Guide to Shooting Striking Sunbursts
We descend through the water column to explore the underwater world below, but sometimes the most mesmerizing scene is found looking up through the looking glass. Some of my favorite moments underwater have been during full-moon night dives in Malibu, light off, cruising along the reef watching the moon rays dance through the surface of the sea into the water column.
Light and water create magic that we don't always notice on our regular dive trips. The sun lights everything in it's path, creating a high-framerate alternate world that sooths divers until it's time to surface. But what if we look for just one of those moments - freeze just a single frame to admire the sunlight and water interacting?
This is why we shoot sunbursts.
Gear for all photos:
Canon 5D Mark III
Tips for Shooting Underwater Sunbursts
1. Use a Low ISO
The sun is a bright source of light (bright enough to support life on earth), so we want to make sure our camera is set up for shooting in bright conditions. The first step is adjusting ISO, which is the camera sensor's sensitivity to light.
Manual Shooters: Adjust your ISO to 100. Done!
Auto ISO Shooters: If you are using an evaluative or partial metering mode, then the camera should default to a low ISO. If you're using point metering, you should switch to evaluative or partial for shooting sunbursts. If the camera meters for the small spot of bright light, the rest of the frame will be very, very dark.
A gorgonian catches the current on a big wall in Bunaken National Park, Indonesia.
2. Use a Fast Shutter Speed
Sun rays are constantly piercing through the surface of the water, and water is constantly moving. By using a fast shutter speed (often your maximum flash sync speed) we can 1) freeze the motion of the water, catching the sun rays illuminating shafts in the water, and 2) control the ambient light, which is abundant when shooting straight up towards the surface.
Sponges are shaded by a huge wall in Bunaken National Park, Indonesia.
3. Use a Smaller Aperture
Stopping down to a higher f-stop decreases your aperture, meaning that less light is hitting your sensor. Like our other two settings adjustments above, this is done primarily to keep the sunburst from becoming too over exposed.
One bonus to stopping down is that you have increased the depth of field of the image. This helps keep everything in the scene in focus, especially if you are using a close focus wide-angle composition.
A grean sea turtle swims in next to a wall in Bunaken.
4. Use High Strobe Power
This fourth tip helps create some interest in our sunburst photo, unless the goal is a silhouette (where no strobe light is needed). Because we're using a low ISO, fast shutter speed and smaller aperture, the foreground (and everything aside from the open water) will be very dark. Our strobe(s) help illuminate this darkness but need to be on full or almost full power to light the scene enough for a proper exposure.
A small school of goatfish swims along a steep reef in Bunaken.
A school of fish swims away above a lettuce coral reef in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.
When combined these underwater camera settings will help deliver excellent sunburst shots time and time again. When you're on your next dive, just remember to look UP!
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