Understanding exposure and what causes hot spots
By Scott Gietler

A hot spot is defined as an area of your photo that is significantly brighter than other areas of your photos, often with the highlights overexposed or "blown out". This is also called clipping or clipped highlights. You can get hotspots in either wide-angle or macro photography. 

Learn More About Exposure


What Causes Hot Spots In Underwater Photography


  • The #1 cause of hotspots is a highly reflective surface. Sand, white rock, silvery fish, some white surfaces of nudibranchs are some examples. It is also commonly seen in sunburst shots.

  • Less common causes are having some portions of the photo much closer than others.

  • Overexposing a high-contrast photo will increase the change of hotspots.


Preventing Hotspots and Over Exposure

  • Unfortunately, the best way to avoid hotspots is to avoid shooting subjects that are on white rocks or white sand. Some substances will never look good in photos, and it's best to either find another subject or not include them in the compostion if possible.

  • Make sure you are using your diffusers, they will help create more even, softer lighting.

  • For silver fishy, manually turn down the strobes, put your strobes out to the side as far away from the camera as possible, and don't point the strobes directly toward the subjects, point them out slightly.

  • For any reflective surface, it can help if the strobes are not pointing directly at the subject. Play around with different strobe postions so the light is not all directly reflected back at the camera. I often shoot with my strobes straight out to the sides. If I have hotspots, raising them slightly to the 10'oClock and 2'oClock positions, or a little higher, will often reduce hotspots that I see in the foreground of the photos.

  • If possible, try to underexpose the shot a little more, shooting at base ISO for minimal noise, then bring up the darker areas in a RAW editor if you are shooting in raw.

  • If your hotspot is closer to the camera than the other portions of the photo, pull your strobes back more. This will results in more even lighting in the various depths of the photo, due to the properties of strobe fallout versus distance.

  • Learn how to view your histogram, and turn on the blown highlights warning if your camera supports that.

Recovering Clipped Highlights

The best way to recover detail in bright, overexposed areas is to adjust the highlights in Lightroom. You have the best chance for good results if shooting in RAW. There is no way to recover this information in jpeg files. You could also try lowering the luminance of the yellow channel in the hue/saturation/luminance area often helps reduce the brightness of blown-out white sand and white rocks. If the red channel is over blown, slide the luminance slider of the red channel to the left. 


Video Tutorial


You can also watch my video tutorial on reducing hot spots in your underwater photography.


Further Reading

Understanding your histogram

Learning about Exposure

Strobe position diagrams

Preventing backscatter

Beginners guide to underwater photography

Shooting in RAW vs JPEG

Scott Gietler
Understanding exposure and what causes hot spots


Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. Bluewater Photo, based in Culver City, CA is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious underwater camera stores, serving many thousands of customers each year, where nothing is more important than customer service. The Underwater Photography Guide is the world’s first website to feature free tutorials on underwater photography, and has become the most trafficked resource on underwater photography worldwide. Bluewater Travel is a full-service dive travel wholesaler sending groups and individuals on the world’s best dive vacations. 

Scott is also an avid diver, underwater photographer, and budding marine biologist, having created the online guide to the underwater flora and fauna of Southern California. He is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, has volunteered extensively at the Santa Monica aquarium, and is the creator of the Ocean Art underwater photo competition, one of the largest underwater international photo competitions ever held in terms of value of prizes. He lives in California with his wife, newborn girl and scuba-diving, photo taking 4 year old son.

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