Underwater PhotographyUnderwater Lighting

One Strobe or Two? My Perspective from Spain

By Toni Bertran: cameraman, production professional, underwater photographer.


I’ve been diving since 2010, but I only began in this amazing (and expensive…) hobby of underwater photography four years ago.

A Gorgonian on a Spanish reef wall. By Toni Bertran.

I’ve worked in audiovisuals for the 18 last years. I started as a cameraman in TV news, and eventually founded a production company with my partner in Spain.

I’ve constantly had to work out of my comfort zone in this career–or, as I said at the time, in situations where I had no idea what I was doing!

As a cameraman, as an editor, as a videographer, as an lighting or audio technician…in the beginning, it was a nightmare. But, I got tons of different experiences in those times.

Why am I explaining all this, which has no relation to our underwater world? Because I thought that with all my experience in photography and audiovisuals it would be very easy to take the skills I’ve built over my career into the underwater realm…but I was wrong!!!!

Starting out underwater

Nowadays, from time to time, I look back at my first pictures underwater…I bought my little Sony Rx-100 Mark I in a Ikelite housing and one Sea & Sea YS-01 strobe. Very proud of my new gear, I went to Mataró to prove to everybody that taking underwater pictures was more or less the same as taking them on land…wrong again!

I’m not sure if that day I came back with a single picture focused.

But, I am quite sure that all of my pictures from that day were a complete disaster in terms of colors, composition, lighting, backscatter and so on…a very good lesson in swallowing my pride. But, at least I knew then where I was and the long road ahead.

On the second dive, things were a little bit better, at least some pictures were correctly focused. However, there was no great improvement in lighting.

So I decided to give to myself one year to improve my technique, to get new gear (at that time, every purchase made me very poor…) and learn through the experience of other people who were sharing their wisdom on the internet.

My first lesson was: “Don’t get creative purchasing gear for underwater photography; be sure that someone has tried it before you and it was not a silly waste of money”.

After that, my second lesson was: “Underwater, more light is better” (More on this later).

So I purchased another strobe.

Which is which? One of the photos above was lit by one strobe, and the other by two. Can you tell? Images by Toni Bertran.

During that year, I improved my technique a lot, mostly in macro photography. I live near Barcelona, so most of our closest dive spots are almost exclusively for macro or middle and small sized fish.

If you want spectacular landscapes with big gorgonians, big and gentle groupers, or some wrecks, they are about a two-hour drive. And, by law, we are not allowed to dive with the really big animals like cetaceans, so I stuck with macro.

Advancing in macro

In macro shoots I was doing pretty well with my two strobes; everything was well lit, at least. I had to erase some backscatter in post production, but that was all.

But, I was not happy… maybe my professional deformation was pushing me towards a different kind of photography, more like studio photography with all lights carefully controlled.

That was the time I changed my little Sony RX-100 to a Sony A7RII in a Nauticam housing. I changed my Nauticam CMC1 for a pair of lenses, SMC1 and Noodilab first (but in a year I had my Nauticam SMC2). It was also more or less at the same time that my bank account went down dramatically… but it was worth it!

With my new gear, I was completely sure I would be published in National Geographic…but as always, I was wrong…

My pictures of macro subjects and fish had more definition and more sharpness, and I could take pictures that I couldn’t before because of the lack of lenses or slower focus of my little RX.

But, in regards to lighting, I had not advanced.

Then one day, one of my strobes fortunately broke.

Right around the time my first strobe broke, I remembered that I had a photosub competition here in Catalonia, and I thought I couldn’t light anything with only one strobe…I was wrong, again!

I could, in fact, properly light my subject matter, and my photos actually turned out much better (in fact, we placed third in that competition, while we usually place sixth or below).

With only one light, I was able to control everything much better with macro subjects or fish, and especially create what I really wanted to achieve in my photos: a black background.

Both of these photos were taken with just one strobe. Images by Toni Bertran. 

Macro with one strobe

With macro it is very easy to light subjects with one strobe, similar to that of a studio when you use only one light over the subject in an overhead position.

In this configuration underwater, you have to put your strobe over your lens in a zenithal position, trying to ensure that only the edge of the light beam lights the subject and that the light doesn’t affect the surroundings (more or less how a snoot works, the difference is that if you use the snoot you have to point directly to the subject).

You usually have to try different angles before you get the correct illumination and to avoid backscatter, but it is as simple as moving the strobe into different overhead positions between the lens and the body of the camera.

With only one strobe everything is easier, and you know exactly which strobe is causing the bad light that illuminates those annoying little backscatters!

In the case of fish, it is quite different if you use only one strobe, it is a little more tricky…I always point the strobe directly at the fish at first (of course, in that case you’d have a lot of backscatter), but then I angle the strobe so that only the edge of the beam impacts our subject.

To achieve the black background, the strobe has to be positioned in such a way that there is some distance to everything behind it, otherwise, the background will be lit.


More macro shots lit by a single strobe. It is possible to get great results with just one! Images by Toni Bertran. 

Final thoughts

Always remember that whatever the lighting technique you are using, it needs to be helped by your camera settings  (to achieve proper white balance, contrast, saturation, sharpness, etc.), unless you want to edit your pictures more in postproduction.

And, of course, for other types of photography, the requirements change.

For instance, in reefscape photography with your fisheye, when you have a subject in the foreground and you want to illuminate it as well as the background, you’ll need two strobes unless you want shadows in some parts of the picture.

Or maybe you won’t require any strobes in another wide angle situation where everything is far away from you, in which case you have to work with your settings in the camera or in postproduction.

Every picture is unique and it has its own requirements; that is why underwater photography is so fun, you never stop learning.

I hope these tips will be useful for you!

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