Ambient Light and White Balance

Shooting without strobes using a custom or manual white balance underwater
By Scott Gietler

Shooting ambient light means you are using the sun as your light source. Shooting with ambient light means less camera drag, as strobes can be left on the surface. The lighting of the photo will be more even, which is ideal for large subjects such as large reefs or schools of fish, silhouettes, or large wrecks.

When shooting an Ambient light shot, you will want to do a manual or custom white balance, either underwater or in photoshop. Please the custom white balance section below.

Shooting reefs in ambient light can produce even lighting and color, although getting great color can be difficult unless you are in 10ft of water or less. Filters can help a little, see the page on magic filters. Schools of fish are sometimes better lit with a touch of strobe light, unless they are silhouetted. There are exceptions, however, I have seen some good shots of schooling fish with filters that are shallow and well-lit from natural light.

Remember, shooting ambient light UW is considered low-light shooting, since you lose a couple f-stops from above water. In low-light photography, you must always compromise between your shutter speed, ISO, & aperture. After taking a shot, check for and beware of blurriness or underexposure.

Ambient light shots will work best on sunny days. Focus on shooting in RAW in 5-15ft of water. Carry around a white dive slate and every so often take a photo of the dive slate, this will assist you in your white balance in the raw editor.

Shooting with ambient light can be easier than using strobes – no strobes to worry about, less drag in the water, no backscatter. However, color and contrast will not be as good, and shadows will not be filled in.


Tips for ambient light underwater photos:

  • Have good contrast in the photo. Shooting up will help this.

  • Get good separation between the subject and the background. Choose your background carefully.

  • Get close as possible for a sharp foreground

  • Shoot in shutter priority mode if you are concerned about freezing motion, otherwise shoot in aperture-priority mode

  • Shoot with the sun directly behind you for the best, most even lighting on schools of fish

  • Go for silhouettes when shooting into the sun, see the silhouettes section.


ambient light underwater photo

Schooling fish, 15ft of water, ambient light. Ambient light can give very even lighting. F4, 1/100th, ISO 250


barracuda at bunaken, natural light photo

Schooling barracuda, ambient light, 20ft. F7, 1/160th, ISO 250


underwater photography with light rays

Light rays at the pier. Photo by Cal Mero. Oly SP350, F3.5, 1/1000th, ISO 50. "I dived in the late afternoon when the sun was low in the sky.  This created vivid light rays and dramatic shadows"


Ambient light with no strobe fill, shot in the Yucatan Cenotes, Mexico. Sony a7R II with 28mm + fisheye converter. ISO 6400, f/6.3, 1/30.


A whale shark feeds on the surface in La Paz, Mexico. Canon 5D Mk III, Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens. ISO 320, f/11, 1/200.



More Ambient Light Articles on UWPG


Understanding White Balance

When you set your camera's white balance, you are telling it what you expect the color temperature of your photo will be. You can review color temperature now if you need to.

When creating a jpeg file, your camera always has to set a white balance. Either you can set it, or in "auto white balance" mode your camera will try to pick it for you, the best it can.

Your strobe or flash emits light at a certain color temp, usually 5500K, similar to sunlight, but it depends on the strobe. Most strobes are between 4800K and 5600K. The color temp of the light will change as it passes through water, and reds are filtered out.

If you are lighting up a close subject with your strobe or internal flash, your color temp should be set to Auto. If you are not happy with the color you are getting, which may happen in low-end compact cameras, you can try setting it to sunny or flash, which are both around 5500K. Setting the white balance to cloudy (6000-6500K) when using strobes will usually result in photos that are a little too orange, unless the subject is a few feet away.

If you are not using your flash, you are shooting ambient light, and you want to set your white balance manually, like I explain in the following section. If your camera doesn't have an option for manual white balance, then you can try cloudy or the underwater mode. If you are reading this guide, you will most likely want a camera that has manual white balance.


Manual white balancing (custom white balance)

When shooting ambient light in JPEG mode, with or without filters, you should manually white balance your camera every five or ten feet. When you do a manual white balance, you are basically letting your camera figure out what a neutral color is. Your camera will let you take a shot of a neutral object, a white dive slate is perfect, but a white or silver scuba tank will do. This will result in much more accurate colors than trying to correct the color later on, because JPEG format looses a lot of the color information. Unless you are very shallow, reds will not be recoverable, but most other colors will be. Manual white balance works fairly well shallower than 30 or 40ft, deeper than that it has a smaller noticeable effect. It can not bring back colors that have completely been absorbed by the water.

When shooting in RAW, you do not need to custom white balance underwater, but it is helpful to shoot a white or neutral object at different depths to aid in the white balancing in your raw post-processing program.


Setting a custom white balance underwater

To set a custom white balance underwater, follow the directions in your camera manual. Usually, you will put your camera in manual white balance mode, and press a button. Then, the camera will wait until you point at a white, gray, or neutrally colored object. Press the shutter, and the camera will record the white balance at this depth. Redo this process every 5-10ft for best results. I have used my buddy's silver or white tank in a pinch, and it worked well. Some people suggest using the sand or a neutral part of the reef, but will give less accurate results. For best results, bring a small white dive slate with you.

Remember to switch your white-balance back to auto when using the flash, otherwise your photo will look very red.

Some people will tell you to use the cloudy or underwater setting when taking ambient light shots underwater, but doing a manual white balance gives much better results. Of course, if your camera doesn't have a manual white balance feature, then you have no choice.  The underwater mode will give better results, especially when shallow, and cloudy can be used as a last resort if there is no underwater mode, or if you are very deep.


White Balance mistakes

  • Any white balance mistakes can be easily corrected if you are shooting in RAW

  • Setting a manual white balance, and then forgetting to switch to auto white-balance and using your flash or strobes will result in a nice red photo, oops!

  • Taking an ambient light shot underwater , and leaving the white balance on auto, sunny, or flash will result in a mostly blue photo void of color, especially if you are deeper than 10-15ft deep.

  • Make sure you increase the contrast of your ambient-light photo afterwards in photoshop.


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just a quick note of sincere

just a quick note of sincere thanks for this fantastic web site.
Im a relative newbie to the world of underwater photography and the advice / tips on this site are so valuable.

Ally, We are so glad you're


We are so glad you're finding the site helpful.  That's our goal!  Be sure to visit often as we're constantly adding great new content.



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If I don't have anything to

If I don't have anything to point for white balance, sometimes I will point in the direction of the sun. The deeper I am, the 'bluer' the sun will be. If it is overcast, the strength of the sun will also be weaker, hence it will be 'bluer'. Do you think this is valid?

This article does not discuss abut the distance of the subject. A subject 30 ft away will look 'bluer' than another one 10 ft away. What I sometimes do is use some neutral spot area like sand, and if my subject will be around 20 ft away, I will point at a sandy area 20 ft away, etc.

I have a couple quick

I have a couple quick questions if you don't mind... I bought a nikon coolpix L18 about a year ago, with the Ikelite underwater housing. It has limited shooting options like automatic shutter speed and ISO(unchangeable as far as I know). But I can change the white balance. I know the camera is pretty run of the mill. But for now it will have to do. If anyone knows some tricks for it to get the best pic with this camera that would be great! I am also thinking about getting some lens's for it like the red tropical water lens. If I am manually adjusting the white balance with the white slate, do I do it with the lens on or off? And a AF 35 autoflash may be in my future but is out of the travel budget for now.... I want to take some good pics underwater kinda OCD ( like most divers) when it comes to that stuff. Because I know how it looked to me on my dive and when my pics are dull and colorless and don't reflect that it kinda bumbs me out. Sorry for the novel but I'm headed to Cyprus Greese in two weeks and I would like to take some great pictures there... Thanks again for all your help and this awesome site it has helped me a ton already!!

i just bought the s90 canon

i just bought the s90
canon underwater housing

there is an option to take a picture in raw and jpeg simultaneously - is this what you do? why or why not?

and yes i am a beginner - if i take in i need to set or mess with the white balance at all?

so just put in P..and select raw..and that is it?

i don't have a strobe...
In manual mode, the camera won't set the exposure of the flash automatically, you'll have to set the flash power yourself, which is no fun. To get that capability, which is basically TTL with the internal flash, use Av Mode, F5.6. In bright conditions, use Av Mode, F8.
(can i get that in beginner terms? or don't worry about it if i shoot in raw).. ?

how far from the dive slate

how far from the dive slate does the camera need to be to set it

1-2ft is fine 

1-2ft is fine 

Scott Gietler Owner/Editor, Underwater Photography Guide & Bluewater Photo

Does it matter that the slate

Does it matter that the slate does not fill the entire exposure . . wide angle and fish eye lenses may have exposures beyond a 3" x 5" slate?

Question for you: why is a

Question for you: why is a white card used for underwater while for above water i was taught to use a grey card?

Also for Flash photography you say it is best to leave your white balance to auto - can custom white balance change the color temperature of the background (within flash photography)?