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

Quick Settings for Black Backgrounds

Underwater Snoots


How to Create Black Backgrounds

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

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 Tutorial

Underwater Strobe Positioning Video Tutorial

Underwater Strobe Positioning

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

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.

Below are some settings that are useful starting points. I use these as default settings, starting here, and then adjusting based on my specific gear and shooting situation.

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 Specific Settings Questions?

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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.

I use a DIY snoot I made with PVC pipe pieces, which I discuss in my personal Underwater Camera Gear video.

What is an underwater snoot?

A snoot is a light shaping device that condenses the wide beam of an underwater strobe or light into a narrow beam used to light a subject without illuminating the background.

Strobes generally have a beam angle between 100-120 degrees, and adding the snoot reduces the beam width to the size of a quarter down to a pencil eraser.

Since only that very small area is illuminated by light, a finely-controlled black background effect can be created even if the subject is camouflaged or on a distracting background.

How do you use an underwater snoot?

The snoot is attached to cover the front of the strobe or light, reducing the wide beam into a pinpoint of light. Most snoots can be added and removed underwater.

Some snoots have guide lights that show you where the beam of light will land, so that you can position it accurately on your subject. Others do not, so you will need to experiment with precise positioning through trial and error while shooting photos.

PRO TIP: After shooting and reviewing an image, use focus as a way to re-find your distance to subject. Move forward and back to get the subject in focus before you activate the camera’s autofocus drive. As a result, you’ll find yourself at about the same distance to subject as on the last shot, making underwater snoot positioning much easier.

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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.