Duxy’s Underwater Photography Blog: Available Light, Part 3


Well we are now hopefully aware that to take good available light shots, we need to get close to our subjects, and if they are larger than a typical fish ID pic then we probably need to think about using a wider than normal lens, as explained in the first part of our series here.

And then we need to address the issue of getting blue pictures when what we would like is bright colourful pictures showing the whole range of the spectrum, and this we looked at in part two.

What happens when things don’t work out?

And more importantly, how do we learn to figure what makes a good situation for using available light, or when we still want to shoot with available light but our colours aren’t as good as we would like, despite our best efforts at white balancing?

In an ideal world, all of our available light shots would be taken around half ten in the morning, with the sun behind us, camera pointing very slightly downwards, in about 8 metres of water.

This is an unrealistic expectation though. And of course we can’t possibly guarantee this. It’s helpful to know that Custom White Balance doesn’t always produce the goods.

Folk often get flushed with the success of their early attempts at Custom White Balance, but after the honeymoon period has worn off, they can often become jaded with their results as time passes.

This is for a number of reasons I have found.

First and foremost they have unrealistic expectations of what custom white balance is capable of doing. And this coincides with them becoming more critical underwater photographers as they gain more experience.

To solve the first problem they need to draw on their new found skills and adapt how they shoot available light.

A very common problem is shooting towards the light rather than away from it, and this tends to cause over exposure with an automatic camera, as it tries to expose for the subject occupying the majority of the frame. This then results in the background – either the sand or the surface – taking on a horrible magenta or pink hue.

This is because the colour correction that the custom white balance is introducing is only accurate for the correctly exposed foreground. The background goes like this, as both a combination of overexposure, and also that the surface is shallower requiring less aggressive colour correction. There’s nothing wrong with your camera; it’s just physics working against you.

When it all goes horribly wrong!

If you overly rely on Custom White Balance to sort out your colour problems, you will inevitably end up with shots like this one above. Poor exposure balance and the overexposed background with the sun shining towards you will be marred with a horrible colour cast. This is not a fault of your camera. The camera is only trying to do what you are asking, but it’s the circumstances that are less than ideal.

So, how do you manage this? Well first try where possible to compose and shoot with the sun behind you. And try and shoot slightly downwards using this technique too.

There’s nothing wrong with shooting into the sun – in fact it’s great for silhouettes and dramatic sunbeam pictures that are strobe lit, just not for available light. You just have to teach yourself when it is and isn’t going to work.


If you are shooting into the sun, then silhouettes are a good example where you have to be very careful when custom white balancing. This shot of a lionfish was taken on a point and shoot Canon camera nearly 8 years ago. I locked my exposure using a half press of the shutter release, whilst pointing at the brightest area, and based my white balance reading not on my hand or the subject, but on the surface water itself. Helping prevent those awful white balance issues shown above.

Another problem with Custom White Balance is that we forget to change it when we change depth, and this becomes more apparent in the shallows, nearer the surface; and our shot is spoiled by the amount of correction applied say at 10m being much too much when we ascend to 5m. So you must remember to get familiar with the procedure and take new readings as you change depth.

Depth Perception

Depth Perception is a common fault when using Custom White Balance, as is forgetting to regularly change your White Balance settings as you change depth. If I didn’t have to already tell you, the shot on the top (above) is the result of taking a picture without white balancing after shooting previously at a greater depth. The shot at the bottom is the same view, but correctly white balanced.

To solve the second most common issue with available light shooting, we also need to draw on our prior experiences.

As we become more capable photographers, starting to get lovely colourful pictures in bright conditions, we need to understand that the camera will lull us into a false sense of security, and the success we see at the shallower depths, i.e. from the surface to around 12m, isn’t as well replicated as we get deeper.

This is because although custom white balance, at least with some camera brands (particularly the Canons) seems to do a remarkable job at ridding us of the blues, it really can’t work magic; and as we get deeper, the colour and amount of light diminishes.

So along with the colours not being as great, what can happen when we go deeper, especially if we are using a fully automatic camera, is that we start to see blur – and camera shake appears.

Who turned out the lights?

Why? Well our eyes and brains are very good at adapting to the steadily diminishing light, and even though it may only look a little darker to us when we go from 10 to 20m, the camera is starting to struggle as the light is much less than we are experiencing.

The trick is to keep an eye on what the camera is telling you; even the most automatic cameras will show you what shutter speed that they are picking, and more importantly, if you are straying into the danger zone, i.e. the shutter speed is too slow to easily hand hold the camera, or that there may be a risk of camera shake or subject movement.
Usually this is a red warning light or a symbol of a shaky hand, or the data or the shutter speed will be highlighted in a warning red colour.

Check in close detail

When we look at the small image on the back of our camera’s screen, at first glance (top pic) everything may seem OK at this small size. However it’s worth zooming into your shot to see if it’s spoilt by camera shake as it clearly is above (bottom pic).  Sometimes things may seem bright to us, but they really aren’t as you can see if you zoom into the same shot and see the telltale blurring of camera shake. So don’t assume everything is fine until you look closer.

This can be helped by increasing the ISO settings on our cameras which will force the camera to pick faster shutter speeds and also help reduce the blur in our subjects.

There is a side effect to increasing the ISO though and that’s more grainy or noisy pictures, which looks like this:

Shooting in lower light

Same scene as before, but this time to rid myself of the camera shake I’ve chosen a very high ISO to force the camera into picking a faster shutter speed, thus eliminating the camera shake. Unfortunately though we’ve introduced another problem. And that’s digital noise, which is exacerbated by high ISO’s and low light, and renders the picture virtually unusable as you can see from the enlarged section in the bottom half above.

OK, to be fair I’ve used extremes at either end of the range here to highlight the issues, but once you learn exactly how much, and no more, to raise the ISO’s to give you workable shutter speeds in lots of different scenarios, you are halfway to being able to really get to grips and control your camera in a wide variety of circumstances when available light is your choice (or sometimes only option).

To summarise, try and take your available light Custom white Balanced shots in good light and preferably with the sun behind you. And also be aware that although the camera will let you shoot at lower light levels, the results when you get them back on your computer may be spoilt by camera shake and subject movement, so increase the ISO or take your shot shallower if possible.

So in part 4, I will be looking at other ways to colour correct your pictures, and options you may have but not realise, along with examples of what to do when you can’t colour correct things properly.

Scuba Travel new logoDuxy is the in house photo-pro for UK-based dive tour operator Scuba Travel. To find out about availability on Scuba Travel’s underwater photography workshops hosted by Duxy click here.



Duxy has worked for nearly 20yrs in the dive industry, starting at the pointy end of dive tourism in Sharm as a guide and videographer, transitioning into a fixture back home in the U.K. helping and advising on all things underwater photographic, and as a popular speaker at shows and dive clubs delivering talks. He now works as the in house photo-pro for ScubaTravel and has conducted nearly 40 overseas workshops for them, helping all flavours of underwater photographer with everything from GoPro's to DSLR's to improve their shots. He speaks fluent Geek but his motto is that what really counts at the end of the day is 'pictures not pixels'.

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