Isolating Underwater Photography Subjects: Pro Photography Tricks

The underwater world, as beautiful as it is, is a war zone. Every creature on the reef is in a constant fight for food and shelter and on the watch for larger predators. Many species main defence is camouflage so that potential predators won’t notice them. This makes it a fun and rewarding challenge to find them. However it makes it very difficult to photograph these creatures. In this article I am going to share some of my techniques on isolating underwater photography subjects.

Stone fish, scorpion fish, flat heads, sol, star gazers, decorator crabs, hermit crabs and the list goes on. So many interesting and strange creatures that if shot correctly can make a great photo, but mimicking surrounding textures and colours complicates this. The main trick with shooting such subjects is isolating the focus on just what you want the viewer to see.

The first way we can do this is by narrowing our depth of field. Widening your aperture will give a nice soft focus in the background and any possible foreground, concentrating the focus on only the main subject.

Blue Ringed Octopus Isolating Subjects
This first shot I got the sand coloured octopus to stand out by narrowing the depth of field. the focus is only on the octopus itself and not the sand background.

Inward Lighting Blueringed Octopus
This octopus is lit up using a faster shutter speed and inward lighting creating a more striking image.

Another way we can isolate the subject is by changing the angle of the strobes or any other light source. This technique is especially useful if the main subject has a distracting background. By turning the strobes towards the camera and using just the far edge of the beam to fall on the subject we are not allowing any light to reach the background at all. Combining this with a faster shutter speed you can create a completely black background and create a far more striking image. You can read more about inward lighting techniques in my previous article.

Fast Shutterspeed Underwater Photography Lion Fish
Another example of inward lighting and faster shutter speed to remove any background.

The most challenging way of isolating a subject is the use of a snoot. Where as a strobe spreads light out wide to illuminate as much as possible a snoot concentrates the light into a small exact point. Snoots are great for when macro subjects, like nudibranchs and shrimp, blend into their surroundings or if you want to isolate an exact area of a larger subject. In a previous blog I wrote about how to use snoots and the challenges that they can create. Snoots can be the most effective way of completely control what your viewers will be concentrating on but also take the most practice to do correctly.

Without using one of these isolation techniques it can be very frustrating trying to shoot camouflaged creatures. With all underwater photography our main problem is our time limits due to air supply. By having as much knowledge about different ways of shooting we can stop wasting time using the wrong techniques and get better photos every dive.

Lion Fish Inward Lighting

Nudiebranch Snoot Photography

These last two shots are isolated with the use of a snoot. By carefully aiming I can highlight just the face of the tiny juvenile lion fish or the entire Nudibranch (Phidiana militaris) against its similar background.

Happy shooting.

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