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Tobias Friedrich: Painting with Light Underwater

Tobias Friedrich: Painting with Light Underwater

January 18, 2017 | 11:36

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Getting the light right is imperative for all types of photography, but in underwater photography it can single-handedly make or break an image. Professional underwater photographer Tobias Friedrich revealed his secrets at the Deepblu Expert Spotlight Sessions at DEMA 2016 in Las Vegas.

In his seminar Painting with Light in Underwater Photography, Friedrich used case studies to show how he created his own images, illustrated key lessons and shared scores of useful tips and techniques for controlling the light in underwater photography with the audience.

The Challenges of Light Underwater 

“To produce truly stunning images, photographers must understand the basic principles of how light behaves underwater,” explained Friedrich. Balancing both the amount and direction of light is key, as it determines which parts light up, how much backscatter appears, or whether shadows are created.

Underwater photographers must also master mixed lighting; that is, the combination of natural and artificial light. Light is absorbed in much greater amounts by water than by air. Especially at deeper depths, the sun’s rays do not provide enough light to produce aesthetically-pleasing images, and diver-photographers must use artificial light sources to compensate for the natural light that is lost to absorption.


Artificial strobes and the light of a buddy’s dive torch were used to bring out the colors of the red, yellow and orange soft corals in this photo taken at the Brother Islands, Red Sea, Egypt.

Working with Strobes

The most generic tools for introducing artificial light to underwater photography come in the form of strobes. External strobes are attached directly to the camera or its housing, while slave strobes can be placed in different places and activated using either an electrical cord or optical sensors. How many strobes you use depends entirely on your goal: one strobe is good if you only want to light up part of a picture, whereas two strobes are usually powerful enough to light up the entire scene.

Friedrich also suggested experimenting with a slave strobe set up on a flexible tripod, as light from a strategically-placed strobe provides more depth of field. “You don’t always need to limit yourself to strobes,” he said. “There are other options, such as your buddy’s dive torch, a video light and, of course, the sun’s rays.”

4_lamp_only_20160508_BELOW_SURFACE_TOBIAS_FRIEDRICH__MG_9930__1.jpg The only source of light for this image was the dive torch of the diver, which is illuminating the amphorae on this ancient Roman wreck in the Mediterranean near Loano, Italy.

Working with Natural Light

Friedrich encouraged photographers to let the sun do part of the work as well by shooting against the sun. According to Friedrich, these shots can be done best in the early mornings or late afternoons. At these times, most of the sun’s rays reflect off the water surface and only some rays get through, providing ideal lighting conditions and preventing images from getting ‘burned out’.

 “You may have to get a little creative in order to catch the right moment,” Friedrich suggests. “Many dive operators have fixed sailing times but often you can work out a deal so they take you out in the lighting conditions you desire.”


 Natural light is all it took to light up this panoramic view of a hard coral reef at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

 Try, Try and Try Again

 “Photographers must always be thinking about what can be adjusted to make improvements,” said Friedrich. “Should I change the angle of the camera? Would getting closer or farther from my subject make a difference? What position should strobes be in and how should I set the settings? Does this scene need background lighting?” Moreover, you don’t always have the luxury of a captive subject. It takes a lot of practice to set up your gear in time to capture a fast-moving subject.


Friedrich took several photos from different perspectives before settling on this stunning close-up of a striped frogfish. Taken at Lembeh Strait, Indonesia.

 “Most published images are the result of a process of trial and error,” Friedrich concluded. “Even the most experienced photographers take countless images before getting it even close to right. Snap a photo; see how it turned out; make a small adjustment; then take another shot. If you think you’re satisfied with your picture, try even harder, and you will get a better image every time.”


 By: Ryan Jones, Community Editor at Deepblu 


About Tobias Friedrich

Tobias Friedrich is an award-winning German underwater photographer whose images have appeared in countless online magazines and other publications, including Red Bull, BBC, The Times, Scuba Diving Magazine, and US Sports Diver. Countless underwater photographic competitions such as Smithsonian’s Ocean ViewsOcean ArtEpson Red SeaBeneath the Sea, and Celebrate the Sea have honored his work. Tobias is always keen to take up new challenges and loves to experiment with new, creative ways to create the best underwater images.

 Learn more about Tobias at:

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