Backlighting Basics

By Marty Snyderman

Subjects that are backlit can look awesome, but when I tried backlighting, my photographs were completely blown out by my strobe. Can you help me learn how to backlight? - Susie, Santa Barbara, CA

Backlighting can produce some wonderful images, but learning how to backlight can be tricky. Creating a pleasing look and getting the right exposure is not as simple as it is when using standard lighting techniques. Before getting into the details of how to backlight, let's consider the when and why of backlighting.

When a subject is translucent or semi-translucent, like many jellyfish, comb jellies and salps, backlighting can be effective, especially when the lighting reveals the details of internal organs and other structures. If working with a non-translucent subject, such as a hard coral or sea urchin, then the appeal comes from the outline of the shape or from the revealed details of extremities such as cilia or tentacles.

Despite the term "backlighting," it is almost never a good technique to position a strobe directly behind a subject in a direct line with the lens. Instead, the strobe should be placed behind and slightly above, below or to the side of the subject. Exactly where a strobe should be placed depends on a number of factors, including the degree to which light either passes through or is blocked by the subject, the power of the strobe, the shape of the subject, the look you hope to create, the lens being used and the beam angle of the strobe.

Because it is extremely difficult to know precisely what a backlit image will look like, bracketing your exposure by varying the strobe-to-subject distance is a key to success. In addition, I strongly suggest that you change the lighting angle by moving the position of your strobe relative to that of the subject and your lens.

When backlighting with a strobe, I set the strobe in a manual mode and expose a series of frames with my strobe-to-subject distance changing from six inches to one foot to two feet to three feet, and sometimes slightly farther. I never know which shot will please me the most until I view the processed film. The point is that in order to consistently get good results, you will want to change your lighting angle and bracket your exposures by varying your strobe-to-subject distance.

In many instances, you can create a pleasing look when using a camera system with two strobes by using one strobe to front light your subject and the other to backlight. In some cases the sun, as opposed to a strobe, can serve as the backlight. When using the sun as your light source, it often works very well with translucent subjects such as jellyfishes and salps. These subjects can be difficult to light when lit from the front.

Position your lens, subject and the sun so that they are in a straight line. (This technique is in direct contradiction to the recommended technique when using a strobe to backlight. The disparity arises because many strobes are so powerful they will grossly over expose a frame when placed directly behind a translucent subject, while using the sun as a light source often creates a more pleasing result.) To get a good exposure when backlighting with the sun use a light meter to determine the f/stop to expose the water surrounding the sun.

With a little practice, the results can be quite gratifying.

Is there an easy, inexpensive way to give photography a shot?

-Edward Goshen, NY

Many divers think underwater photography would be fun, but the thought of learning about f/stops, shutter speeds, film speeds, strobes and light meters sounds like too much work. It is possible, however, to take pictures underwater without having to know an f/stop from a bus stop and without having to write a check for a thousand bucks. The once caveat is that minimizing your investment menas you won't be trying for professional level, cover shots. But, you will be bringing home some great memories.

There are a number of relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use, point-and-shoot style cameras that do most of your "photographic thinking" for you and that empower you to take some fun photographs, just like most people enjoy on any vacation activity. You don't have to adjust camera, lens or strobe settings on the fly. All you need to do is frame and shoot.

Some of the more popular point-and-shoot camera systems are the Ikelite Aquashot 3E, Sealife ReefMaster, Epoque 100 Plus, the Bonica Sea King Snapper, Sea & Sea MX-5 and Kodak Max. The Max is a one-time use, disposable camera, while the others allow film changes and long-term multiple use. As you'd expect, the prices vary accordingly. Made to get wet as is, the MX-5 is referred to as an amphibious camera, while many point-and-shoot camera systems such as the Aquashot 3E use a camera-in-a-waterproof-case design.

Point-and-shoot cameras are often referred to as fixed-focus cameras. The fixed-focus feature means that your subject just needs to be within a range of pre-determined distances from your camera in order to be in focus. The manufacturer will provide you with specific information regarding a given model, but as a rule, you will want to be two to six feet away from your subject, and you will want to photograph subjects that range in size from your diving buddy to a large grouper. The closer you get to your subject, the smaller your subject can be; but if you get too close or too far away, your subject will be out of focus. Just fill a pleasing percentage of your frame with your subject from the right distance away, and take the picture.

Some point-and-shoot camera systems provide the option of taking close-up photographs of relatively small subjects by using an accessory close-up attachment. As a rule, the close-up, or macro, lens can be put into place or removed underwater, providing flexibility with regard to subject size.

Point-and-shoot cameras also take a "best guess" at providing you with properly exposed pictures, and for the most part, they do a good job. The camera systems come with a built-in flash, and with some models, it is easy to add a more powerful off-camera strobe. The better the water conditions, the more pleasing your image is likely to be.

It is a good technique to keep your pictures simple. Try to photograph a pair of angelfish over a coral head or your buddy looking at a big moray eel. Don't try to put a big scene into a single frame, because the clutter and out-of-focus elements will probably be distracting.

With a point-and-shoot style camera system you can discover how fascinating underwater photography can be, without a large initial investment. It's a deal that's hard to beat.

Want to learn more about underwater photography?

Take an online course at Marty Snyderman's School of Underwater Photography at This comprehensive course consists of nine

interactive classes taken at your convenience.