Photo Tip: Creating Black Backgrounds

A Simple approach to Underwater Photography

In underwater photography, black backgrounds are a great way to emphasize and highlight your subject. This can sometimes be a frustrating and challenging task, but you can simplify the process by following a few basic steps. Spend a little time setting up your shot, preset manual exposure controls and experiment with camera and strobe angles and lighting to get the results you want. The isolation of subjects against a black background is used primarily for macro photography, but it can also be used for larger subjects.

You can use this technique for large subjects like this 14 foot-Tiger Shark.


First, select a subject that has mostly water in the background. Try to find a subject that is perched on a rock or sitting on a coral branch. An easier approach is to photograph a critter that is up in the water column

I got below this Leaffish perched on coral to remove some objects from the background.

LeaffishSecond, follow the simple rule of getting close, getting down and shooting upward to isolate your subject. Preferably you want to get as close as possible to your subject and fill the frame. Get lower than your subject and shoot upwards to eliminate anything in the frame that may appear behind your subject. If the light from your strobe doesn’t have anything in its path except for the main subject, there is nothing else to reflect the light back to the camera lens. Use a combination of camera control settings, so that there is no visible ambient light. You will be using only artificial light from your strobe(s) to expose the subject.

Blue Ring Octopus

Some subjects, like this Blue Ring Octopus, are easier to expose with a black background while up in the water column.

Third, preset your camera settings and strobe output so that you will just paint the subject and perhaps the foreground with light. I like to use a low ISO (usually 100 or 200), a fast shutter speed (at least 1/200th of a second or faster), and a small aperture to limit the amount of light in the exposure. Keep in mind that your depth of field (or area that is in focus) is largely dictated by the aperture you use. The higher the aperture number (the smaller the hole in the lens), the larger the depth of field. If you are using a lens that has a narrow angle of view, such as a Nikon 105mm macro lens, the smaller the depth of field. This is especially true for macro subjects. This is where the aperture really becomes more critical, and any advantage you can obtain by using a higher numbered aperture will allow you to get more of the subject in focus. If you are shooting larger animals with a wide angle lens this is less of an issue.

Macro critters found on whip corals are excellent subjects for creating black backgrounds because it is easy to avoid objects in the background.

I have found that the easiest way to obtain the correct amount of light for your image is to use manual exposure. I like to use a single setting for ISO and Shutter Speed, with a constant amount of light output from my strobes. If you play with this a little, you can come up with an F/Stop (aperture setting) that will put you in the ball park for getting the right amount of light for macro images, medium portraits and wide-angles. That way you can tweak the exposure by just adjusting the aperture to give you the right amount light for your subject and obtain a black background.

Approximate Settings

  1. Camera on Manual
  2. ISO set to 100 or 200
  3. Shutter Speed at 1/200th to 1/250th
  4. Set your strobe(s) on a manual setting (1/4 power for most strobes will give you plenty of light) to give you a constant light source. Note that strobe to subject distance will also impact exposure. If you double the distance of the strobe to your subject, you will cut the light in half.
  5. Starting point setting for Aperture
    • F/25 for macro subjects
    • F/16 for medium size portraits
    • F/11 for wide-angle close-ups


It is important to carefully use your strobe positioning to avoid lighting things that may be found behind the subject.

Finally, you will want to limit the amount of light from your strobe and try to use a strobe angle that will light as little of the background as possible. If there is anything in the background behind your subject, (and sometimes you just can’t avoid this), you may be able to angle your strobe to avoid lighting these objects. Take multiple shots and work on strobe angles being careful to just illuminate the subject. If you are shooting a subject up in the water column and there is nothing but water behind your subject, you can use a strobe position that will just minimize backscatter. For example, with a wide angle-subject you can position your strobes outward at a 45-degree angle. You may even consider using a single strobe. if the subject is angled so that it just presents one side toward the lens, you don’t have to worry about the appearance of harsh shadows in the image.


Using Snoots In Macro Photography

A Snoot is simply a device that attaches to the end of a strobe to narrow the beam angle from the light source. Its purpose is to provide a photographer with more control over the illumination of the subject. There are companies that make snoots to be used with a number of different strobes on the market. However, snoots can be made very inexpensively from a variety of household items. They can be constructed very easily from a number of items that you can find at the hardware store or local grocery. My favorite snoot is simply a plastic funnel glued to a diffuser that is made for my Sea & Sea Strobes. A friend aptly nicknamed my creation the “Ghetto Snoot” based on its very intricate design.

The concept of the snoot is pretty simple. The idea is to narrow and concentrate the light from the strobe, so you can project the light exactly where you want it. Picture the effect of shining a spotlight on an actor in the middle of a stage, keeping everything else in the dark. The narrow beam of light isolates actor, drawing everyone’s attention to him alone. Many photographers use creative lighting to illuminate a subject against a black background. The easiest way to achieve this effect is to use a snoot. Using a snoot can also eliminate unwanted backscatter from your picture.

Whether they are used for creating black backgrounds, spotlighting, or for directional lighting, there’s no doubt that snoots can be very helpful tools for creatively lighting underwater subjects. However, as useful as they are, they can be (and often are) very difficult to use. The process of aiming a snoot for macro photography can be very difficult at best. The use of snoots requires patience, practice and luck. However, if you are willing to spend the time and follow a few helpful tips, using snoots can be fun and very helpful in in creating dramatic results to your library of images.

Lets face it; the hardest part of using a snoot is pointing that narrow beam of light where you want it to go. The easiest way to do this is by using a strobe that has a built in focusing or modeling light. You simply turn on the light and position the strobe so that the beam hits your subject where you want it to, also paying attention to the direction of the light source. If you don’t have a modeling light, this may become a very frustrating process. Obviously it is easier to use a snoot with a very slow moving or stationary subject. Frogfish, small scorpionfish and virtually any type of weighted plastic marine life will work very well. If your subject is going to stay in the same place you can mount your strobe on a tripod and take the picture. If the angle or placement of the light is a bit off, you can reposition the strobe and take another image. Then you can work on exposure by manually correcting the amount of light by changing the shutter speed, ISO or aperture settings or positioning the strobe a bit closer to your subject. If you are using a small aperture, the light from the strobe will stop action, so you can use a slower shutter speed to change your exposure. If you are using manual settings to control your exposures, remember that you can add or detract light by changing any of these controls, but opening up your aperture will decrease your depth of field. You will usually find that a higher strobe output will work better and give you a more defined spotlight effect.

Some photographers like to hand hold the “snooted” strobe. I find that this is an option if you have the patience. It certainly allows much more flexibility to change the angle of the light. However, because every minor change in the strobe position will also change your ability to keep the beam of light on your subject, this can be extremely frustrating. My preference is to either use a tripod or, even better, a snoot Sherpa. I should plug a few of my very good friends (James Bassett, Dave Reid and Greg Bassett) who have patiently put up with my excessive snootiness over the years. I have found that if you are going to shoot a moving subject, that this is a necessity unless you are extremely lucky.

Finally, it is much easier to aim the snoot if it is really close to the subject. The farther away you hold the snoot, the dimmer the illumination from the modeling light. Of course, the light from the snoot will also be more concentrated and have a tighter beam the closer you hold the tip of the snoot to the subject. You may find that snooting on night dives is simpler because the light from the snoot is easier to see. Keep in mind that a snoot is just one of many tools in your bag of tricks for creative lighting. The thing for you to really focus on is that all of these suggestions are merely that, suggestions. Go out and have fun, and don’t hesitate to try new things.