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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

How to Create Proper Lighting for Your Underwater Shots


Understanding underwater photography means knowing how to work the lights to ensure a beautiful, usable image. We speak with professional underwater photographer William Tan to learn the effective ways of using light in underwater photography and how to achieve the perfect shot.


EOS-1D X Mark II, EF8-15mm f/4 FISHEYE USM lens, f/10, 8mm, 1/320sec, ISO250

What are some of the (flash photography) preparation required before the dive?

Always fire a few shots after you set up the camera to make sure that the strobes (an underwater flash that creates artificial light to illuminate your subject) are functioning properly. Also, check for a visual difference when firing the strobes at their lowest and highest powers to ensure that the electronics are working. Problems are best detected and fixed before the dive.

Further reading: Learn How to Prep Your Camera and Accessories for Your First Dive such as the use of Canon WP-DC55 waterproof case.

Could you share with us some of the basic lighting rules for underwater photography?

For macro photography, use strobes to light up the most interesting parts of the animal or the entire animal. You can also add coloured lights to complement the image without causing distractions. I like my strobes without diffusers for the fish's eyes to appear crystal-clear, while some others may prefer putting on diffusers for a softer, dreamlike feel.

If you are shooting wide angle, use strobes to bring back the colours of the images. Natural light should remain as your main source of light. Use diffusers on strobes to achieve a wider beam.

What are some of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to flash photography underwater

Always check for possible protruding coral structures that may come in between your strobes and subject. Adjust the position of your strobes accordingly so that they shine on your subject instead of the corals.

Predetermine a possible closest shooting distance and set your strobes accordingly. In this way, the strobes will not end up lighting up behind the subjects when you move in.

Do not put a light sensitive animal under the exposure of strong light longer than what they are comfortable with. 

EOS-1D X Mark II, EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens, f/9.0, 100mm, 1/250sec, ISO100
It is best to use a lower strobe power on the sensitive Psychedelic Frogfish (Histiophryne psychedelica)


Interesting… How do we then prevent our flashes from startling these underwater creatures?

Normally, the split second bursts from our strobes do not startle most underwater creatures. However, strong continuous target lights and Light Shaping Device (LSD) do disturb a majority of them. If you find your subjects fleeing, it is perhaps best to turn down the power of these devices, or shut them off completely. 

Thresher sharks are deepwater animals – it is perhaps best not to use any form of strobes or video lights on them; psychedelic frogfish and blue ring octopus are both sensitive to light, so push up your ISO and use a weak setting on your strobes when shooting these animals; tiger sharks can get more excited than normal when they sense those electrical signals from your strobes and continuous lights – you will decide whether it is necessary to turn the lights on during such an encounter.

EOS-1D X Mark II, EF16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens, f/10, 16mm, 1/320sec, ISO200
Obviously, this Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) image was shot without strobes

Aside from controlling the flashes, how do we find the perfect angle for the light?

There is not really a perfect strobe angle that fits all occasions. However, when using a single strobe, try to position it above your camera, pointing about 45-degree downward. Take a test shot, and then adjust the position of the strobe until you get the correctly intended illumination.

When shooting with two strobes at a wide angle, set the strobes at a distance apart on both sides and slightly behind your lens port (no further that your camera body), pointing them forward if the water visibility is good, or turn them slightly outwards if the water visibility is less optimal.

When shooting with two strobes at a macro level, set the strobes on both sides of the lens port, pointing them slightly inwards. This should cover most of the possible angles on your subject. If your subject is further away, then move the strobes further apart. 

Last but not least, do we use different kinds of lighting according to the property of the water?

Light gets weaker as it travels through the water. Depending on the water visibility, strobes normally become “quite useless” when your subject is more than two metres away. When visibility is bad, moving closer to your subject will help cut down backscatters. When visibility is good, you will be surprised by how much detail your strobes, at full power and the correct aperture setting, can bring to your subject even when it is quite far away.


Want to learn more about underwater photography? Check out on the ways to Correct Loss of Colour Underwater or the 5 Crucial Camera Settings to Ensure Sharp Underwater Photos. If you are going for your first underwater adventure, then find out what are the 10 Things to Bring on Your First Dive Trip. If you are looking for your first mirrorless camera for your dive trip, we recommend the Canon EOS M5, a top-of-the-line mirrorless camera that is as powerful as it is lightweight.


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