We are all used to the term available light, but Al Wertheimer Elvis’ personal photographer documenting the quiffed genius during his early years, came up with the term “Available Dark over 50 yrs hence. Giving a name to his style of only shooting with what little light was available to him, in whatever situation he and the King found themselves in. Google him for some great pictures of Elvis if you’re so inclined.
This no compromises style went against the conventions of the day, with the stars of that era, being posed and staged under 1000’s of watts of lights documenting them as far removed from reality as it was possible to get.
Shooting guerrilla style like this grabbing shots at the very edge of what was possible considering the gloomy dressing rooms and backstage areas he spent most of his time in, lends an air of credibility and realism to his pictures unmatched by most of Elvis’ later documenters
So what has this got to do with underwater photography.
Well shooting in low light, or “available dark” is a valuable skill to add to your arsenal of underwater photographic abilities. And once you understand how far you can push things then you will be able to take pictures in very tricky light (or dark) situations.
I am going to illustrate this with a series of shots that I took recently in Mexico, in a shooting scenario that I had never previously found myself in.Well I thought I hadn’t but as it turned out there have been lots of times previously I have shot in similar lighting circumstances, I just hadn’t realised it.
Ok, first things first, when approaching anything new like this you have to look at what you do know. I had seen lots of Cenotes shots before, beautiful beams of light piercing the gloom from cracks or from the actual mouths of the Cenotes themselves.
Ok, for those not aware of what a Cenote is, please Google for a fuller description, but essentially they are interconnected, mostly freshwater caverns and tunnels, that punctuate certain areas of the Yucatan area of Mexico. Caused by acidic water that etches its way through the ground below the jungle using the same geological framework that causes caves elsewhere in the world, except here they are mostly filled with crystal clear water providing an incredible and exciting diving experience.
So I knew we would have a dramatic range of light to dark.
And in situations like this the main area of interest is in the beams of light.
How your camera sees the situation
In all sorts of lighting from very bright to very dark conditions, your camera has no real way of knowing what it is you are shooting, no matter what the manufacturers would have you believe.
So it doesn’t know that in a Cenote then you are probably going to want to capture the dramatic curtains and beams of light as your primary subject.
All the camera sees is an approximation of the percentage of light and dark dependant on how your cameras light meter is set up.
So usually in very dark situations where we have points of light, that may be bright in themselves, the camera is seeing mostly dark, as it averages out the scene. This results in the camera thinking that it needs to base its exposure reading on this overall dark input its receiving.
Which results in two things happening, it will probably mean it will suggest, or pick for you, shutter speeds and apertures, that it thinks will make the inside of the cave nice and bright, which in turn will make those, oh so important beams of sunlight, become hugely overexposed.
It can’t do both at the same time, something has to give.
So taking a picture based on its advice, or using it on auto, without some adjustment, will mean your shot will be very washed out, with no detail at all in very burnt out highlights.
This is not how you are experiencing it, is it?
For me it took me back to shooting at gigs and music events, where you are broadly presented with similar lighting situations. A large area of dark punctuated with bright areas, of more photographic importance.
If you understand this it will make the whole procedure of making the camera bend to your will that much easier.
So how do you fix it?
Knowing the above makes life easier, because you now realise that the camera is massively overexposing the situation, making the bits that are dark in reality, lighter than they should be and those bits that you are interested in, so light as to be unprintable.
If shooting with a fully automatic camera, then the best thing to do is to change its metering mode to spot.
Once set to spot meter your camera will now only measure the very small area in the centre of the frame to base its exposure on. So the knack to this is to move the camera around your intended frame, and when the spot falls upon an area that you want correctly exposed then you need to lock the exposure at that point. You do this in its simplest form by half depressing the shutter release, and the camera will lock both its focus and exposure at that point. You then reframe, whilst holding the shutter down and when the shot looks lined up, you press your finger all the way down.
This is something any camera can do easily. The difficult bit is that you need to practice a little dexterity with the camera in the housing to pull this off successfully.
There is also the danger of the correctly exposed area not necessarily coinciding with the point of focus.
To that end lots of modern compact cameras and also Mirrorless and DSLR’s allow you to assign this useful function to a button separate from the shutter release. Making the whole process easier.
Try it, on land anywhere will do, and practice makes perfect.
So thats the basis for the technique with simpler cameras, but what happens if the light levels are still so low that you risk camera shake or subject movement.
Well, this is when you will need to raise the ISO levels of your camera, perhaps, beyond what you are comfortable with.
ISO is the rating that has been decided to denote the sensitivity of the sensor, in the olden days 😉 it was also used for the same purpose on a rolls of film.
It goes in a scale from usually 100,200,400 etc etc. Every time you go up a level its making the sensor twice as receptive to light. Allowing you to shoot in correspondingly lower and lower light levels at the same camera settings. Most cameras allow you to let the camera choose this itself , with AUTO ISO, and if you are unsure about setting your own ISO’s then leave it in this mode.
This is the point where I will leave it with fully automatic cameras, and we will imagine that your camera has a fully manual mode and you know how to access it and what the settings mean.
You are still bound by the same exposure constraints, except that you are now in control of all the parameters that the camera would be picking if in full auto.
So you need to make sure that your shutter speed, and aperture chosen, are in line with what your cameras exposure meter (still in spot mode) is telling you.
Of course you may find as the light changes that you will also need to raise the ISO dependant on that particular shot.
My advice would be to try at least to keep your shutter speeds higher than 1/15sec. Remember you are handholding, and even though cameras have very good image stabilisers now, you really are on the limit of what is feasible without a tripod. Try and time your shots between their exhalations if there are divers in shot. And brace the camera as firmly into your body as possible.
Also be aware that your eyes will adapt to the conditions much better than the camera will i.e. it will seem much lighter and brighter to you, than in fact what the camera is recording.
I wish I could tell you there is a catch-all bunch of settings that will work everywhere, the situation you are in will change from shot to shot dependant on how much of your picture is swathed in light. So you need to become aware of what is happening and how your camera will react to it.
I say this many times that you need to practice, but once you’ve got this particularly challenging nugget of photo wisdom sussed, then you will be well prepared for all sorts of other scenarios you may find yourself in.
As to the aperture chosen, you will find that you will be up against the bumpers, i.e. completely wide open at the maximum aperture that the camera will allow, with my fisheye lens bottoming out at f3.5 this also had a bearing on the end result.
And most camera lenses inside dome ports, don’t usually give of their best at maximum apertures. So I tried to keep the aperture at a little smaller than f4, to help with the edge sharpness a bit. With a compact you may have a more modern one and some of them have maximum apertures at the wide end of as much as f1.8 with the later models. I would still say though to try and use a smaller aperture than the maximum possible, as additional fish eye lenses attached to the housing, are often very prone to edge softness.
However all being said and done the most important thing is that you get the picture correctly exposed and without camera shake, so you maybe will have to suck it up with a little edge softening.
Don’t be afraid to raise the ISO’s very high, and yes I know that the picture quality will be compromised by this, but far better to get a shot that is grainy, or noisy than no shot at all.
You can do quite a lot with image editing software these days to help with excess noise.
What about shooting with my strobe?
Shooting with your strobe is fine, and perfect for illuminating your foreground, normally this will be your buddy or the guide in our case. To get this right though you will need to get your background exposure correct first, exactly in the manner I’ve outlined above.
Then switch on your strobes and balance out the foreground exposure using the output controls of your strobes, to see this I will refer you again to a previous blogpost about
flash exposure. Bare in mind though that this is fine for illuminating your immediate foreground, but can often kill the atmosphere, so use it sparingly, don’t just switch it on all the time.
It’s ultimately all about the end result, and just what you find is acceptable from a quality standpoint. I am a big believer in pictures are way more important than pixels. So what exactly do I mean by that? Well sometimes it’s a lot more important for you to have a pictorial record of your dive, and even if you can’t always shoot at the camera settings that you’d prefer, thats no reason not to take pictures, you might well have a situation that you’re in that means no matter how you juggle around with settings, that you will inevitably end up with a shot heavy with grain.
It’s not always practical to shoot using strobes, for any number of reasons, and it’s even rarer to be able to usefully use a tripod underwater.
You may not have the finances to shoot with a camera with the latest full frame sensor, able to give noise free results at incredibly high ISO’s, or the housing to keep it dry, so you best master how to get the very best from what you already have, and quite rightly give yourself a big pat on the back for doing so.
Here is a short Cenotes slide show I made. I managed to achieve around 40 acceptable shots from our two Cenotes. In the future I will be forearmed with the knowledge gained form this experience, and hopefully get a few more keepers.