The Problem with Video Lights and Flashes for Snorkelers
snorkeler with camera on reef

We regularly post photos and videos from our many different tours on our website or other social media platforms which are taken by our Snorkel Venture Snorkel Guides, and quite often this content prompts quite a few questions from our guests. The bulk of these questions centers around video lights or strobes/flashes. 


  • “I just saw the latest video on Facebook. What kind of lights were used for these shots? I don’t have an underwater light but maybe I should get one. What would you recommend?” 

 

  • “I have a question about my Olympus TG 6 camera. Would it make sense to add a Backscatter TTL mini flash? I thought it might help on cloudy days or for dark settings and maybe murky waters if close enough to the subject. I would appreciate your advice.”

A lot of people think, and rightfully so, that adding a video light or an external flash to their current camera setup that it will yield photos or videos with more true-to-life colors. In the simplest of terms, they are not wrong. More light underwater does equal more color. However, light doesn’t work the same way underwater as it does on land and there are quite a few variables we need to take into account for this to be true. 

First of all, water is significantly more dense than air is, around 840 times more to be roughly precise. What does this mean? Well, it basically means that your light, whether it’s a strobe or a constant video light, just won’t travel very far.

Second, we need to take consider the sun’s power versus the power of our light. If you walk around your garden or a park on a bright sunny day and shine a flashlight on the different flowers, you’re really not going to notice a difference in light because the sun will almost always out-power your handheld artificial light source. The same goes for underwater, but the results are even more drastic as your little light is also now battling the increased density of the water. 

Snorkeler swimming over coral reef

Third, one needs to take into account their ability to duck dive down to the reef. Because of the density of water and the strength of the sun, video lights and strobes/flashes are really only effective when the subject is within one to two feet of the camera. If you can not dive down to the reef and maintain a position there for several seconds to capture your photo, any sort of lighting accessories will just fall short of providing you with any additional color to your images. Even if you can dive down, the additional light source will—in many situations—be minimal. 

So, how do you get those nice natural colors that you saw in our posts or other people’s photos? The answer lies in a function nearly every camera has built right into it. White Balance. 

Side by side comparison of white balaced image vs. no white balance
White Balancing vs. No White Balance

By using the intense tropical sun and the white balance function on our cameras we can achieve fantastic color results, no matter the camera. A couple of things to keep in mind though. 

  1.  You still need to be close to your subject, a distance of one to three feet will yield the best results. On particularly sunny days in clear water, you can still get great colors while being further away, but always try to get as close as possible. 
  2.  You should always shoot with the sun, and not into it. 
  3.  Set your white balance for the depth that your subject is at, not the depth that you are at. For example, if you are using an Olympus TG series camera and you are on the surface with your subject at ten feet (in clear water), set your white balance mode to “Underwater Deep.” If you are using a GoPro 7 or newer in this same situation, just leave your GoPro in Auto WB and it’s smart enough to know what to do. 
  4.  Turn your flash off. If you leave the built-in flash of your camera on, everywhere that the flash hits will come back in dark shades of red, instead of the nice natural colors we were hoping for. Also, your flash will almost always introduce a bunch of illuminated particulate into the image and ruin it. Remember, we’re using the sun as a light source now, not artificial light. Unless you have a keen sense of how both work underwater, artificial light and natural light just don’t mix very well. 

reef manta cleaning on reef

White Balancing for underwater photography is absolutely paramount to getting images bursting with color. It’s the main lighting principle all of our Snorkel Venture Photo and Video Pros follow, along with just about every prominent underwater photographer and videographer out there. Check out this quick and simple blog I put together a while back which goes into a bit more detail about just how to white balance with your camera. Also, if you really want to gain a better understanding of the principles of underwater photography, maybe consider joining one of our awesome Snorkeling Photo Workshops! 

Here is a video I shot during our last Alor-Komodo Snorkel Safari, with the exception of one clip, entirely without video lights.

 

About Author

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Alex Lindbloom
Alex is a Snorkel Venture and Dive Safari Asia guide as well as the video and photo pros for both companies. Alex is also a field editor for a popular underwater photography magazine. Prior to joining Snorkel Venture in 2018 Alex lived and worked all over the world working as an underwater cameraman, with five of those years living/working on a yacht in Indonesia. Alex's images and videos have garnered many international awards such as Underwater Photographer of the Year and can be seen on NatGeo, Discovery Channel, the UN Building, and various magazines.