Underwater Photography

Shooting Wide Angle In Bad Visibility

If you live on the West Coast and are an avid diver, you, at one point in time, have gotten in to dive and mother ocean is not cooperating with you. In fact, you are wondering if something has happened that you missed because how could the visibility be so bad. 

West Coast bad viz takes what it is in the tropics to a whole new level, and in some cases, it’s like you’re diving in a huge Guinness beer vat where you can’t even see your hand in front of your face.  It is so bad, but does that make you not get in? 

California is known for their low viz situations, ranging from a red tide or it is just that time of year where the viz is not good and is a light brown with all kinds of floaty stuff floating around you.

Here’s a pic of water that I dove in.

Many people will just pack their wide-angle setup and resort to shooting macro in bad visibility conditions, but this is when you should take out your wide-angle dome and practice.

A lot of marine life thrives in these types of conditions so being ready for those reports that jellyfish have hit the area or other seasonal species that love dirty water have come out to pose is essential that you bring your game to the dive. 

So how do you work on getting better at shooting wide angle in bad conditions? There are a few things that you can do to get better at mastering your shot. 


Most backscatter that you pick up in your photos has to do with lighting placement and whether the cones of light coming off your strobes intersect in front of your lens.

It is best to play around with different strobe placements, which can always be fun, and see what works best for the amount of backscatter that is showing up.

For me, I like to minimize backscatter showing up on my subjects by making sure my strobes are pointed straight forward. I will even look at my set up from the side as well as looking down on the strobes to ensure they are dead on straight because even the slightest angle inward will light up the backscatter.

You are even better off having your strobes pulled a tiny bit outward so the light cones do not touch. I tend to do a lot of CFWA and have my strobes right next to my dome and slightly pulled back for less flair if I am shooting horizontally and butt up to the dome if I am shooting vertically.

Lately I have been bringing my strobes above my housing and facing straight for a different perspective.



I try as hard as I can to keep the backscatter at a minimum but when it is really bad, and you can’t even see your hand, backscatter is inevitable. I have learned to embrace backscatter as it is part of being underwater, so I try to keep the backscatter on the actual subject at a minimum, which sometimes sacrifices the background. 

I have learned a few tricks in Lightroom to help downplay the background backscatter.

  • My favorite edit tool is the graduated filter which works well to reduce exposure, highlights, and whites of backscatter. Play with your slides but a little goes a long way.
  • The Radial filter has become an amazing tool at minimizing how much the backscatter shows up in the background by selectively placing circles in areas that you cannot do globally and need a little more exposure and highlight reduction.
  • General exposure reduction can also lower the brightness of the backscatter.
  • Less we do not forget the best friend of underwater shooters, the spot removal tool for those bright and eye-catching spots that need to just go away.


In some cases, such as diving with sea lions, the muck is so bad that it just helps to shut off your strobes completely or your photos look like snow is coming down.  In these cases, you can play around in your editing program with B&W conversion.


One of the good things about bad visibility is the amazing colors we get, ranging from brown to that toxic green which, for photos, gives us amazing background colors so don’t rule out bad viz and be bummed about not having that “blue” background we all crave.

You’ll want to light meter the water column and set your settings for that because sometimes, when we have bad visibility, the particles in the water will actually block out any sunshine that is trying to penetrate and almost give us a day-night dive. 

Monterey is currently experiencing a bad viz run of some heavy particles water and many times, no sun, but even if we have sun, it can’t penetrate so my starting settings have been 1/125th, F8 and ISO 320 and I adjust from there. 


Another tip when shooting wide in bad visibility is you tend to not need as much fire power on those strobes so I tend to dial down the power because if they’re too bright you get that weird haze blowback. 

I am a big fan of even having each strobe set at different power levels to achieve the shot I am looking for.


So, what do you shoot when it is low visibility?

Great thing is you can shoot anything just to practice.  Find a subject that is set up for a CFWA shot with the subject in the front and the water in the background, plant yourself and start shooting. 

I have been finding a lot of crabs, anemones, and even sea cucumbers sitting in perfect positions so that I can practice. You can even get creative with your lighting and the backscatter.

I have been carrying a light torch and using it to light subjects in different ways to see how I can use the debris and lights to be a bit more creative with the subject.

So, in the future, when you hear it is a bad viz day, don’t quickly change your setup to do macro.  Embrace the bad viz and refine your skills so that you are ready for what mother nature wants to throw at you.

Do you have some of your own shots taken in really bad viz? Share them with us on our Facebook Page!

Michelle Manson
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1 comment

  1. Omar Saad November 22, 2020

    Very nice. Thanks for sharing.

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