Shooting with Light

As an avid cave / wreck diver and professional underwater wide-angle photographer, I often find myself in dark, silt-covered, inhospitable locations attempting to get that wonderful photo that few others can. In the past, photographers have been required to bring multiple high-powered underwater strobes capable of providing the light required to fill the large dark voids we were attempting to capture. Many times, we did not achieve the desired results because of the power output of the strobes in relation to the subject and the black background.

Standard underwater photography can be tricky, even in excellent lighting conditions such as found in shallow reefs and clear water where you can see the subject, meter to the natural sunlight, and have ample time to adjust strobes to fill flash the subject. Now complicate this scenario with extreme depths, poor visibility, confined over-head spaces, extra life support equipment such as rebreathers, bailout stages, lights, reels, etc., — not to mention that it’s usually almost pitch black — and you have a recipe for disappointment and failure.

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I had often dreamed of bringing giant studio-style video lights into the cave or wreck and lighting the desired location with just the right amount of continuous soft lights to obtain the photo I could see in my head, but could not seem to get with strobes. Of course, this would be next to impossible because of the logistics of designing, building, and powering such underwater lights on a budget any less than NASA’s.

In the last several years, new HID and now super bright cluster LED light technology is making giant strides toward a portable underwater lighting system that can provide the huge amount of lumens required for still or assisted strobe photography. Plus, the new technology maintains a manage-able size for maneuvering in crowded or difficult locations, and a long enough to burn time to be effective.

Initially, designers created these light systems for underwater video productions, but I have found that they are now on the edge of providing enough lumens for still camera and close wide-angle photography.

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These lighting systems are also small enough to have other divers, which I call light assistants, to carry and provide lighting effects from multiple angles away from my camera. Many times I have used these divers to light the subject from above, on a side such as along a giant cave wall, or even behind the principal subject to create the “light blast” which adds a more three-dimensional effect.

With the new digital camera technology, images that were once almost impossible to obtain are now becoming possible. In the predigital world, we could only shoot a few exposures on the roll of film, usually 24 to 36 shots. Today, you can purchase memory cards for your digital camera that can hold thousands of images on a single dive. The speeds of these new digital cameras and memory cards have increased to far surpass the old film cameras, enabling the digital photographer to produce film bursts of up to 30 images in less than a second. High-end digital cameras also have the capability to be adjust high ASA film speeds of over 20,000, thus enabling them to almost see in the dark.

Of course, the strobe technology cannot keep up with these fast film bursts, but continuous lighting techniques can. I like to call it the “bring the sun with me” technique. This technique proves to be extremely useful for technical diving photography, especially in situations where photographers have limited time to capture photos in harsh and demanding environments. Today’s LED underwater lights come in all sizes and powers from 1000 to the insane 65,000 lumens.

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I also employ a technique I call “Machine Gun Fire” shooting. It’s more of a haphazard method of adjusting the camera’s light meter and shutter speed to the basic lighting provided, either by my lights or limited natural light. Then, during the fast action of the dive, such as being swept down the side of a wreck in high currents, I lie on the trigger and hope that one or two images out of the 150 I just took while being tossed in the current turn out to be something useable. Not really professional, but in extreme conditions, I feel it’s better to get something rather than nothing.

As lighting technology develops, manufacturers will produce even more powerful, longer burning lighting systems capable of illuminating even larger photo areas.

The best final results still seem to come from being in the right spot at the right time with the right people modeling, and the best person lighting the subjects. It is easy to get discouraged in this type of demanding photography; but when all the pieces come together, and you can shoot that one image that no one else has ever seen or been able to capture, it makes all the hard work and tens of thousands of dollars in equipment worth it. Very few divers are fortunate enough to have the chance to visit many of these wrecks and cave sites, so I believe that documentation is important.

Of course, nothing can replace a well-trained underwater model and an eager-to-please lighting assistant. Without them, who would I have to boss around underwater?

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Top of Page: Brett Hemphill power snorkels into a cave to illuminate a newly discovered human skull for the author, Curt Bowen to photograph.

Below: The author of this editorial and publisher of Advanced Diver Magazine, Curt Bowen climbs his way back out of another Yucatan cenote.