Some images stand out more than others. I often asked myself why, and to be sure, there are lots of distinctive reasons. But the usual answer is not because the subject is a rare or unique creature. In many cases, the reason is the subject is perfectly isolated without distracting elements that draw your attention away. Here is how inward lighting can help you.

And to pull this off?

Time to pay attention to not just the composition, but also the lighting. On this blog, I will describe one of the techniques I first learned from Martin Edge a few years ago and I’ve been using a lot recently: Inward Lighting.

Scuba Travel, fishinfocus, inward lighting
This turtle was very close to the reef however by using inward lighting I was able to light only my subject and not whatever was behind

When photographers make the transition from using purely ambient light to shooting with strobes, one of the first things they learn is not to point the flashguns directly to the subject.

This is because the centre of the beam tends to be very harsh and much stronger than the rest of the cone of light. This increases the risk of backscatter and hotspots. Instead, we use the corners of the beam which offer a much softer and pleasant light. This is particularly important when using a wide angle lens.

Inward lighting

Inward lighting is a technique that takes the concept of using the side of the light cone to an extreme. As the name says, the idea is to point your strobes inwards, to yourself. I know it seems a bit counterintuitive and wrong but you will be using the outside edge of the cone of light.

Benefits of Inward lighting

As I mentioned early, the propose of using inward lighting is to separate the subject by lighting it while keeping the background dark even if they are relatively close to each other.

Scuba Travel, fishinfocus, inward lighting
Notice how by using inward lighting I was able to completely darken the distracting background

When positioning your strobes you need to make sure that they are not pointing into the dome. Position them carefully. The front of the strobes needs to be behind the base of the dome port and aim the strobes towards your own ears. That way only a very small portion of the light cone should be able to go forward.

Scuba Travel, fishinfocus, inward lighting
Notice how the strobes are pointing to the dives face. This way the light will only reach the front of the sponge

By minimising the amount of light in front of the lens you can also minimise backscatter.

Now you have the strobes pointing on the correct inwards angle, think how far apart should the strobes be? Exactly the same way you do when shooting traditional wide angle. The closer your subject is to the port, the closer the strobes want to be to the housing. When the subject is further and you move your flashguns further apart. Be sure to bring them further back or tilt them further back to avoid hotspots. Remember: aim for your ears! This is particularly important when using fisheye lenses.

Scuba Travel, fishinfocus, inward lighting
For larger subjects such as this table coral, I had to position my flashguns a bit further apart.


When using inward lighting there are two main problems you will encounter:

  1. your subject won’t receive enough light and will be too dark
  2. your strobes are not tilted back enough and you will get hotspots and backscatter
Scuba Travel, fishinfocus, inward lighting
Strobes not tilted back enough will produce strong hotspots (look at all that rubbish illuminated on the side of the image)
A small tweak of the strobe position the hotspots are gone and the sponge is much better lit without all that mess

I’ve been using this technique for some years now and I have to say there is not a magic recipe to get the results you want the first time. The best thing you can do is to practice every whenever you have a chance and be prepared not to get the shot on your first attempt, you will need to adjust your strobes several times. The more you practice the easier it gets.

Scuba Travel, fishinfocus, inward lighting
By lighting only the anemone the distracting background was turned black focusing the attention on the main subject

Want to learn to improve your underwater photography lighting? Join Mario on his Red Sea Photography trip next June for the opportunity to practice this and many other techniques.

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.