That there are unique photo opportunities underwater is not news to divers and underwater photographers – most of the unique shapes and forms we find down there are simply not possible on land. How to best portray these subjects is of course always a matter of taste and is constantly debated, but there’s little doubt that they stand out in a completely different way when the background is black as night – without any clutter. Not only are the images clean and stylistic, you also get to see the animals in a new light.

Here are five tips to help you create a “black as night” background:

Use the water

Achieving a black background in your images is relatively easy. There are a few simple camera settings to keep in mind, but most of all it’s about finding the right opportunities: You need to find subjects with an empty backdrop, either free-swimming or sitting on something that raises them off the bottom, like a kelp stalk, a piece of coral, sponge or even a rock. When you have found something that’s sitting right, all you need to do is angle your camera correctly so that nothing else is in the image but your subject. The background will turn black almost by itself – and you don’t have to be a wizard to get the settings right!

I often shoot from below to avoid having anything but my subject in the frame. You can shoot sideways too, but it will only work if there’s nothing in the background. The secret is very simple: There is no background! That is to say, there’s just water. Even in broad daylight, blue or green water will show up black or near-black if you use the correct settings. It’s all about letting as little light into the camera as possible, and letting your strobes illuminate the subject. If the background doesn’t turn black, but blue or green, you just have to turn a couple of knobs to correct it and get the result you want.

Free-swimming macro subjects may be extremely hard to find through the viewfinder. Settings 1: f/13.0, 1/80s, ISO 100 Settings 2: f/9.0, 1/100s, ISO 100

Free-swimming macro subjects may be extremely hard to find through the viewfinder. Settings (top): f/13.0, 1/80s, ISO 100. Settings (bottom): f/9.0, 1/100s, ISO 100

Stick to the basic settings

For a black background, you only need to use the two most basic settings on your camera – the aperture and the shutter speed. When you crank the f-stop higher, the aperture or opening in the lens gets smaller and you limit the amount of light hitting the sensor. A high f-stop also provides you with better depth of field, which is often an advantage when shooting those really tiny subjects up close.

The shutter speed should also be as high as possible to further reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor. A fast shutter speed also freezes the image, which is a good thing when you’re shooting free-swimming animals – not only do they move, but it’s hard to have a steady hand. I happily go to 1/250s (the maximum speed at which my strobes will sync) if I can – otherwise it’s a game of trial and error until you get it right. Remember not to use high ISO when you’re going for black backgrounds. The increased light sensitivity will often turn the background dark grey and grainy instead of black – and when you’re doing macro there’s usually no need for it anyway.

Do a night dive!

Achieving black backgrounds is, for obvious reasons, very easy at night. There is no ambient light influencing what the camera sensor captures, regardless of what settings you use. This gives you a much better opportunity to experiment with depth of field and other settings. Make sure you have a good focus light with a broad, even beam to properly illuminate your subjects. Otherwise your camera might find it very difficult to focus properly. If the beam is too narrow, you’ll constantly have to readjust the torch, which takes focus (pardon the pun!) away from photographing.

Night dives provide opportunities to shoot different species, since many animals are active at night. Squid and octopus, for instance, are, in most places, a rare sight during the day, but perhaps quite common at night on the same dive site. Sometimes little arrow worms or crustaceans such as krill can make photographing at night very difficult. They are attracted by your light, and may swarm in front of your lens in such numbers that it’s almost impossible to get a clean shot. Try to use as little light as possible, and move to another subject if it gets too bad – you can always move back later. You may be able to reduce this problem by using a red focus light. Many marine animals cannot see this part of the spectrum very well, and will therefore be less curious about what you’re up to.

The diver is a perfect silhouette, while the coral reef turns black as night, simply by turning off both of my strobes.

The diver is a perfect silhouette, while the coral reef turns black as night, simply by turning off both of my strobes. Settings: f/6.3, 1/200s, ISO 100

Use Photoshop

Even though the background looks perfectly black on your camera display, you’ll find that it’s not perfect when you look at it on a computer screen. It doesn’t have to be 100-percent black, but if you want to remove that greyish tint, Photoshop has a very nice feature to let you do just that in the blink of an eye (find out the simple steps to create a black background with Photoshop in Scuba Diver Through The Lens, Issue 4/2014). Even though Photoshop, Lightroom and other image-processing software can be of great help, it’s important to try to get things right before you press the shutter release, not afterwards.

Sometimes it is still necessary to post-process your images to achieve a desired result. The images in this article are a good example. For these black backgrounds it’s imperative that the black is exactly the same in all the images. This would be impossible without Photoshop, because what your camera perceives as black is slightly different every time you shoot an image. Consequently, the backgrounds might have to be adjusted to match each other for a uniform result.

Removing backscatter

Photoshop or similar software may also be necessary to remove backscatter – plankton and other unwanted particles in the water that have been lit by your strobes. Sometimes backscatter can create a nice effect, but most of the time we don’t want it in our images. It’s often a good idea not to remove all the backscatter from your images: If you leave a few particles behind, your image looks more authentic and there’s a greater chance people will think, “Wow, what a great image!”, instead of, “Wow… that was heavily edited.”

With a little practice you’ll also soon learn how to place your strobes to avoid backscatter, which is of course the right and more “honourable” approach. It definitely helps being a smart and capable diver, too. Try to shoot against the current if possible. Any silt you might stir up will then disappear behind you, instead of ruining image number two and three. That’s pretty much all there is to it – now go out and find some cool critters and try to shoot them with a black background!

This article featured in Scuba Diver Through The Lens (Issue 4/2014).