Underwater photography with a video torch

Underwater photography with a video torch is, in my opinion, one of the most rewarding learning experience I’ve ever had. Using a video torch for your pictures quickly improves the quality of your images and teaches you a great deal about light and picture composition. There are of course also some drawbacks, but the advantages surpass them by far.

This picture was not even shot with a video torch, but a plain normal diving torch. It produced this nice stage spot feeling around the Spearing Mantis Shrimp

Friendly warning.
Dear reader, please make sure to read my article on applied basics of underwater photography before to continue. It will help you understand many aspects of this article.

Bringing back colour

By far and wide the biggest advantage and actual purpose of using an underwater video light is one thing, colour. Compared to pictures taken with a compact camera and its internal flash, using an underwater video lamp increases your possible maximum distance to the subject by at least half a metre (bringing it to an absolute max of around 1m), without loosing colour. This might not sound like a lot, but it makes a huge difference.
Suddenly you can take pictures of much larger animals, such as corals, sponges and possibly even larger fish (that one is tricky though).

Bottom line, adding a video lamp to your underwater photography setup will massively increase your possibilities and the quality of your pictures. A video light will simply enable you to do things you couldn’t do before.

Which video lamp should I choose

Well, quite honestly, this is a though decision and it won’t come cheap.
Nevertheless, I can provide some general hints on the direction in which you should be looking. A rough guideline, if you want to.
First and foremost, make sure you buy a video light/lamp. Also normal dive torches can be used for underwater photography, but that is yet a completely different topic and will be dealt with elsewhere. Generally speaking, normal dive torches are almost entirely useless for underwater photography for one simple reason. Normal dive torches feature a bright spot in the middle of their beam that is much brighter than the surrounding halo. This makes perfectly sense for everyday diving where your eyes are following this spot, but becomes a serious problem for photography. Pictures taken with a torch feature an overexposed bright spot somewhere in the middle and an underexposed area around it. Hence, the photos usually look crap.
Video lamps on the other hand feature a smooth beam with a brighter centre that becomes gradually fainter towards the rim. Perfect for our purposes.

Secondly, and another important point, is the power of your lamp. The brightness/power of underwater video lamps is measured in lumen. One lumen is the equivalent of … LOOK UP! Generally, I’d advise you to not buy a lamp below 2000 lumen. There are some models and brands out there that produce great beams with less power, but usually one can rely on the assumption: stronger is better.

Thirdly, the colour, so called temperature, which your lamp produces, is very important for the look, feel and atmosphere of your pictures and/or video footage. This temperature is described in Kelvin and should be around 5000K. 5000 Kelvin is the temperature of the sunlight as it hits the ground outside of the water during a normal sunny day, hence the “natural” colour that we are used to. Anything above that feels warmer, more yellowish, and everything below colder, or bluish.
Unfortunately, most of the cheaper models out there have LEDs that produce light around 5500K, which is quite a bit warmer than what we’re looking for. If your planning to correct your shots in photoshop later on, this is just a minor issue. If however, you’re also planning on using your lamp for video, this will substantially increase your post production work load by a colour correction step. Therefore, it is much easier to invest directly in the right type of lamp.
Unless of course, you manually adjust your white balance, before you start shooting. …which, in fact, is what every professional does anyway.

This colaration is really rare. The guide who showed them to me was screaming underwater, when he spotted them. Great find that meade me really happy

Pros and cons

But let’s look into the details. As already mentioned earlier, returning the colour back into your pictures is by far the biggest advantage. Yet another huge advantage, is the possibility to avoid this highly annoying backscatter that tends to ruin your shots oh so very often.

Avoiding backscatter with an underwater video light
To rule out, or at least substantially reduce backscatter, we need a light source on the side of our subject. Illumination from the side, reduces the number of visible suspended particles between the camera and your subject, especially in comparison with the internal flash of a compact camera.
Of course the particles are still there, but since no light touches them, they become somewhat invisible and hence are no issue.

I strongly advise every beginner in this technique to use your hands to hold the camera and the torch instead of arms that firmly keep your light close to the camera. Arms too have their justification, especially for macro and fish photography, but the creative freedom and speed of your hand is simply unbeatable. Moreover, your hand is in pretty much the perfect distance to the object with regard to the strength of your video torch.
Yet again, being able to quickly change the illumination of your subject to your liking has tremendous advantages. First and foremost it teaches you a lot about composition, mood and atmosphere that you can create by simply changing the angle and/or position of your torch. The effects are truly astonishing.

You might like to simply try the difference between illuminating your subject from the front, directly above and the side. It will yield three pictures with entirely different atmospheres.
You might also like to experiment with the distance between torch and subject. This becomes especially interesting, if you try to avoid a disturbing background, or if you want to create a very monotonous background. In the latter case, you simply hold the torch as close to the subject as possible, which makes it very bright. If you now focus on the brightly lit subject, your camera, whence in automatic or aperture mode (usually P and A), will adjust its shutter speed and aperture, and thus black out the background. If you want to position your subject off centre, which you should, make use of the prefocussing technique I described in the previous article. The same technique also works wonders with sunsets, by the way. Try it!

Photographed by Liko, in Malapascua, Philippines. Camera: Sony RX100 Mark I, 20mm, f8, ISO200

An especially interesting position of your torch is above and somewhat behind the subject, slightly towards the camera. The position is very effective, if you want to highlight transparency, or transparent body parts of your subject. I used this position for the picture of the Porcelain Crab in order to make the fine filtration hairs visible against the black background. It worked beautifully.

Obviously, the last big advantage of a video torch is its original purpose to illuminate your videos.
When your previous videos have all been blue and green, they will now shine in their original colours. However, this must be regarded with caution, as only the strongest torches will yield acceptable results outside of the macro range.
Professional underwater videographers use very strong and usually more than a single torch. Yet underwater videography, is an entirely different topic and beyond the scope of this article.

No set of advantages comes without drawbacks. The most daunting one in this context, is the loss of the element of surprise that comes with a flash, especially a small, build-in version. Most animals underwater don’t exactly fancy a large, super bright source of light that keeps on drawing nearer on them. It frightens and scares them, which consequently leads to their retreat. This can be quite frustrating.
One way of dealing with this situation is observation. Check for repetitive behavior in the fish you like to shot. Be patient.
Another way is to approach your subject first, gently and calm, and to very slowly illuminate it when you are already in position. X-mas tree worms are a great object to practice this.

Photographed by Liko, in Baa Atoll, Maldives. Camera: Sony RX100 Mark I

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