Underwater Strobe Positions

Strobe positions for macro & wide-angle underwater photography
By Scott Gietler

Some people are constantly changing their strobe positions. I fall into that category. I have other friends, excellent photographers, who never change their strobes, always leaving them in one position. There is no correct strobe position, it all depends on what you are trying to accomplish.


Here's some examples and tips of strobe positions that I have used. Since I'm never shooting in the clearest of water I'm always aware of the possibility of backscatter.


Looking for Todd Winner's article on shooting wide-angle with strobes? Click here


Quick Links

Strobe Positions for Macro       Strobe Positions for Wide Angle

Strobe Position with a single strobe

Strobe buying guide        Z240 review            Ys110 review

No more backscatter             No more hotspots      Diffusers

Gelling your strobes


Strobe arm length

The best solution is to use 2 strobe arms on each side. The arm connected to the housing should be 5-6 inches, and the arm connected to the strobe should be 8-9 inches long. This gives you maximum flexibility for macro, wide-angle, and CFWA underwater photography.


Strobe position diagrams for wide-angle

If you are using a single strobe, see the strobe diagrams here (registered users only).


Here's a position (photo above) for shooting with a 10mm fisheye lens. the strobes are pulled back and pointed outwards. However, if you are too close to your subject, you may get a dark area in the center. pull the strobes in closer (keeping them back and pointed out) to help alleviate this, or get a third strobe.


When using the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens, sometimes I close to the dome port at 17mm to photograph a subject. For this kind of photograph, it can be difficult to light the area directly in front of the dome port. I pull my strobes back even more, well behind the dome port, and I bring them in closer to the housing. The closer the subject is to the dome port, the closer I'll bring the strobes to the housing. See the photo above.


Strobe positions for Macro photography


underwater strobe position diagram

For fish photos I'll often put my strobes out to the sides, avoiding backscatter since the area in between the lens and the subject is not lit up. See the photo above. For fish that are very close, I'll have to move my strobes in closer.

fish underwater photography

Here's a fish that doesn't like to get too close.


underwater strobe position diagram

For macro, I'll often pull my strobes up and forward, pointing them slightly towards (but not directly at) the subject at an angle, giving a combination of side and front lighting. See the photo above.


Here's some photos lit with my standard macro position:







Sometimes I'll need to bring the strobes in tight, emphasizing front lighting more, especially if other positions are showing too many shadows. If needed, I'll bring them in even tighter, pointed forward in the direction of the lens, especially if a subject is in a crevice, inside a barrel sponge, or has nooks and crannies I need to light up. See the photo above.


I had to pull in the strobes tight to light the inside of this tunicate.



Here my strobes are brought way forward, emphasizing sidelighting and perhaps even a little backlighting, sometimes giving subjects a little glow. Experiment and think about where the light is going. See the photo above.


This Janolus nudibranch got a little bit of a glow beacuse I had my strobes pushed far in front, coming from slightly behind the nudibranch.


Here's a strobe position I use for direct, even front-lighting when shooting supermacro photography. See the photo above.


If I'm having trouble getting a black background, sometimes I'll switch to this strobe position, which is similar to the position described by kevin lee in the article below. Strobes are pointed at the port, minimizing the area lit up behind the subject. See the photo above.


Shooting Macro underwater with one strobe


If you have one strobe, you can successfully do macro photography by placing the strobe over the subject.


queen triggerfish

Queen triggerfish getting cleaned. Using one strobe gives this photo a unique look and a sense of depth. F8, 1/60th, Nikon 60mm lens, film camera. To me, it looks like the light came mainly from above. Photo by Uwe Schmolke.



Here’s an article on macro strobe positioning by Kevin Lee:



Most underwater photographers are familiar with the tried-and-true principle of NOT aiming strobes directly at a subject, since the wide beam angle, which varies strobe to strobe, will illuminate the water column in front and behind the subject, resulting in unwanted, unsightly back-scatter.  Rather, non-direct aim is preferred. Turning strobes outward, so that the inside edge of the beam angle strikes the subject, greatly minimizes illumination of suspended particulates, between the lens and subject, thereby reducing back-scatter.

However, with macro photography, here is an alternate approach to consider for subjects within 12 inches or less of your lens. Try turning your strobes inward, in the extreme, so that the outside edge of the light cone, hits the subject.  That means strobes will actually be pointing at the housing.  Don't allow light to enter directly into the port i.e. always have the front of the strobe behind the plane of the port face; otherwise, the image can be badly burned or over-exposed (caveat, this method does not work well with wide angle lenses, as flaring results).  Since the subject to camera distance is so short, there is generally little risk of backscatter, unless one is shooting in pea soup. Also, decrease strobe power by 50% to achieve better image detail.  The goal is to gently kiss light off your subject for that ideal exposure.

This method is used with great success for highlighting a subject because, combined with a fast shutter speed (1/250 or faster) and small aperture (F18 or higher), cluttered, distracting backgrounds can be minimized.  In fact, if you shot at an angle, generally upward, with nothing but open water behind the subject, you can achieve a totally black background, which really makes the subject really "pop".  Such images exude a very "classy" feel and look.

Here are some examples of images taken with this technique.

Black dorid, copyright Kevin Lee

Kevin's strobe positioning


Further Reading


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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