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Blackwater Photo Gear: How to Prepare for Underwater Photography's Most Unique Niche

Blackwater Imaging is rapidly increasing in popularity, but not having the best equipment for success can lead to a frustrating experience. 

So for those just getting started; what is Blackwater diving? 

People often think that the only place to do BW diving is in some far off exotic locale. But nothing could be further from the truth. Blackwater diving can be in any ocean in the world in water that may be as little as 20 feet deep or as much as thousands of feet deep. it can be near shore or far offshore. The only requirement is that it is night time and it is generally going to be in some suspended depth of water, never on the bottom. The goal is to locate the unusual creatures, often in larval form, that inhabit the open waters, rather than the seafloor or reef.

How does Blackwater differ from other types of underwater critter photography?

Macro is macro right? Well, not always. The size range of subjects is similar. On the small end are subjects in the 7-13mm range (1/4-1/2") and can sometimes be several inches or larger on the other extreme. The behavior of the subjects can often be quite different though. On a reef, many of us are used to using longer focal length macro lenses to reach shy subjects that are easily spooked. Blackwater subjects are much less likely to be at a distance or swimming away from you. Ironically the problem is often their getting too close to your port to focus on. Why would this be? What is unique in Blackwater is that you and the subject are always floating in the same direction at the same speed. So everything appears motionless. This means the only movement is made by the subject - if at all - or more likely, by us the photographer. Since we are massively larger than the subject, our movement creates the only current which often draws the animal in our direction as we attempt to back up. 

Our lights also attract species and the food those species eat, again, often bringing things closer. All this should be considered when selecting your blackwater lens.

The other characteristic that stands out with blackwater subjects is that a large percentage of the critters we are shooting are fully transparent or semi-transparent. This often demands a lot of light with the smaller apertures we are likely shooting. The techniques we use to light these subjects will often be different than what we typically use for shooting macro as well.

Equipmeent basics for blackwater photography

  • A modern digital camera with excellent autofocus.
  • A fast and very close focusing lens - usually a dedicated macro lens, but not always.
  • A minimum of two powerful focus lights - you need run time - dives are 90-120 minutes long.
  • High power strobes with reasonably fast recycle time.
  • Ideal buoyancy characteristics for your rig which will usually mean some floatation devices (arms, collars, etc.)

Camera considerations

This is not intended as a pitch to sell new cameras, but there are some Blackwater "facts of life". Blackwater subjects are notoriously challenging to focus on. First they are often semitransparent - so low contrast by definition. The background is black which doesn't help. Some of the subjects like larval fish can tend to dart around rapidly. If your current camera is a six year old mirrorless set up, you may be sorely challenged to get these BW subjects in focus. A good test is how you are able to focus on a single swimming damselfish on the reef or if you can easily shoot a coral goby . If you have difficulty with this on a dive during the day, you will likely have an uphill battle with your rig on a blackwater dive.

Modern autofocus DSLR and mirrorless cameras have made big strides in the AF department and this really gives image makers the edge in Blackwater.

The newer Nikons, with their excellent low-light AF have been popular for blackwater


Lenses for Blackwater Imaging

One note in particular: For traditional macro it is popular to use macro wet lenses on a zoom or macro lens. This is not recommended for blackwater, as it can be extremely difficult to keep the floating subject in the narrow focus capable zone. It is of great help to have a lens that can focus on your subject at some distance and then "ease in on it" gradually. On the other hand, some folks have had success with wide angle wet lenses that focus down to the glass and zooming to a long focal length behind them. This won't get the smallest subjects, but does allow you to get close.

As mentioned, longer focal length macro lenses are generally not a great choice for Blackwater as they often don't focus close enough. Examples of these would the Nikkor 105mm, Nikkor 85mm, Canon 100mm, Sony 90mm and Olympus 60mm. All very good and popular macro lenses, but not ideal for blackwater.

Also, avoid old macro lens designs where possible. Nikon 60mm f2.8D is a good example - still a popular lens, but focus is too slow compared to the newer 60mm f2.8G

For DSLR crop sensor cameras you might consider the following

For DSLR full fame cameras consider:

  • The Canon 50mm f2.8 Macro - This is an old, slow lens, but Canon's only offering in the focal length we want - this puts FF Canon shooters at a little disadvantage
  • The Nikon AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED Lens 

Micro 4/3 Cameras (Panasonic and Olympus)

Mirorrless Crop Sensor Cameras (Sony, Canon, Nikon)

Mirrorless Full Frame Cameras

At this time, the recommendations for FF Canon and Nikon are the same lenses suggested for DSLRs

 Sony FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro Lens is excellent for the A7/A9 cameras.


A consideration for viewing your subject

Some photographers have become accustomed to shooting while using the rear LCD on the Camera to frame and focus. This may work with typically easy subjects, but it can be challenging and almost impossible with blackwater. Viewfinders, whether electronic (EVF) or optical, offer much better opportunities for success. Many housing manufacturers also offer enhanced viewfinders as an option that can significantly enlarge your subject. These are highly recommended as well.

 Focus Lighting for Blackwater

Constant lighting is critical for Blackwater and needs to fulfill several requirements. The lights should be compact, lightweight, cover a wide angle, be easy to operate and powerful. We consider 1000 lumens to be a minimum with more being preferable. Why the extra power? All constant lighting runs for 50-60min at full power. But BW dives run 90-120min, so this means you need to run lights at about half power for the dive. So a 1000 lumens will provide 500 lumens on a dive, 2000 lumens will provide 1000 functional lumens at half power. Planning here is key and redundancy (at least two lights) is important. Some lights such as Fix Neo and Keldan offer a live remaining run-time display - this gives users a great sense of security and flexibility during the dive.

Other lights such as Light & Motion and Kraken us LED colors to give a rough idea of charge status.


Fix Neo 1500DXII SWR 

What if I drop my housing?

Although the idea of floating in a thousand feet of water at night sounds like a high risk proposition for losing your gear, in reality, the risks are minimal and can be reduced further with a few considerations. 

The most important task is to get your rig balanced to the point that, in water, it exhibits a minimum negative amount of weight. Include all your lights and accessories and add floats or float arms until you can easily control your photo rig with one hand. If you let go of your rig completely, it should only sink very slowly in salt water. This not only increases your comfort, it makes the idea of accidently losing your rig almost impossible. For those that wish a greater physical connection to their housing, Reef also carries a number lanyards, elastic safety lines and hand straps.

Have more questions? Let us know - we love talking underwater photography of all sorts!