Images with black backgrounds are common in underwater photography, especially for macro, and people often ask me how they can achieve this. The plain background isolates the subject with stark contrast, resulting in a very simple image that stands out to the viewer.
Here are five tips to help you capture macro shots with perfect black backgrounds:
1. Use a very high f-stop (f/22 or higher), a fast shutter speed, and use your strobes on a high power setting.
2. Avoid shooting towards the seabed/reef/wall, and instead shoot slightly upwards/outwards to isolate your subject against the water behind.
3. It’s easier to get a black background when shooting macro in deeper water with lower light levels. In bright and shallow water, getting a completely black background is more difficult, so you’ll need to increase the f-stop, lower the ISO and have your strobes on full power.
4. Shooting at night is obviously an easy way to get black backgrounds, but interestingly, you can also use very low f-stops with a shallow depth-of-field and still get a black background — a result which would be impossible during the day.
5. Certain subjects (e.g., whip coral gobies) are easy to shoot with a black background, whereas other subjects (e.g., fish) can be more difficult as they tend to stay close to the reef, however there are brief moments when a fish will rise up into the water column (possibly feeding). With your camera settings configured, have some patience and stalk your subject, waiting for the optimum moment to shoot.
Black backgrounds in underwater photography has, and always will be, a favourite technique among many photographers, and perfectly suited to many macro subjects.
Christian Loader (29, UK) is a professional photographer for Scubazoo Images. He has worked extensively throughout Southeast Asia as an underwater videographer and photographer, and is currently based in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.