Tips & Tutorials

Creative Underwater Photography: Creating Motion Blur Against a Bright Blue Background

When taking photos underwater, you probably already know that you can use a slower shutter speed to make the background appear brighter. This article adds on that to show you a technique for capturing a sense of motion when photographing swimming fish. (Report by: Yasuaki Kagii)

Swimming fish shot at 1/15 sec with EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM/ FL: 100mm/ Manual exposure(f/9, 1/15 sec)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto


When taking underwater photos, I usually tend not to vary my ISO speed or flash output, and also use a fixed aperture setting. For example, if my intent is to achieve a photo that resembles a documentary drawing in a field guide, I usually stick to f/7.1, whereas when I want a softer effect, I often fix my f-number as f/5. In other words, when I want to change how my photos look, I vary my shutter speed.

For the photo above, there was no direct sunlight in my shooting location. As there were shadows in some areas, I decided to use a slow synch flash to bring out the sense of motion. I wanted the shapes of the fish to be clearly visible, and to achieve that effect, I directed my flash onto the fish, set my aperture at a narrower f/9 and the shutter speed to 1/15 second, and then panned the camera to the right as I released the shutter. This created a motion blur effect in the background that suggested speed in the swimming fish.

Also read: How to Slow Sync with a Built-In Flash


Using a slow shutter speed also helps to brighten the background

In underwater photography, your choice of shutter speed can affect how the background colours appear in the actual photo. A fast shutter speed results in a darker background, as in the example below taken at 1/100 seconds. In the example at the top, the shutter speed was a relatively slower 1/15 seconds, which allowed more light to reach the sensor resulting in a final image where the water appeared bright blue.  

You may be interested in: 4 Keys to Capturing Lovely Underwater Photos in Shades of Aquamarine 

Swimming fish shot at 1/100 sec with EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM/ FL: 100mm/ Manual exposure(f/9, 1/100 sec)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto

1/100 second

Using a shutter speed of 1/100 second results in a darker background. A fast shutter speed like this also “freezes” the swimming fish in place, suggesting stillness instead of motion.

For more tips on external flash photography, check out:
In Focus: The Basics of External Flash Photography

Can’t wait to get started? Here are the Top 5 Places in Asia to Shoot Underwater


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EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM


Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Yasuaki Kagii

Born 1971 in Hyogo Prefecture, Kagii is an underwater photographer, and was apprentice to the underwater photographer, Katsutoshi Ito, during his university days. He became a freelance photographer in 1998, and specializes in a photography style that lets him get close to the natural rhythm of living creatures so as not to stress them where possible.
Kagii has been a representative of Clé et Photos since 2013.


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