Mickey Charteris, author of Caribbean Reef Life, and one of Roatan's most experienced Black Water photographers has grudgingly agreed to offer up some of his hard earned knowledge of this unique photographic discipline.


Tips for Black Water Photography

- Mickey Charteris

Warning: This activity is seriously habit-forming and you may never look at seawater in the same way again!


Larval Lobster - Photo: Mickey Charteris

Black Water photography can be the most challenging underwater photography you'll ever do and it will make you feel like a beginner all over again.

But the possibility of bringing to light some of the oddest and most fascinating marine life on the planet has a special thrill. One that will have even the most jaded of underwater photographers all a-bubble with excitement.

And it's not just for the tech-savvy with all the special lenses and strobes; some of the best shots we've seen have come from simple point-and-shoot cameras and hand-held dive lights!



 Here are a few hints and tricks to make the most of your time drifting above the abyss:

*Charge your battery to the max. Not kidding here, you will take more shots in one hour on a Black Water dive than you will all day on the reef. It's a target-rich environment!

*It's all flash photography so your camera may heat up and this will eventually cause the lens to fog up. Try leaving your housing in an air-conditioned room for an hour before loading and closing. Cold air has less moisture in it, so there's less to condense onto your lens.

*If you're shooting with a strobe, be sure to set your camera's flash to it's minimum setting. It will be enough to trigger your strobe but won't heat up as fast or drain your battery.

Geryonia proboscidalis - photo: Mickey Charteris

*Aim Small, Miss Small! Most of the subjects are tiny (at least until that Silky Shark shows up). It's macro stuff, so double check your camera is in macro mode. (Sounds obvious, right? But I've done it myself and wondered why the camera won't focus!)

*Backscatter is the biggest issue here! All those particles you see are actually life! Selecting just one subject is like shooting a butterfly in a snowstorm. Angle your strobe outwards so just the edge of the light hits your subject.

*Compact cameras can be set to a high shutter speed to reduce the backscatter, but you can still get enough light onto your critter from the internal flash.

*dSLR users seem to get the best results from a really tiny aperture, allowing more of the critter to be in focus.

*Bring a good dive-light. In all that inky blackness you'll give your camera a hand by letting it actually see what you are trying to shoot. If you're not sure of your light just borrow one of West End Diver's high intensity LED lights by Big Blue. Very powerful!

*Keep your dive-light away from your lens as much as possible to reduce backscatter.



*Keep shooting! Things are coming past you so fast that it's best not to check on each shot. When in doubt, shoot again! You'll have all the time in the world to look at your pics back on the boat!

*Actually, even if you think you got it, shoot again!

*You can buy yourself more time with each subject by swimming back to your anchor line, and even in front of it. Those extra few seconds might mean the quick adjustment you need to get your shot just right.

*Many Black Water subjects are almost completely translucent, such as comb jellies and larval eels. You'll need more flash power to get them lighted properly. But many larval fishes are silvery and can overexpose very easily, so you'll need to dial it down. Beginners and compact camera users can just use the exposure dial, while strobe  users can adjust their output on the strobe head for different subjects. Keep that shutter speed high.

*When all else fails, swim back to your line and wait for the next amazing subject to drift by. It won't take long!


For any more help and ideas with your particular camera set-up, feel free to contact me at caribbeanreeflife@gmail.com. I still feel like I'm learning all this new photography myself, and I hope it stays that way!

I leave you with some of my favorite quotes from real photographers:

"Your first 10,000 photos are your worst." : Herni Cartier Bresson
“Which of my photographs is my favourite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.” : Imogen Cunningham
"F-8, and be there!" : Arthur “Weegee” Fellig