Photo Pro | Backgrounds

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Anyone can learn how to get a macro subject properly exposed and framed. So what sets a great photographer apart from the rest? He or she also considers what is in the background


You’ve finally spotted that rare goby you have been searching for half your dive trip, and it’s sitting somewhere you can get to it. You slowly inch closer until it fills the frame perfectly, and shoot. To your surprise it stays in place after your strobes fire, and you happily click off some more frames. 

Even though you end the dive with a smile on your face, you find yourself disappointed later on when reviewing your images. What is all that crap doing there? What is it – algae? And that broken piece of coral at the edge – where did that come from? The mottled mixture of colors and shapes makes it hard to even see the goby. What went wrong? Chances are you didn’t really consider the surroundings when you took the shot.


Drill your skills

Learning how the different camera settings will affect your images is important, and so is having the necessary diving skills to successfully shoot subjects that aren’t sitting right in front of you waiting to have their portraits taken. But these abilities are just the basics when you strive for perfection in your underwater images. 

With experience you will learn how to master more advanced skills like framing and composing, using light creatively, finding the most suitable angle and even being able to make a critter look straight in the camera. But this is not all you need to know! When you learn how to use the background to your advantage you will take a giant leap in the right direction.

This skill is often neglected even by those with experience, and most budding underwater photographers haven’t even gotten around to thinking about it. A few simple techniques are all it takes to improve your images.


Don’t play with fruit salad

Let’s go back to our goby example: it looked like it was trapped in a bowl of fruit salad. Obviously, the background didn’t make the goby stand out, and the clutter around it was distracting and made everything look random and untidy. How can you avoid this? The answer is simple – change your angle or find another goby. 

One of the things experience will teach you is that it does not pay to spend your time shooting even the most beautiful subject when the background doesn’t play along. You’re better off looking for other opportunities – and if you search carefully you’ll find something that will improve your shot rather than ruin it. So where does this leave us? The answer is in the background.


1 It may look like conception under a microscope, but it is actually a close-up of a water lily. Framing the image to leave out anything but the leaf creates a stunning effect. Nikon D300s, 60 mm, 1/80 sec, f/5, ISO 200

2 Subjects and backgrounds of similar colour creates nice tone-in-tone effects – contrast isn't always needed to make something stand out. The difference in texture makes this nudibranch visible against the bryozoan background. Nikon D300s, 105mm+1.4 TC, 1/100 sec, f/22. ISO 200

Anemones often profive both beautiful colors and patterns to use as a background. The hard part is framing it right - and getting the fish to stay in place.. Nikon D300s, 105 mm, 1/100, f/16, ISO 200.


Eyes peeled for something uniform

Instead of spending your time solely looking for cool critters to shoot you should also keep an eye out for interesting backgrounds. This may be a colorful sponge or a coral pattern – but even sand, rocks or kelp will do. 

The idea is to find something that looks uniform. This may be a color, a pattern or a texture, either way it will provide a nice, calm and tidy backdrop for your macro subject. Karl Pilkington, from the TV series An Idiot Abroad, once said ‘if you leave something somewhere, something will sit on it’. And he’s right! Once you have found a suitable background, all you have to do is wait for something to show up.

Of course you won’t find something to shoot every time, but surprisingly often there is a little goby buzzing around, or a cool crustacean looking for a good spot to keep a lookout. A nudibranch may be slowly working its way towards a nice spot, or you may even discover a well-camouflaged frogfish when examining the scene carefully. Keep your eyes open and the opportunities will present themselves.

Almost anything can be used as a beautiful background as long as it looks intentional and helps in the composition of the image – even untidy algae or anemone tentacles. The trick here is to make it fill all the background to create a uniform impression.

With careful planning and well thought through camera settings, framing and angle you will discover that you have many more opportunities than you used to.


Framing, angle, DOF and bokeh

There are several tricks you can easily utilise when you spot something interesting on a nice background - depending on what kind of image you want. The most important thing to remember when working with uniform backgrounds is that it has to be truly uniform. Half a rock at the edge of the picture just won’t do – and sand or debris will just clutter the image. 

As you use your viewfinder to position the subject in the frame you also need to pay close attention to the edges of the image, how a pattern flows across the background and even the angle at which you shoot.

Shooting top-down you will get the background in focus throughout the image, which can really bring out a striking colour or pattern and help create a unique image. Many photographers tell you to avoid these 'helicopter shots' because they rarely turn out well and often look cluttered. With a carefully selected background you can avoid this, and thus break the rules in a way that is obviously intentional – something which is often applauded.

Choosing a lower angle will make a blur out of the back and possibly also the front of the image, depending on the distance and focal length. A high F-stop will give you better depth of field (DOF), and may also provide better eye-contact with the subject. It can even help camouflage a non-perfect background by masking clutter in the out-of-focus parts of the image. 

When you shoot top-down you generally want to use a high F-stop to get as much DOF as possible and get both the subject and the background in focus. A low angle gives you the opportunity to play with DOF and Bokeh – the term that describes how a background blurs out at the back of the image. I often shoot top down to get a clear, striking background without any blurring, but this is a matter of taste. Ideally, you should do both – on the same subject. 

Also remember that backgrounds of similar colour to the subject will create nice tone-in-tone images, while a contrasting colour might give a more striking effect. Both are equally valid approaches, although with completely different outcomes.


1 A starfish can be both subject and background in itself. Look for unusual patterns and use them to compose a clean image like this one. Nikon D200, 60 mm, 1/80, f/29, ISO 100.

2 The little two-spotted clingfish is often found inside empty seashells, which match the pink color of the fish perfectly. Careful framing produces a uniform and uncluttered background without any distracting elements. Nikon D300s, 105 mm + 1.4 TC, 1/250 sec, f/51, ISO 200.

3 Close-ups are almost cheating when it comes to backgrounds. Here, the eye plays the role of subject while the colorful patterns play along and make a nice 'background'.Nikon D300s, 105 mm, 1/125, f/25, ISO 200.


Sticks and bellows 

Some underwater photographers use a small bellow to blow away sand and dirt from a background (or even a subject in some cases); in the same way you use it to remove dust from your camera equipment. It works just as well with water, but it is a matter of how much manipulation you’re comfortable with. 

A reef stick can also be a great tool to help keep algae or other stuff temporarily away from the spot you have selected, and used with care this is much better than using your hands - especially when gloved.  

As always, concern for the environment should come first – good underwater photographers don’t harass wildlife or destroy their habitats in order to get a shot. You’ll come a long way with a little patience and learning how to read your subjects.


Use the water or other animals as background

When you’re not able to find any interesting backgrounds, or it simply doesn’t have anything exciting sitting on it, look for other opportunities. Anything sticking up from the bottom could have an interesting critter on it and will allow you to use the water as a uniform background. 

I always check out whip corals if they’re present, because they very often have gobies, shrimp and other crustaceans living on them – often very well camouflaged. Shooting these subjects can sometimes be quite easy and you get clutter-free images with striking subject matter.

Another interesting place to look for small critters is on top of or in between the arms of echinoderms – starfish, sea cucumbers, feather stars and even sea urchins. They often have little shrimp, squat lobsters or crabs living on them and the intricate patterns make a stunning backdrop once you get your framing right. 

Sometimes you don’t even need a subject. It’s entirely possible to create some striking images just using the details, patterns and colours of, for instance, a starfish itself – if you let the background be the subject as well as the other way around!


1 The great colour and texture of a leather coral makes a beautiful contrast to the little hermit crab. Nikon D70s, 105 mm, 1/80, f/29, ISO 100.

2 Have a close look at echinoderms, as they often have little crustaceans living on them. The beautiful patterns make it easy to compose an image with a spectacular background. Nikon D70s, 60 mm, 1/60, f/22, ISO 100.

3 Try shooting with a lower F-stop when using the water as background. This will produce a nice blue (or green) backdrop. A high ISO will also help in bringing out the color. Nikon D200, 105 mm, 1/100, f/16, ISO 250.


Blue, green and black

When you’re shooting with water as a background, you have the opportunity to play even more with the camera settings. If you use a slow shutter speed and a low F-stop, you can produce images with stunning blue (or green, depending on your whereabouts) backgrounds. 

You should however be careful when doing this, because if you push the F-stop too much you might get problems with chromatic aberration. This is a distortion where the colours along the edges are ‘fringed’ and out of sync, caused by light of different wavelengths  being focused at different distances.

Shooting on faster shutter speeds and higher F-stops will produce a darker background, because less ambient light is being let in through the lens. It also gives you much better DOF, making it easier to use different angles without blurring out too much of either subject or background. These settings will easily let you produce silky-smooth, black backgrounds which make the subject matter stand out in a spectacular way.


Know your site, ask the right questions

When on a dive trip abroad, you often get to visit new sites every day. While this is exciting in itself it is not really helpful for shooting great images. Good knowledge of the dive site and where to find particular spots of interest is very important. It’s helpful to read up on what environment to expect, checking out videos on YouTube and looking at what other photographers have done in the area. Becoming best friends with the dive guides and asking them the right questions is also very important. It may not have anything to do with photography, but it is instrumental for getting the most out of your dive. 

At your favorite dive site back home it is easy to identify good spots and check them regularly – when away you need to work faster and take advantage of the opportunities you get. In this sense, it is also part of the background you need for producing great shots. 

See more of Christian's photos at




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