Underwater Strobe Positioning

Strobe positioning is a continual challenge in underwater photography. It is the most critical element of each photo after dialing in the basic camera settings. Proper strobe positioning will light the subject in a way that makes the colors pop, create depth through shadows, aid the camera’s auto white balance calculations and minimize backscatter.

So no pressure to get it perfect, right?!

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read my article How to Minimize Backscatter, as understanding backscatter is a prerequisite to understanding strobe beam angles and determining effective strobe positioning.

Underwater strobe positioning can be broken down into 4 main categories: macro and wide-angle with a single strobe, and macro and wide-angle with dual strobes. Note that positioning video lights (for video or still photos) follows all these same rules.


Video Tutorial – 21 Minutes!

The Objective

Wide-Angle Strobe Positioning

Wide-Angle Positioning (Single Strobe)

Macro Strobe Positioning

Macro Positioning (Single Strobe)

Why You Need Light Underwater

Choosing the Best Strobe – 2022 Strobe Guide

Best Video Lights – 2022 Lights Guide

How to Create Black Backgrounds


Underwater Strobe Positioning Tutorial

Underwater Strobe Positioning Video Overview:

  • Intro
  • 0:51 – Backscatter discussion
  • 4:13 – Basic Wide-Angle
  • 6:49 – Big Animals & Reefscapes
  • 7:44 – Close Focus Wide-Angle
  • 8:33 – White Sand Wide-Angle
  • 9:35 – Portrait Orientation Wide-Angle
  • 10:33 – Single Strobe Wide-Angle
  • 12:32 – Basic Macro Strobe Positioning
  • 13:58 – Close Subject Macro
  • 15:24 – Supermacro
  • 16:24 – White Sand Macro
  • 17:20 – Portrait Orientation Macro
  • 18:04 – Reef Crevices Macro
  • 18:36 – Single Strobe Macro
  • 20:04 – Outro

The Objective of Strobe Positioning

Our goal is to light the subject, bringing back the rich colors lost as we descend through the water column, while also minimizing backscatter.

The three steps in this process are pointing the strobes so that they light our subject, adjusting the power of the strobes for proper exposure (unless you’re shooting TTL / automatic), and then subtly adjusting the positioning to minimize backscatter.

Setting up the Shot:

It’s imperative to think about these steps even before shooting the first frame. My process is to spot the subject and envision the shot I would like to create, along with the angle I will be shooting from. Next, I’ll adjust camera settings to where I expect they will need to be. I’ll then adjust strobe power and position the strobes to where I also think they will need to be.

Only then do I slowly move in to compose the shot and actually look through the viewfinder or LCD screen. This method ensures that you’ll likely only be required to make small adjustments as you fine tune the shot. It’s a very deliberate process because we’re creating a photo, not just snapping the shutter a few times before swimming off.

The Strobe’s Cone of Light:

Underwater strobes produce a cone of light with beam angle of roughly 100 degrees. And we already know that we want to illuminate the subject while minimizing the amount of light flashing through open water (to minimize backscatter). As a result, our strategy is to use the edge of the strobe’s beam of light to illuminate our subject or scene.

zoanthid anemones california
Black backgrounds, like this shot of zoanthid anemones, are achieved in part due to precise underwater strobe positioning.

Wide-Angle Strobe Positioning

There are three concepts to remember for wide-angle strobe positioning. The first is to keep your strobes (or strobe) behind the back of the dome port. This is essential in order to prevent strobe light from directly hitting the dome port and creating some nasty flare.

The second is to position your strobes wide and far from the housing for subjects that are farther away (e.g. manta rays, sharks or reefs) and to position them closer to the housing for closer subjects like fish.

The third is to angle the strobe heads out. This ensures that only the inside edge of the beam of light (the cone of light) reaches the subject. Since only this edge of light is illuminating the subject, the water between the dome port and the subject is not lit, minimizing backscatter.

Below are some tips for precise strobe positioning.

wide-angle dual strobe position diagram
The basic wide-angle strobe position, which works great with small and large dome ports. Watch my video for the complete guide to wide-angle positioning.
Strobes Even or Slightly Above Lens

We are used to the topside world where the sun makes shadows fall beneath features, so it’s natural that we try to reproduce this underwater. Keep strobes even with the lens or slightly above the lens so that any shadows fall below the subject features. When the opposite occurs you’re left with an eerie Halloween-like effect.

The only exception to this rule would be something like sharks swimming mid-day in clear water (a strong ambient sunlight scene). In a situation like this, you may choose to have the strobes below the camera lens since your goal is not to light the shark, but to fill in the dark shadows underneath.

Make Small Adjustments

Remember that a small adjustment in strobe position will create a larger effect at the distance of your subject (think of looking through binoculars, where 1cm movement can move your field of view by ten meters). Start with very small adjustments, making sure to review the image in the camera’s LCD after each shot.

Portrait Orientation – Same Rules Apply

All the same strobe positioning rules apply when shooting in portrait orientation. If you simply rotate your housing 90 degrees, then one strobe will be directly below the subject creating unnatural shadows (and often a hotspot). When rotating your housing, make sure to move your strobes so that they are again on the sides of your housing.

Wide-Angle Single Strobe Lighting

When lighting a wide angle scene with a single strobe, we generally want to keep the strobe above the housing and slightly to the side of the subject we want to emphasize (think 11:00 or 1:00 position). This position keeps the light fairly centered in order to avoid drastic shadows in one direction, but still produces enough shadows to create depth.

If a fish or say, a shark, is swimming left to right through the frame, positioning the strobe towards the right side of the housing will shed the majority of the light on the subject’s face. If the coral is on the left side of the composition, positioning the strobe on the left side of the housing will light the coral without lighting up all the water in the remaining 2/3 of the frame.

single strobe wide-angle positioning
Front and side perspective on single strobe lighting for wide-angle. Keep in mind that these diagrams are meant as a starting point only. More diagrams in my strobe positioning video above!

Get Creative and Experiment

Rules are made to be broken, right?! Try moving your strobe(s) to the top of the housing or any place that that might create a dramatic lighting effect on the subject.

If you haven’t moved your strobe(s) much to date, the first thing to do on your next dive is swing them all the way to one side and then all the way to the other. Get the strobes moving! Otherwise, it’s too easy to get complacent with your old strobe positions.

scuba diver in raja ampat
Proper strobe positioning can help light vibrant wide-angle scenes without creating much backscatter.

Macro Strobe Positioning

nderwater macro strobe positioning follows the same backscatter and targeted lighting principals of wide-angle shooting, but on a much smaller scale.

The most basic position brings the strobes in close to the housing port and angled slightly out. If looking down over the housing from the top, imagine the strobes angled out at an 11:00 and 1:00 position.

This position is a great swim setting for compact, mirrorless and DSLR shooters, as you’ll be ready to shoot anything that comes along at any macro range. The downside is that this position is more prone to backscatter and often results in a flatter image with less shadow and contrast.

The close-focus macro position addresses these issues by pushing the strobes out in front of the housing port and turning them inward towards the port by as much as (+/-)120 degrees. The combination of a close subject and rotated strobes means that only the edge of the cone of light is being used to light the subject while the rest of the light hits the port and/or diopter.

As a result, the water above and behind the subject remains unlit, minimizing backscatter. Stronger contrasts and depth are produced from lights on opposite sides of the subject like this.

An important note with this close-focus position is that stability is essential. If we’re trying to dial in strobe beam angle to within 1cm around a subject but the camera is moving back and forth by half a meter, the whole exercise is futile.

I stabilize shots by placing my reef stick tip on bare rock or the sand in order to help stabilize the camera while working on macro and supermacro shots.

Learn more about this in my video tutorial 3 Unusual Macro Photo Tips.

Take it to the Max: Download my Free Underwater Lightroom Presets.

Macro strobe positions diagram
A detailed view of the close-focus macro strobe position. This diagram shows the setup with a +10 diopter attached for supermacro shooting. More strobe positions in my video above!

Translucent subjects will glow when light is shined through them, often referred to as backlighting. There are several styles of backlighting, but the most common can be achieved with the close-focus macro strobe position above.

If the subject is small enough, the diffusers on the strobes spread out the light enough to shine through the subject, creating that glow. If you’re looking for more of a glow, try pushing the strobes forward a bit so that there is more light on the back half of the subject.

Other backlighting techniques include off camera lights/torches and camera settings that accommodate for the blend of strobe light and ambient light from the torch, so we’ll skip over those for now.

Macro Single Strobe Lighting

Macro single strobe positioning is just like wide-angle, with the strobe directly over the housing in the 11:00 or 1:00 position. The precise position also depends on the angle of the subject, as you want the light to come from the side of emphasis – usually the face or front of the subject.

Single strobe shooters can also try the close-focus macro position by turning the strobe inward and lighting the subject with the edge of the cone of light. Remember that stability is essential for this technique.

single strobe macro positioning
A diagram outlining several single strobe macro positions. Be sure to watch my video tutorial for the complete guide.

Why You Need Light Underwater

Underwater strobes and video lights are used to bring vibrant color and contrast into our images. As we descend through the water column during a dive, color is lost, beginning with the reds, then into oranges, yellows, etc.

Strobes and lights bring this color back. Watch the video tutorial below to learn all about using these artificial lights underwater, including the differences between strobes and video lights and the photos you can create with each.

Lights vs Strobes; Why You Need Light Underwater

Watch Now!

Choosing the Best Strobe

There are many great strobes on the market at various price points, each with different pros and cons. Choosing the best strobe for your photography will depend on a number of factors, including budget, guide number, compatibility of TTL shooting, and more.

I’ve put together a detailed Underwater Strobe Comparison & Buyers Guide to help explain these considerations and evaluate the differences.

Read the Guide!

Choosing the Best Video Light

Underwater lights can be used for both photo and video shooting. Most video shooters will use one or two video lights to film their scenes.

Still photographers will generally prefer strobes over video lights. That said, it’s fairly easy to shoot great still photos using video lights.

Focus lights are used by virtually all macro photographers to help the camera’s autofocus system achieve sharp focus in the relatively dark conditions we dive underwater.

Learn more about these lights and my recommendations for the best video and focus lights in the comparison guide linked below.

Best Underwater Video Lights banner

Read the Guide!

How to Create Black Backgrounds

Creating black backgrounds requires a solid understanding of underwater strobe positioning. This macro photo style is very popular these days because it makes subjects pop – translucent, colorful or camouflaged.

Black backgrounds serve to eliminate all distracting background elements and can be shot in the middle of the day with the right composition, camera settings, and strobe positions. Watch my video tutorial below to master this technique.

how to create black backgrounds underwater

Watch Now!

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. BrentDurand.com.