Backscatter is the arch nemesis in underwater photography. It can turn an otherwise stellar image into a trash can candidate. It’s deceptive too, often very tough to see in the camera’s LCD screen while underwater. So what causes backscatter? How can we minimize backscatter in our photos?
What is Backscatter?
Backscatter is caused by light reflecting off particles in the water column. These particles could be plankton, particulates or sand – really anything that makes the water less clear. The particles don’t always reflect light, however, since it’s the angle of the light that causes the reflection.
It’s also important to separate haze and backscatter into two different categories. Haze caused by the sun backlighting particles in the water. This haze can be avoided by either shooting at a different angle or by trying to block the direct sunlight with something like a diver, kelp, or dive boat. The backscatter we refer to in underwater photography is caused by our strobe or video light.
Photo Tips to Minimize Backscatter
There are three steps to minimize and/or completely eliminate backscatter in our underwater photos.
1. Reduce Distance Between Camera and Subject
Since backscatter is created from particles in the water, we can reduce the amount of water in order to reduce potential backscatter. This conveniently matches up with one of the main tips for underwater photo and video, which is to get close to your subject!
Special gear can help us get close to our subject while either magnifying the small subjects (macro) or widening the field of view (wide-angle). These water contact lenses can make all the difference in your shots.
Watch my complete video tutorial on Diopters and Wet Lenses.
2. Maintain Excellent Buoyancy
Sand is a major contributor to backscatter, so if you or your buddy stir up the sand then it’s only natural for more backscatter to be present in your photos. Ensure that you don’t stir up the bottom.
A great tool to use is a macro stick (aka muck stick or reef stick). This long narrow rod can be carefully placed on a bare portion of rock or sand to help stabilize yourself and lift off without using fins after the shot.
If you’re with a larger dive group that is causing a ruckus, try to stay on the up-current side of your group to avoid the sand cloud.
3. Use Precise Strobe or Light Positioning
This tip is definitely the most challenging, since strobe positioning is a constant and ever-variable exercise. The goal with strobe positioning is to light your subject without lighting any extra water, because that is where the potential for backscatter arises. Different compositions and subjects call for different strobe positions, but this goal always remains the same.
Snoots and Backscatter
Snoots are a great way to reduce backscatter when shooting. Snoots produce a very narrow beam of light used to emphasize a part of a subject, or create a black background around a subject.
Since such a narrow column of water is being illuminated, it’s only possible for a narrow column of backscatter to be created. The other areas of the frame receive no light and will not contain backscatter particles. And when the snoot is angled correctly, it can greatly minimize backscatter within the illuminated water.
What if You Still Get Backscatter in Your Photo?
Sometimes there’s just no way to eliminate every single spec of backscatter, especially when diving in particulate-filled water. This is ok. Even in tropical water you might see a particle or two that you’d like to remove from your image.
The video tutorial below shows you how to remove backscatter step by step using the Spot Removal tool in Adobe Lightroom. Check it out!
Strobe Positioning to Minimize Backscatter
video + article
Learn single and double strobe positions for macro and wide-angle, and how to minimize backscatter in each position.
How to Create Black Backgrounds
video + article
Learn the secrets to creating black backgrounds with no backscatter.
5 Essential Composition Tips
video + article
Composition can make or break your underwater photos. Master these 5 basic composition tips to take your photography to the next level.