Guides & Tutorials

Shooting in Bad Viz by Brandi Mueller

We have all been there. You envision the perfect underwater scene, but in reality it is a rainy day and the dark clouds from above have echoed down onto the reef making it seem too dark to get a good shot. Or you are inside that amazing WWII wreck, set up for the epic engine room shot when another diver accidentally kicks too hard and stirs up a cloud of silt. Or perhaps you planned your dream trip to Fiji and a cyclone went through a few days before, leaving visibility very low. And in some locations, what is considered “a good day” is murky green water to begin with.

But you got this. There are plenty of tips to still get epic photos even when the elements are against you. While unfortunately there is not one fix-all solution, there are a lot of things to try. Keep in mind what works one day (or during one dive or even part of a dive) may not work the next day, so the first tip is to keep an open mind and try different changes to your settings, lighting, and how and where you are shooting. Don’t give up and be versatile to see what works best in each varying situation.

It’s dark! There are particles making backscatter everywhere! My lights are too bright! What do I do?

Get Close

Hmm. have you heard that one before? Yes, we all have. But getting close can help in tough conditions too. Close Focus Wide Angle (CFWA) is just what it sounds like, shooting wide angle but getting very close to a subject. In low visibility or highly silted sites this will reduce water between the camera and the subject. Try to light only the subject and shoot up if possible. This can help show the water in the background (even if it’s green) and help viewers see that the subject is underwater.

When visibility is low, getting close to the subject can make sure enough light gets through the water to illuminate the subject. The smaller the amount of water between the camera and subject reduces the possibility of particles that can create backscatter (those annoying little dots you see in some images.) That being said, sometimes getting very close in low visibility leads to too much light on the subject and overexposed images…see the next tip.

CFWA in a situation with poor natural light and lots or particulate in the water. Getting close and trying to only light the subject while shooting slightly upwards helps reduce backscatter and shows some of the natural ambient light.
By only lighting the subject and being very close it is possible to eliminate backscatter and still have an interesting image even in green conditions.

Increase or Decrease your Lighting

Always keep in mind that light is everything. Be it natural light coming from above or the light you bring underwater in the form of strobes or lights. Even though it seems contradictory, sometimes in low visibility lights need to be turned down. When there is lots of particulate in the water the light may reflect all those particles and either show up as backscatter or very fine particulate can show up as a white haze in the image.

Simply reducing light power can prevent this problem and try to have light only hitting the subject and not the area around it. In really bad situations where it just isn’t possible to get rid of the backscatter sometimes turning off the strobes or light entirely is the best option. This is also important if shooting wide angle from far away. Remember that the light only reaches so far, so you might be sending light out into the water which doesn’t even hit the wreck/diver/animal you are shooting. But it does hit many particles, creating backscatter.

If turning off the strobes completely makes an underexposed shot, consider opening the aperture (lower F number), slowing the shutter speed to let more light in (but be careful as slower than 1/80s usually will increase blur due to camera shake during this longer exposure), and increase the ISO to make the sensor more sensitive.

This shot just has too much light. By reducing the power of the strobe or light it is possible to reduce or eliminate the white haze and some of the backscatter.

Moving Lights

Don’t be afraid to move your lights around. Moving them further away from the camera and facing inward can usually help reduce backscatter and haze. Play with the angle to find a perfect position. Shooting strobes directly at the subject blast it with light. Positioning the strobes slightly away from the subject can lead to a soft edge lighting (think of the light coming off your strobe as a cone getting larger as it moves away.) The soft light will hit the subject with the particles around it not being hit directly, thereby reducing backscatter. Moving lights inward (and usually powering down a bit) can help to only illuminate the subject which may reduce light from getting out around the subject into place you don’t want, also reducing backscatter and spots.

Moving strobes around and trying different angles is a great habit to get into no matter what sort of underwater conditions you are shooting in. Also experiment with using just one strobe if you usually shoot with two.

Be Patient

Big animals like mantas are often found in not-so-perfect visibility. They often hang out in places that have lots of plankton which are yummy microscopic animals that can make the water greenish, dark and cause backscatter in images. Lucky for us, mantas often stay at these sites for long periods of time giving the photographer lots of chances for mantas coming close and many opportunities to take images.  When the water is dark or green it is best to wait until the manta is as close as possible before taking the shot. Waiting until the manta is close means less water in between the camera and manta to cause backscatter, and that the light will be able to reach the manta to light it.

Go Macro

If you know in advance that a dive site is going to be particularly murky sometimes the best thing to do is put a macro lens on. Even in the darkest, siltiest, greenest days getting up close and personal with the marine life might help get past those issues. Shooting macro means getting very close (so little water with potential particles or backscatter in the image) and your strobes or lights can shoot through the dark or murky conditions. Plus, there is always something macro to shoot. Examine the fine details of the coral or seagrass for abstract art shots; do close ups of fish faces. Using a focus light can help when conditions are bad so that the camera has enough light to be able to focus on the macro subject.

Even when conditions are bad, you can get really close and past the murky water.

Post Processing to Save the Day

While we don’t want to make images with the intent of doing extensive editing later on, sometimes a little editing after the dive can save shots. In some situations auto-white balance adjustments can bring color back even on green or blue shots that seemed hopeless. The dehaze tool may reduce that white overblown haze sometimes seen when there is too much light and lots of particulate in the water. Simply adjusting the exposure slightly might save an underexposed shot. And…never doubt the superhero powers of the spot removal/clone tool. Sometimes I find it therapeutic at two in the morning when I can’t sleep to start removing millions of backscatter dots in a not-so-perfect image.

Generally if your shot looks like the one on the left, I recommend you take new images. But sometimes this is all you get and a little help from Lightroom can at least improve it a little. Here I used the White Balance Selector to choose a gray part of the image and slightly increased the Dehaze.

There are plenty of occasions when underwater shooting conditions become challenging and unfortunately there is no magic “fix all” trick or special piece of equipment you can buy to make things miraculously better. But keep in mind some of the ideas above, and be sure to try different techniques to find the best solution for that day’s conditions. Get creative and try different things!

Brandi Mueller

Brandi Mueller is an award winning underwater photographer, photojournalist, scuba diving instructor, and boat captain.
She is an Ikelite Ambassador and a member of the Ocean Artists Society.
Brandi Mueller

1 comment

  1. Greg Hincke May 19, 2020

    Great article Brandi, thanks!

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