Photography is all about light and how we “paint” with it. Today I will discuss one of the most striking forms of ambient light you can find in underwater photography, Dappled light

What is dappled light?

Early morning, just after dawn and in the afternoon, before dusk the sun will be very low in the horizon. The sunbeams will hit the surface an, for the most part, will be reflected, however, a small portion will be able to get through. Because the acute angle of the sun, the sunbeams that break the surface will get a beautiful warm tint and create some “striking shafts of light” 

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Dappled light on a Red Sea reef.

Shutting dappled light

In order to achieve a strong image is essential that you are in the water at the right time. Idily within an hour of either the sunset or the sunrise. Otherwise the sun will be too high in the sky and the rays will hit the surface at a greater angle.

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Timing is essential when photographing dappled light. Shut too early or too late and you won’t get any sun shafts
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a few minutes later and the results were completely different

Surface conditions are also very important, you do not want a very choppy surface because that will reflect almost all the light. Calmer water creates stronger sunbeams but you don’t want it to be perfectly still either. In my experience, when there are a few small ripples on the surface you get the best results. The small waves on the surface will disrupt and split the sunbeams creating a beautiful effect.

You can get the most beautiful sunbeams in your shot but if there is nothing of interest underneath, your picture will be too simple. Always look for an interesting subject in the foreground, it can be a nice coral formation, a fish or your dive buddy. It is not that important as long as you have something interesting in your frame.

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A strong foreground subject complements perfectly the beautiful light

Depth is essential, dappled light works very well at very shallow depths. I had the best results in less than 2 meters. If you end up deeper you will struggle to get striking sunbeams. Either you are too deep to actually see the beams or you have to shut upwards at a steep angle. Stay shallow an try to shoot straight or just slightly upwards.

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My good friend Jussi shutting some dappled light at Thomas reef in Egypt

Diving for dappled light

If you decide to give this a try, is always a good idea to plan the dive accordingly. If possible dive a site that you have previously visited and where you know you have a good subject range in the shallows. Make sure you get in the water with plenty of time so you can identify the right subjects and do some test shots.

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I found this anemone minutes into the dive and waited until the light was right to start shutting

The sun in the tropics goes down very quickly and you won’t have a lot of time to faff around. Once you start seeing the right sunbeams find the depth at which they look the best and state shutting.

I have recently finished a workshop in Egypt and the opportunities are endless. So many reefs come all the way to the surface giving you many chances. Recently I’ve been shooting on Thomas reef, one of the four reefs in the strait of Tiran. When done as a third dive, if you jump a bit late, by the time you get to your safety stop the light will be perfect.

Kit for dappled light photography

You do not need any special kit for this kind of photography, just a wide angle lens will work very well. A strobe can also be useful to light the foreground.

Join Mario on the next “Shark Quest “ photo trip on the 22 of November to have the opportunity to photograph the inquisitive oceanic whitetip sharks of the Egyptian offshore reefs where you will also have the chance to give dappled light photography a go.

Mario is well known for his patient, calm approach to teaching underwater photography, he will help you develop new skills and build your confidence in a relaxed and fun environment.