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White backgrounds can transform underwater images



Underwater, background can make the difference between a good and an excellent photograph. 

Generally, the background to an image of reef fish or critters sitting on top of something is, in many cases, fairly un-photogenic and tends to look like the bottom of a rubbish bin. 

To avoid that, most photographers try to shoot very close to the ground to get some blue water in the background. But when you need to work with high-aperture numbers in macro mode, the background is completely black. This can become quite boring. One technique, to introduce some variety, is to lower the f-stops to get more background light – which makes the water blue. But then you end up with a black, blue or sometimes green background. 

 

Wouldn’t it be great to get other colours as well? That’s what National Geographic photographer David Doubilet probably thought before he published his photo series about nudibranchs on white backgrounds. His pictures looked as if they had been taken in a studio and not underwater. In fact, he did have a small studio set up underwater and used different plates and several strobes to get a bright white. The results looked fantastic. 

But could this technique be achieved with other subjects? A lionfish would look great on a white background. You would never get the same result if you used photo retouching software because of the transparent fins and filigree details.

White plastic boards are readily available in hardware stores, where you can get a variety of sizes. Flexible is good, transparent should be avoided. As you can imagine, the bigger the plate, the harder it is to swim with (so give it to your buddy/assistant – you’re carrying the camera). Both photographer and buddy should approach the subject very slowly so that the photographer can concentrate on getting the subject right in the frame and the buddy can find the best position for the camera–subject–background axis. First results will be pretty poor. The subject needs to be lit as it usually would be, but the background also needs to have some light. This can be achieved with a long strobe arm or a slave strobe, which is held by the buddy and pointed onto the plate. Sounds pretty difficult? It is! Good teamwork is the crucial factor here. 

 

We found lionfish worked pretty well during a night dive. Remember to bring as many lights as possible – the lionfish will be attracted to the lights to hunt. 

But most animals are really skittish when the white plate comes close. This is when it comes down to patience. With some subjects, you can easily spend your whole dive on them until they start to feel comfortable with the background. We found anemonefish particularly didn’t like posing in front of a board. It’s a good idea to put the board on a small tripod and place it somewhere in the reef so that the fish get used to it. For some macro shots, a long strobe arm with a small plate attached to it works well. Part of the subject being transparent makes the most of this technique. Lionfish, squid or filigree structures worked best. Even if some photos need to be retouched on the computer, the results, I hope you agree, are stunning.

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