Experimenting with Color Strobe Gels

New Technique: Create Vibrant Color with Strobe Gels
By Brent Durand


Experimenting with Colored Strobe Gels

New Technique: Create Vibrant Color with Strobe Gels

Text and Photos By Brent Durand




Meet the Disco Squid. They get funky when the sun sets, breaking out into moves and grooves illuminated by synchronized color strobe flashes. Diving in the midst of a large market squid run is an incredible experience - something worth seeking out. Thousands of these small squid swarm the shallows in a mating frenzy, leaving undulating blankets of egg baskets on the sand bottom. The excitement of diving a squid run is enhanced at night when walls of squid jockey to be close to dive lights while predators lurk in the shadows feasting on eggs. Make sure to check out photos from the most recent squid run at Vet's Park in Redondo Beach.


Planning the Colored Gel Shoot

I dived several times a week until late at night during the squid run last summer, presenting an opportunity to start experimenting with creative photo ideas. I was using both strobes and video lights for maximum creative flexibility and to attract as many squid as possible. 'Should I try zoom shots… no, not good with so many squid. Spin shots… no, not exciting with white squid. What about adding color to the living white canvas in front of me?  Yes !!'

The next day I borrowed a 3rd strobe from Bluewater Photo and taped a purple, orange and green strobe gel to each. I used medical tape to keep the gels secure on top of the diffusers through the surf entry and exit. The third strobe arm clamped directly to the ball mount on top of my Aquatica 5D MkIII housing, which allowed all three strobes to be spaced evenly. Ultralight triple clamps at the end of the main strobe arms allowed attachment of two I-Torch video lights.

While the extra lights and strobe were easy to manage in the water, it made the rig heavy on land. The sandy beach entries required some concentration, especially with drysuit, weight and steel 120 tank!

Check out the gear photo below:


Three strobes with colored gels and two video lights create the ultimate squid rig.


Up All Night with the Disco Squid

I made sure to balance the light from all three strobes while trying to avoid backscatter in the sandy water. One of my dive buddies (Kelli from Bluewater Photo) said the strobe flashes looked like… you guessed it – a disco party.

The biggest challenge in shooting a wall of squid is composition. Sure, you can just point and shoot at the wall of squid, but where is your focal point? A wall of squid is interesting because of the large number of creatures in front of you, but the story of a squid run is told through movement and energy. This led me to constantly seek compositions and patterns in the walls of squid, eventually incorporating slow shutter speeds, zooming and other creative techniques to the colored light produced by the strobe gels. All of the photos below came from a single dive.


Squid move in every direction lit by the colored strobe gels. ISO 100, f/14, 1/200.


A wall of squid propells away, leaving white traces of their path. ISO 100, f/14, 1.0s.



Shooting Tips

  1. Use a small dome. I was using a 9" dome at the time, but now that I have a 4” dome would opt for that instead. Why? It’s easier to light the center of the frame in the unforgiving sandy water.
  1. Stop down to increase depth of field. This will keep more of the scene in focus.
  1. Use a fast shutter speed for the blackest background possible. This will also minimize backscatter, which is very apparent in the next photo. This is, of course, unless you're intentionally dragging the shutter (see photo above).


Squid stacked in layers of color above an egg basket. ISO 100, f/14, 0.6s.


Several mating squid swim by in a densely packed group. ISO 100, f/14, 1/200.


At the end of the dive, several brave squid swim ahead up the steep slope to the beach. ISO 100, f/18, 0.5s.


Thoughts and Conclusion

The walls of squid were the perfect subject for testing colored strobe gels underwater. I'm generally a fan of portraying marine life naturally, however new techniques, technology and styles of photography are always interesting. Look at how quickly Fluoro photography is catching on, with talented photographers like Mike Bartick leading the charge.

Sometimes it's hard to commit to experimenting, spending valuable underwater photo time shooting photos that may not be any good, but if you don't experiment you'll never find something unique.

So what experiment is next? I've got an idea - we'll see if it works!


About the Author

Brent Durand is an avid California beach diver, photographer and writer dedicated to capturing unique underwater, ocean lifestyle and adventure images. Brent is editor-in-chief of the Underwater Photography Guide. Make sure to follow UWPG on Facebook for updates on everything underwater-photography.



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