Night dives are a fascinating but often intimidating form of diving for new divers. Add the complication of underwater photography and it becomes even more of a challenge. But underwater night photography can be very rewarding and the results can often be spectacular.
Night dives can provide you with opportunities to observe marine life behaving very differently than they do during the day. Some creatures that hide and sleep during the day are quite nocturnal, so the range of marine life that you might see at night can be very different from that which can be seen in the daytime.
For example, grouper hunt at night and are much less active during the day. You may find at night they have even learned to follow the lights of divers to help them hunt, which will give you a much closer and more engaging encounter with them. Creatures such as squid, which are quite shy and frustratingly difficult to photograph in bright daylight, are often attracted to your lights at night and you can get very interesting close-up images of them.
Here are a few tips and tricks that can help you create better underwater photos at night, and add a whole new perspective to your photo collection.
Firstly, be extra careful of your buoyancy at night. It is much more difficult to control than during the day as you will have no visual reference in the dark, and your lights tend to increase the “tunnel vision” effect of shooting with a camera in your hands. I usually don’t recommend people to use a pointer stick, as it is very easy for it to be misused, damaging coral and harassing marine life, and I am sure we would all love to shove that tank banger up some enthusiastic photographer’s orifices from time to time. However, it can be useful to stabilise yourself if you are careful to place it only in the sand or on a rock with no coral, and PLEASE don’t poke anything or rearrange any marine life.
Please also be careful not to shine your lights in other divers eyes or in the eyes of turtles or sleeping fish, who will no doubt be quite grumpy at being so rudely awakened, and it is cruel to watch blinded fish bumping into the reef! You can use the soft edge of your lights to illuminate coral or delicate anemones, the harsh central beam may even burn the coral, so please be careful and respectful of the reef.
The best subjects for photography at night are usually macro critters, partly because it is not possible to light up the entire reef at night, and partly because it is often these strange and wonderful animals that make the night time hours their own. This makes equipment selection more straightforward. You should be shooting with a macro lens, or with a compact camera on macro settings. You should already have a good idea about different strobe positioning techniques, which can easily light your subject or take advantage of the dark to create interesting shadows.
Go slowly. Because you are looking for small critters you will see much more if you take your time. You also don’t want to frighten the creature by rushing towards it with all your lights blaring. Akin to having a ten-ton truck with all its lights on full blast bearing down on you on the highway! I often stay within a few square metres of the drop point on a night dive. Also, take your time changing your settings, angles and composition. Get a variety of shots of your subject. However, this doesn’t mean hogging it. Don’t forget other photographers would also like a chance to get a few shots.
Although night photography may seem daunting, some things are actually easier at night. It is possible to get much better colour at night as there is no ambient light to pollute the light from your strobes. This helps eliminate the greenish tinge that sometimes appears during the day, especially if you are shooting in manual mode. You can either white balance using the temperature of your strobes or manually as you would during the day. As your light doesn’t vary much during a night dive (except perhaps from other nearby diver’s lights) you probably won’t need to set the white balance repetitively as you would in daylight.
You need a focus light to enable the camera to focus on the subject before the strobe fires, and for you to be able to find it in the first place! It is easier logistically to mount it directly on the camera, and also means it will be pointing in the same direction as the camera lens.
You might want to invest in a red focus light, which is much softer and not as aggressively frightening to sensitive critters, or a blue/UV light for some fluoro dives. You can attach the focus light to your camera with either a cold shoe or triple clamp mount.
You can get good results at night with a wide variety of camera settings, don’t be afraid to experiment. Manual mode is usually preferable. You can use a small aperture (high f-number) to get good focus and a deep depth of field, or occasionally a wider aperture (low f-number) to create images with a shallow depth of field (such as when focusing only on a nudibranchs rhinophores). Use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion and a low ISO to decrease the graininess of your pictures.
Night photography shouldn’t be something you are afraid to try. Although it is an advanced topic when it comes to underwater photography it can be very rewarding. However, I do recommend that you take things in baby steps. First, do a few night dives without a camera. Get comfortable diving in the dark, and controlling your buoyancy in the dark. It makes no sense to try and learn something as complex as photography when you are not relaxed, calm and confident at being in a new environment.
Secondly, practice your photography techniques first during the day. Don’t try and run before you can walk. Once you have mastered the manual settings on your camera, composition, good buoyancy with a camera, and use of your strobes during the day, then make the jump to night photography. Otherwise, you would simply find it very frustrating spending the entire time trying to figure out your settings and end up not enjoying the dive. Remember it is supposed to fun.
A very wise friend of mine once told me “the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time”. The same is true of underwater photography. You should master the basics before moving onto more challenging techniques and environments.
The first step towards becoming a good underwater photographer at night is to become a good underwater photographer during the day. This could mean reading or watching tutorials, or attending an underwater photography course, and undoubtedly lots of practice. Regardless of where you are in the process, don't be afraid to take the leap!