How to create great underwater pictures without a strobe

Romina Bayer

“I don’t have a strobe! How can I still create good underwater pictures?”


This question reaches me on a regular basis. And, normally, you don’t have all the gear when you are just getting started with underwater photography.


Maybe you just have an underwater camera, or you are still looking at getting one.


Let’s face it: underwater photography is an expensive hobby!

But that should not stop you from getting into it and sharing your love for the oceans through your pictures.


So, no strobe, what can you do?

Let’s have a look at the options:

  1. Use natural light.
  2. Use a dive torch
  3. The integrated flash of your camera
  4. Save up and get a strobe 


1. Using Natural Light

As you might have noticed on your dives, it gets dark pretty quickly. The deeper you go, the less light there is.

What this means for you as a photographer, is that you only have a very limited amount of light available underwater.

If you are only shooting with natural light, there are a few things to consider:


Stay shallow

First of all, you will have to stay shallow. The deeper you go, the less light there is. And your camera needs light to take the picture. The deeper you go, the less color there is, too. Red is the first color to disappear (that’s why you often put the “red filter” on GoPros if you film underwater), and you start noticing the loss of color in only a few meters/feet of water! No color, no colorful images of the fish and coral.  


Plan your shots

One (very obvious) thing that influences how much light you have underwater is the time of the day. When the sun is higher, you have a higher chance of that sunlight getting through. But there are other factors as well: surface conditions, weather, but also the time of the year and your location on the globe. If you only have natural light to work with for your photos, you will have to plan your shots very well: and that starts with picking the right day and time to go diving. 


Your position

When photographing with natural light only, your position relative to the sun, but also your subject can make all the difference! So, always check where the sun is, where the light is coming from. And then position yourself accordingly to take your pictures. 

Shotting with natural light underwater can be very challenging. It can also be very fun, and will surely teach you a lot about how to read light and use it in your pictures. 

One thing you won’t get with natural light though, is those hyper colorful and crisp sharp images. If you are aware of this and okay with it, you have a whole new world to explore. 🙂

Next option:


2. Use a dive torch

So you might not have a strobe yet, and shooting with natural light can work out fine for you sometimes. But sometimes, you might want to go a little deeper. Or it might be a very cloudy day with rough surface conditions when barely any light is coming through. In those moments, it will help to have some light to illuminate your subject.

Dive Torches (or video lights) are good options, when you don’t have a strobe yet, but want to bring back some colors in your photographs. They are usually much cheaper than strobes, and any diving center should have some for rent if you don’t have your own.

There are many ways you can attach them to your camera housing or tray, which will help you use your hands for your camera (instead of holding your torch in one hand and the camera in the other).

If you are photographing a very wide scene, you will probably not be able to light up the whole scene with your torch. For smaller subjects and macro photography, they can do a good job, though.


Now what about…




Use a dive torch if you don't have a strobe for underwater pictures



3. Using the integrated flash of your camera


Tricky thing. Often your camera will come with an integrated flash, and depending on the housing you are using, you might be able to use it underwater or not. 


“If my camera has a flash, why do I need a strobe? Can’t I just use the flash?”


The problem with the integrated flash is that it is fixed on your camera. 


“Great! So I don’t even have to move it around!”, you might think.


The flash is directly over your lens, and while it might be working fine for some macro shots, when you are very close to your subject, you will start running into a problem as soon as you attempt to take a wider shot, where your subject is a little bit further away from your lens.


Because the flash is so close to the lens of your camera, it is lighting up all the water column with all the particles between your lens and your subject. And this is exactly what is creating backscatter. 


Now, we always want to be close to our subject in underwater photography. But sometimes it is simply not possible to get in closer to our subject.


4. Save up and get a strobe (why not buy second-hand?)


All the three options we have just explored are a great way to get started. But in the long run, if you are serious about advancing your underwater photography, strobes will greatly benefit you. They give you much more flexibility in your subjects, make you less dependent on natural light and weather conditions, and will help you create sharp and colorful images of all the fish, corals, and creatures you find on your dives.


Start saving up for a strobe (one is better than none), and why not buy second hand? They are usually still in great condition, even after a couple of years, and the price for a second-hand strobe will be considerably lower than buying a brand new one.


Bottom line: what should you do to take great pictures underwater, but you don’t have a strobe?

Don’t let it stop you from taking pictures. Play around with the three different options, see which one works best for you, and save up for a strobe ;).  

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