Dappled Light

There is a wonderful quality of natural light present underwater, which I believe is very misunderstood. I and many other photographers refer to it as 'dapple light'. Another popular term is 'crinkles'.

Just after sunrise or towards twilight time the sunbeams, which enter the surface of the sea, are at the most acute angle by virtue of the low angle of sun and surface. These sunbeams produce a golden light and this effect is amplified into strong golden shafts of light as the beams pervade the surface.

Underwater photographers have been using this quality of light as a dramatic backdrop to their photographs for as long as I can remember. Doubilet's wide angles from his photo books Light in the Sea and Water Light Time are superb examples.

Capture the rays of the sun but leave the sun-ball itself out of the frame. I have seen so many wide angle sunburst photographs fail because the sun-ball overpowers the main theme despite the efforts of the author to compose the most photogenic and aesthetically pleasing subjects.

fig. 6.19 The author shooting dapple light by Martyn Guess. We planned our evening dive to enter the water in plenty of time to catch the light as the sun dropped onto the horizon. Martyn looks to be at the optimum depth of 1 m or so. I'm at about 2 m checking out the effect of the sunlight. His settings were f8 at 1/250th sec, Nikon 10.5 mm fisheye, ISO 200, Nikon D300. He has lit the top of the reef with a touch of flash on low power — Inon Z240.

fig. 6.20 The effects of dapple light when you shoot too deep. In this case 5 m was enough to diminish the effect. Nikon D200, 10.5 mm fisheye lens, f8 at 250th sec, flash fill using one Inon Z220 on low power.

To catch the light, you have to enter the water just after sunrise and before sunset. Day-boat underwater photographers often miss out as they have to head back to base long before the afternoon light is at its best.

On my photo workshops I set a number of early morning and late afternoon photo-dives aside to conduct a guided 'light tour'. I do this to dispel any misunderstandings about dapple light and knowing how to shoot it. You see, the effect is only noticeable in shallow water — in my experience between one and four metres. You must ascertain as soon as possible the depth at which the beams are most dramatic. If the sea is glass calm the effect is heightened. You have to work quickly though to find a subject at the best depth to photograph against the sunlight. Remember, the sun sets rapidly in tropical locations and all too soon the effect of the sunbeams fades. The main reason why underwater photographers fail to recognise the light is because they descend past the optimal depth, which is determined by how low the sun is to the horizon.

fig. 6.21 It's all about having the right conditions. This session lasted for one hour after the sunrise over Kasai Village Dive Resort, Cebu, Philippines. The sun came up directly over the land and blessed with a glass calm surface and a quality, shallow-water house reef all workshop participants could have a go. The sharp penetrating rays are attributable to the perfect depth with the height of the sun. The way in which the rays are 'stacked' behind each other is a result of the flat surface. Nikon D300, f4 at 1/125th, natural light.

fig. 6.22 The appearance of the sunbeams when the surface is choppy. F5.6 at 1/125th sec, flash fill using two Inon Z200s on low power.

fig. 6.23 The best advice I can give is to find the optimum depth for the dapple sunlight and find something to put into it. You have to plan your photo-dive to find a site in shallow water with, if possible, interesting features.

fig. 6.24 I love to shoot this dramatic light and my favourite photo-dive site for this (at the time of writing) is Dangerous Reef, St John's in the southern Red Sea. There is a 2—3 hour window of awesome opportunities between the hours of 11am and 2pm when the sun is high enough to capture cathedral light in all it's glory. Unlike dapple light, cathedral is not depth dependent. The sandy floors of these 'swim throughs' are between 6 m and 10 m. Take no notice of the name 'dangerous'. These are not caves as such but narrow shallow passages which are open. F4 at 1/250th sec, ISO 500, natural light, 10.5 mm fisheye lens.

fig. 6.24 I love to shoot this dramatic light and my favourite photo-dive site for this (at the time of writing) is Dangerous Reef, St John's in the southern Red Sea. There is a 2—3 hour window of awesome opportunities between the hours of 11am and 2pm when the sun is high enough to capture cathedral light in all it's glory. Unlike dapple light, cathedral is not depth dependent. The sandy floors of these 'swim throughs' are between 6 m and 10 m. Take no notice of the name 'dangerous'. These are not caves as such but narrow shallow passages which are open. F4 at 1/250th sec, ISO 500, natural light, 10.5 mm fisheye lens.

fig. 6.25 Processing tip! To remove the blue colour cast, which is evident in digital capture underwater, I just de-saturate the image slightly to portray the colour tone which my eye originally perceived at the time. This is not quite mono or colour but it's accurate to my eye. Nikon D200, 10.5 mm fisheye lens, f4.8 at 1/30th sec, ISO 100, natural light.

fig. 6.25 Processing tip! To remove the blue colour cast, which is evident in digital capture underwater, I just de-saturate the image slightly to portray the colour tone which my eye originally perceived at the time. This is not quite mono or colour but it's accurate to my eye. Nikon D200, 10.5 mm fisheye lens, f4.8 at 1/30th sec, ISO 100, natural light.

fig. 6.26 It's not just caves where cathedral light is present. Wrecks offer some excellent possibilities as long as you can dive them around midday. The Chrisoula K wreck at Abu Nuhas has several safe and easy 'swim-throughs'. I've reduced this example to greyscale. Nikon D300, Tokina 10—17 mm at the 10 mm end, f4.8 at 1/30th sec, ISO 640, natural light.

fig. 6.27 I shot this radial light silhouette of a turtle with my Nikon D200 in Hawaii. When I saw the result I knew that the future of digital cameras and their ability to record sunbursts were encouraging.

Nikon 12—24 mm lens at the 12 mm end, f22 at 250th sec, ISO 100 flashguns turned off (very quickly). I did not want to record the bright underside of the turtle with flash. After much experience in Sipdan shooting turtles it's not a 'look' I particularly like!

fig. 6.27 I shot this radial light silhouette of a turtle with my Nikon D200 in Hawaii. When I saw the result I knew that the future of digital cameras and their ability to record sunbursts were encouraging.

Nikon 12—24 mm lens at the 12 mm end, f22 at 250th sec, ISO 100 flashguns turned off (very quickly). I did not want to record the bright underside of the turtle with flash. After much experience in Sipdan shooting turtles it's not a 'look' I particularly like!

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