What exactly is backscatter? Backscatter occurs when the camera’s flash highlights suspended particles within the water column between the subject and cameras lens. There are a few ways you can avoid backscatter. Knowing these tips and tricks can help stop unwanted backscatter ruining your shots.
Backscatter is the ultimate bug bare of underwater photographers. It can totally ruin what could have been that perfect shot, so knowing how to avoid it can help to relieve the frustration it can cause.
What exactly is backscatter?
Backscatter occurs when the camera’s flash highlights suspended particles within the water column between the subject and cameras lens.
There are a few ways you can avoid backscatter. Knowing these tips and tricks can help stop unwanted backscatter ruining your shots.
Tips and Techniques to help you avoid backscatter
If you know you’re going to be photographing in turbid water, try to concentrate on shooting macro (or close-up) shots. The closer you get to your subject, the less water there’ll be between the camera and your subject – and therefore the less particles that can potentially cause backscatter to thin your shot. Also, try not to shoot subjects into open water, use the reef as your background so that the water cannot be seen and is less highlighted.
This picture shows backscatter from shooting wide angle in some fairly turbid water. Macro photography would probably have been a better choice in these conditions, but who can resist photographing a beautiful turtle?!
Strobe positioning can be a major factor in preventing backscatter. If your strobes are in the wrong position, then they can intensify the problem. Try to have them out and away from your camera, at about a 45 degree angle. This will help to limit the amount of water which is hit by the strobe cone.
If you are using a compact camera without strobes, make sure you use the flash diffuser which can help a little, however due to the flash position, little else can be done. You are definitely better using external strobes.
If you’re using a manual strobe, sometimes backscatter can occur due to the flash firing too brightly. If you think the strobe position is fine, then try turning the power down a notch or two.
Get as close as possible to your subject (without touching it!)so there is the least possible amount of water between you and the subject. If you are shooting wide angle, use the widest possible lens or a fish-eye lens as these will let you get even closer without cutting off part of the scene.
Make sure you have mastered your buoyancy! You could be diving in the clearest water there is, but if you’re kicking up the silt or sandy bottom with your fins, you’re likely to get a shot full of backscatter. Make sure you can control where you are and what you’re doing in the water.
This picture is a good example of backscatter caused by sand being kicked up around the subject.
If you are diving with others, try to go in a group that also have good buoyancy. Im sure you’ll be less than pleased if your fellow divers keep ruining your shots due to their poor diving skills! Photographing slightly away from where other divers are can help. And if there are other photographers in your group, try to discuss etiquette beforehand. For example, you could ask each member of the group to hang back until each has finished before moving in to photograph the same subject.
When diving in currents, try to position yourself down current from your subject. This way you can kick into the current instead of being pushed towards the subject, which means less swimming around and less chance of kicking up any silt.
Sometimes it can be possible to find areas of water where the suspended particles are less. Try heading a bit deeper or shallower. Often the particles are caused by a thermocline or band of water just a few meters in depth and sometimes the other sides of it can have surprisingly clear water!
Unfortunately, backscatter is just one of the things you have to deal with as an underwater photographer. But hopefully by thinking about and following the suggestions above you’ll be able to stop it ruining too many of your wonderful shots!
For more useful digital underwater photography techniques to help you get the most out of your underwater camera system, take a look at our Tips and Tricks section and learn about other types of underwater shots.
If you’d like to learn more about underwater photography, take a look at the Liquid Lense range of underwater photography courses. All Liquid Lense courses have been designed in-house to help you get the most out of an underwater camera system.