Black Backgrounds for Underwater Macro


Brent Durand: Hey, everybody, I’m Brent Durand.
Today we’re going to talk about getting black backgrounds in your underwater photos. Black
backgrounds have been around for a long time, certainly, but are very, very popular the
last few years. One of the things we all strive to do in our photography in general, including
underwater, is to create a clean, uncluttered background, so that means getting rid of the
sand in the background, other plants, maybe it’s just some distracting background element,
a diver’s fin, things like that. When we create a black background, we’re inherently getting
rid of all of those things. So, they give the image a lot of pop, they help create pleasing
negative space in the image, especially if there’s nudibranch cerata or something like
that that are winding their way up into the water column, and just really helps create
a lot of contrast, especially with color there. Brent Durand: So black backgrounds can be
used for wide angle, but because they’re most common in macro, we’re going to talk about
getting black backgrounds in your macro images. Brent Durand: So there are three things that
help us create a black background, and actually four if you count diving at night, but let’s
skip past that one, because it’s pretty obvious. So the three things are creating a lot of
negative ocean space behind your subject, so you want open water behind a subject. The
second is use a fast shutter speed that cancels out ambient light. The third is to finally
control your strobe lighting or your video lighting, depending on the medium that you’re
shooting. So, let’s dive into each of these into more detail. Brent Durand: Okay, so open water behind your
subject. Why does that help us with black background? Well, first off, if we’re shooting
in the daylight, there’s natural ambient light, and that’s coming from the sun down through
the water column. We might lose some of the reds and different colors there, but there’s
going to be some ambient light even if it’s a washed out and dulled blue, or green, or
something like that, so if we have our subject and we’re shooting, and we have a background
behind it, we’re going to see some of that ambient light hitting the background, so we’ll
have our nicely lit subject even if we have really precise strobe positioning and light
positioning, we’ll see that background there, and it’s going to be distracting. It’s not
going to be a black background. But if we have open water behind the subject, then we’re
only going to see what’s out in the open water, and there’s no subject, no ground, no rocks,
no reef, for that ambient light to light up, and we combine it with step two, which is
shutter speed, then we start to cancel out all that ambient light, that’s what creates
the true black background. Brent Durand: So when I’m swimming around
the water looking for a nice macro subject, I’m not only looking for the subject itself,
but I’m actually looking for the terrain and where the subject is going to be placed, so
there are compositional elements, like a food source and things like that that are nearby,
but the main thing is looking for a subject that’s perched up high somewhere. Maybe it’s
on top of a rock, maybe it’s on top of a wreck where you can get under it. Maybe it’s on
a wall sticking off of a hydroid or something like that. Those are the things that allow
you to get your camera under there and shoot into open water, and remember that that open
water can be to the side, it can be slightly down, it can be slightly up, and you’re still
going to be able to achieve that black background. Straight up is a different story, but as long
as you’re as some sort of angle here or sideways, then you’re going to be good. So that’s why
you’ll oftentimes see photographers looking for the nudibranchs, and little gobies, and
things like that that are perched up somewhere. You can just get under there, and settle down
into a nice position, and without damaging the reef, you can get those open water backgrounds. Brent Durand: The second big piece of creating
black backgrounds is using a fast enough shutter speed. Like with step one and ambient light,
this also directly relates to ambient light. Your shutter speed essentially controls the
ambient light that comes in through the camera lens to the sensor, so the faster the shutter
speed, the quicker that the shutter drops, and the less light can get into the camera,
the less time that that light has to reach through the lens and touch the sensor. So
by using a fast shutter speed, we’re getting rid of all that sunlit ambient light, and
color, and things like that. Brent Durand: So if you’re shooting with a
compact camera, generally stick with to 1/500 of a second, or your max sync speed. It’s
going to vary a lot between compact cameras, but you could shoot 1/500 and be totally okay,
get a lot great, crisp, black backgrounds. If you’re shooting mirrorless or DSLR, there’s
also some variation there. You can be at 1/200 of a second on some older Canon models, up
to 1/250, or even 1/320 of a second on a lot of Nikon DSLRs. Try and be at that maximum
sync speed for your strobes. Don’t go past that, but shoot right up to the max sync speed.
A lot of cameras will actually cap your shutter speed at that max sync speed when you have
a strobe attached, so play around with it, check out these settings, and they will help
you cancel out the ambient light to create that black background. Brent Durand: Okay, and the third very important
thing in creating black backgrounds is to create a very precise strobe position, so
like we talked about in the first step about lighting some of the other substrate around
the subject, the same effect goes, especially once you get into super macro here, even if
your subject is perched up somewhere high and there’s nothing behind it. You’ve done
a great job with using fast shutter speed, with getting rid of any sort of substrate
or distracting background, you’ve got clear water in the background, so now we want to
really, really control that light. One, it will help us with backscatter, which we’ll
talk about in other tutorials, but two, we’re not giving a chance for the strobes to illuminate
anything else. You’ll see that with snoot lighting, especially. You’re in really close
to a super macro subject, and only their face is lit by the snoot light, and everything
else is black. That’s a way to really, really finely control that pinpoint of light hitting
that macro subject, and it doesn’t illuminate anything else. Brent Durand: In general, what’s the best
strobe position for creating a black background? I’ll get into it a lot more in my dedicated
strobe positioning tutorial, but in general, what we want to do is not light up all the
extra water around the subject, so we’re not going to be shooting in a wide angle position
or anything like this. Instead, we’re going to focus the strobes inward in this type of
angle, and then what we’re doing is we’re not lighting the area on top of the subject,
we’re not lighting the area behind the subject, because that’s where particulate is and might
cause backscatter. Instead, because we have the strobes pointed inward, we’re only lighting
the space in front of the camera dome port, or the camera macro port, and that actually
allows us to finely control the light. We’re not hitting anything extra. We’re lighting
just the subject, which is exactly what we want. Brent Durand: Okay, well I hope these tips
are helpful for helping create black backgrounds. If you have any trouble, feel free to give
me an email, [email protected], and we can talk in more detail, and please feel free
to checkout the rest of my video tutorial series. We’ll be adding more as time goes
on. Thanks for joining. Bye.

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