, you can increase the power on your lighting to overexpose the background.  The important thing is to overexpose the background and not the subject.

Since there are many variables involved, there are many options that all work.  Try using multiple techniques to get the job done and feel free to experiment.

Take it to the Next Level

While you’re making the background lighter use a board with glitter for an interesting background.  Combined with overexposure and a bit of bokeh, it makes for a really nice picture.

Try different colored backgrounds like orange sponges or a field of light-blue tunicates as a background.

Try compositions with the subject offset to the left or right and some negative space opposite them.  Try to use the 1/3 layout with the subject on one of the thirds and the other side blank.

 

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