How to Create Black Backgrounds

Black backgrounds are very popular in underwater photography. One of the first questions during photo workshops is always about how to create a black background.

Fear no more, because this tutorial describes the techniques in detail. It also includes a 7 minute video on the subject. It’s basically your own private workshop!


Video Tutorial – 7 Minutes!

Creating Black Backgrounds

Related Tutorials

Quick Settings for Black Backgrounds

Underwater Snoots

Black Backgrounds Video Tutorial

Creating Black Backgrounds

Black backgrounds can be created while shooting macro or wide-angle during the day or at night. Naturally, we would think black backgrounds are easier to create at night, but that’s not necessarily the case.

There are 3 techniques that should be combined to create black backgrounds.

RELATED: Underwater Camera Lights 101

1. Open Water Behind the Subject

This tip is first in our tutorial because it’s the first step in composing your image. A great black background macro subject will have some open water behind it, which is why you often see underwater photographers shooting subjects on top of reef structure and out in the open.

As you dive, keep an eye out for subjects that aren’t squashed against a distracting background. If the reef behind the subject is too close, it will be very difficult to exclude in your composition.

Our second two tips discuss the techniques that make the water appear to be black, even under mid-day sun.

2. Use a Fast Shutter Speed

In simplest terms, shutter speed controls the ambient light hitting the camera sensor. While the aperture also factors into ambient light exposure, underwater macro photographers primarily use it to control depth of field.

A fast shutter speed means the shutter (mechanical or otherwise) is only open for a very brief moment (e.g. 1/200 of a second). Because the shutter is open for such a short time, there is not much chance for ambient light to hit the camera sensor.

When no ambient light hits the sensor, the exposure will be underexposed or even jet black.

So how do we light the subject?

This is where our strobes come in. The strobes produce light far stronger than ambient sunlight underwater, and even with a fast shutter speed, the light bouncing off the subject will be recorded by the sensor.

3. Precise Strobe Lighting

At this point in setting up the shot we have open water behind the subject and a fast shutter speed that results in a dark image. Our strobes light the subject.

We need to be careful here in order to light the subject without lighting any of the surrounding reef. This is made easier due to Step 1.

Since our image is already black, and our strobe positioning allows us to light just the subject, our photo will now contain a lighted subject with a black background!

Related Tutorials

underwater strobe positioning tutorial

Underwater Strobe Positioning: Learn the precise strobe positions for black backgrounds with single or dual strobes. Video!

minimizing backscatter thumbnail

How to Minimize Backscatter:  Learn the causes of backscatter and 3 steps to reduce and/or eliminate it.

Quick Settings for Black Backgrounds

There are a wide range of camera settings used to create black backgrounds underwater. Each depends on the specific subject, lens, diopter, distance to subject and more.

That said, below are some useful starting points.

COMPACT CAMERAS: ISO 100 / f/8 (f/11 with diopter) / 1/250

MIRRORLESS & DSLR: ISO 100 / f/22 (f/32 with diopter) / 1/200

Have more specific settings questions? Ask me about a Private Photo Workshop using video chat to help take your image-making to the next level.

Underwater Snoots

Underwater snoots have been around for a long while but have become incredibly popular in recent years. They are used mostly for small macro and supermacro subjects.

RELATED: Tips for Shooting Macro Behavior

A snoot is applied over one strobe in order to reduce the wide beam into a pinpoint of light. Strobes generally have a beam angle between 100-120 degrees, while a snoot can reduce the beam from the size of a pencil eraser to a quarter.

Since only that very small area is illuminated by light, a finely-controlled black background effect can be created no matter where the subject is located.

Below are the two most popular snoots on the market.

retra lsd snoot

Retra LSD Snoot: This snoot can be used on virtually any strobe and comes with several mask for different light beams. Retra LSD Snoot.

reefnet snoot in anilao

ReefNet Snoot: This mount base comes with one fiber optic snoot extension. A second can be added for double snoot light. Pick your strobe:

Sea & Sea Strobes | Inon Strobes


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Brent Durand

Professional writer and underwater photo instructor. Brent is an avid diver and surfer, and has led many intensive photo workshops around the world.