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Shrimp on wire coral. Canon 5DS-R, EF 100mm Macro, 1/200, f/13, ISO 320

The black background macro shot is something every underwater photographer should have in their portfolio. It’s fairly easy to pull off and it produces nice clean uncluttered compositions. We use small apertures and fast shutter speeds to block any ambient light and the subject is 100% strobe lit. The most important ingredient is to find a subject or a camera angle that has at least a few feet of open water behind it. Because the water does not reflect any light back to the camera we get a black background. To start with, look for subjects on sea whips, sea fans and kelp, these are easy locations to find open water behind.

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Whip coral Gobies. Canon 5DS-R, EF 100mm Macro, 1/200, f/11, ISO 160

Key settings

  • Macro lens
  • Manual camera exposure.
  • Fast shutter speed that will sync with your strobes (1/125 -1/250)
  • Small aperture (f/11 – f/18)
  • Low ISO (100-200)
  • Manual or TTL strobes ( If shooting TTL your subject needs to fill a large portion of the frame)
  • Subject or camera angle that allows for open water behind the subject.

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Shrimp with eggs on kelp. Canon 5DS-R, EF 100mm Macro, 1/200, f/14, ISO 160

Getting the Shot

  1. After finding a subject with a few feet of water behind it, set your camera to manual and adjust shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
  2. Take a shot with your strobes turned off. You should be seeing a black frame. If not, double check your settings, use a smaller aperture and or point your camera away from the sun.
  3. Turn on your strobes and take a shot. Fine tune your exposure by adjusting strobe power and or distance if using manual strobes or use flash compensation if you are shooting TTL strobes. If there is a lot of particles in the water you may get some backscatter.  To reduce backscatter, you can try tilting the strobes out slightly to just get the edge of the light or try reducing the strobe power and either moving in closer or opening up the aperture a bit. If done correctly you should be seeing a saturated foreground subject with a nice black background.

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    Donut nudibranch. Canon 5DS-R, EF 100mm Macro,1/200,f/13, ISO 160