There’s a good reason the majority of underwater photographers shoot macro on night dives: The critters are out hunting, and your settings don’t vary much from daytime photography. Wide-angle photography at night is, of course, very different. For starters, you don’t have the clear-blue background to shoot against or a sunburst to place in the corner of your images, and you can see only the reef where the beam of your dive light hits.
You need a very good reason for putting the wide-angle lens on your camera for a night dive, and the reason is usually a large creature like a ray or a shark. There are some great dives around the world that feature these types of encounters, like feeding whitetip sharks in Cocos.
So how do we capture this behavior at night? It’s easy:
1. Plan. Question the local staff to ensure that you have a good idea of what you will be shooting (and how to shoot it).
2. Check your camera settings before jumping in — shining your light on the back of your strobe to check your settings will be awkward if your light is attached to the housing!
3. Use whatever light is accessible, whether it’s the moon, a dive boat’s floodlight or even your buddy’s dive light. And lighting models on a night dive can be difficult unless they are extremely close, so try some alternative lighting techniques, like having another diver positioned behind the model holding a strobe set on slave — this will backlight the model and make him or her stand out.
Beginner tip: Know your dive site. It’s always good to dive on the proposed site during the day so you can get familiar with the topography, but better still to know what subjects you will be encountering later that night. It’s not always possible to make a day and night dive on the same site, but it is better.
Intermediate tip: Lock in the focus. Shooting large creatures at night can be difficult due to focusing issues brought about by little to no light. Using a focus light can be OK when the subject is motionless, but when fish are moving, it’s better to lock the focus off at the proposed distance you plan to shoot from.
Advanced tip: Use artificial lights. When shooting under a live-aboard or jetty, there is often artificial lighting, which gives an interesting color cast. Use a slow shutter speed to capture it, then follow the animal after you press the shutter and set your camera on rear-curtain sync to ensure the last position is sharp.
Sunset Happy (Photo) Hour -- Planning a Twilight Photo Dive
Start before sunset. Plan your night dive so that you enter the water 30 minutes before the sun drops over the horizon. It’s a great way of becoming familiar with the reef before it gets completely dark.
Use the sun as it drops. For about 20 minutes, you get amazing rays as the sun is setting, plus the water is usually very calm this time of day.
Just before dark. Once the sun hits the horizon, the light is reflected in the sky and you can get some unusual colors, but this lasts for only about five minutes. After the sun has dropped over the horizon and the reflection has disappeared, everything turns pitch black, and you are truly starting your night dive.
Three Night-Diving Video Tips (Be sure to check out the video above!)
1) Use lights that are powerful enough for your underwater housing lens and camera system.
2) Keep the lights spaced apart from the lens to reduce backscatter caused by sediment in the water or zooplankton attracted to the lights.
3) Try out different-color filters such as blue for your lights and orange for your housing port to film ultraviolet bioluminescence of corals.
Our Photo Expert: Jason Isley is co-founder and managing director of Scubazoo, an underwater cinematography and photography company. As one of Scubazoo’s senior cameramen, Isley has filmed two U.K. Survivor series, the Disney IMAX production Sacred Planet and numerous other projects. To view more of his work, visit scubazoo.com.