Learn how to manage backlighting in underwater photography !

In general, backlighted photos are technically more difficult to take than environmental pictures with only the deep blue of the water column.

This difficulty is due to the great dynamism of the scene.

This is all the more true if the sun is present in the composition you have chosen.

Highlighting the sun

If you decide to integrate the sun into your composition, it must be put forward and valued at its true value!!

So that this star is no longer a disaster, because no matter how magnificent it may be, it has suffered too much from bad exposure, an unsightly halo to its contour, or simply bad post-treatment!!

It’s time to fix this, so that the sun will never again be sacrificed to your foreground.

manage backlighting in underwater photography

Avoid total improvisation

A  backlight photograph can’t be improvised.

Unlike a photo taken on the go , you have to think about it:

  1. The composition
  2. The placement of the sun in relation to the foreground
  3. The different settings (exposure triangles : aperture, shutter speed, iso).

Indeed, I consider the sun as a subject in its own , which must be treated as such. This means that you must attach as much importance to your foreground as to the sun.

Personally, even if I have an amazing foreground , perfectly composed and exposed very well , I will consider it as “lost” if I have mismanaged the notion of “sun”.

Moreover, the most important concept in backlighting your shot  isn’t so much the sun itself, but rather the management of its contour.

Indeed, the sun itself will inevitably be overexposed, not to say burned (yes yes it is the sun).

The real challenge lies in the transition from sun to blue.

A good management of this transition will make your photo a success (at least for the sun).


How to avoid “burning” the sun ?

What EXIFS  to have, techniques and tricks to adopt ?

For this we will discuss various topics such as for example:

⦁ the settings of a backlit picture

⦁ the composition

⦁ different possible  renderings

⦁ and to finish with the final touch : post-processing tutorial

First of all, I would like to point out the main success factor of a backlit photo: it’s obviously  LUCK !!Un Exemple with this shot :


How did I make this picture ?

“I was at 35 m deep, quietly photographing this beautiful sun with its magnificent gradient of blue when suddenly…. BIM, a group of a hundred hammerhead sharks came between them and me !!!!! Even though I hadn’t asked for anything! Quite frankly, they’re not short of air.”

What, did you believe it?

Noooooo and you are right. It doesn’t work that way!”

Luck has nothing to do with this story.

Moreover, very often luck doesn’t have much room in photography , and even less so with backlighting.

And it’s quite the opposite. Anticipation is decisive!!

On immobile subjects, we have time to see things coming, settle down and fine-tune our settings. But on mobile subjects, like in open water with pelagic animals for example, it’s a different story altogether.

As is often the case with exploratory diving, while waiting for a subject to reach your flashes, the basic settings of your camera are made for exposure of a subject in blue.

That is to say, with a  slightly underexposed background to have a very dense blue.

However, these settings are rarely effective for backlit photos. Obviously, the brightness of the two scenes is very different.

That was exactly the case when I took this picture of the hammerhead sharks.

We were descending to a target depth of 50m in deep blue.

Suddenly I hear Olivier, my partner, making loud noises.

It shows me to our left, at about 30 meters from us and slightly in height, a huge group  of hammerhead sharks coming out of the blue and swimming parallel to us.

The photo of the backlight was already imagined without thinking for a long time.

While I was palming as fast as possible in their direction, I turned the knurled wheels, typed on the keys of my case and my flashes in order to have the optimal adjustments at the moment when I will pass under the bench, the sun in full in the frame.

Experience and practice are fundamental to progress!!!

Without this anticipation, this photo would never have been possible. This of course  is true for other situations. “


When shooting, the settings

You can’t miss the right moment .

As much as it’s possible to “save the furniture” with an underexposed photo, as much when it is burned…. Well, it’s burned!!!!

Also, the main challenge of a backlit photo is to avoid burning the sun, and especially its contour.

Indeed, the sun itself…. It’s the sun!

You can’t look at it without a filter using naked eye.

Therefore it’s normal that its brightness is important.

Finally, it all depends on how deep you are.

Even with excellent visibility, beyond the 30 meters depth, its brightness and luminosity decrease a lot.

The rays that penetrate the water in the 10-metre zone have not existed for a long time.

“This means that the rendering will not be the same depending on visibility and depth.


Let’s get to the settings !

In fact, there are not 50 solutions to avoid burning the area around the sun.

You have to under-expose your shot , quite simply !!!!

I would even say that we should grossely  under-expose it … But be careful, not in any way!

And yes, it’s nice to stick the exposure slider completely left, so far to the left that even your camera’s light meter won’t know where it is!

However… it has to be done in the right way.

To properly under-expose a photo, the first thing to do is to lower the sensitivity of the sensor (the iso).


I use a value of between 100 and 200 iso when I am in a depth between the surface and 15 m deep.

There are two reasons for this choice:

  1. the scene is very bright so the sensor does not need to be very sensitive.
  2. it will be easier to retrieve information in dark areas without having too much noise (the latest generations of sensors produce almost no noise at these values). Deeper, around 30 meters for example, I can use values such as 250 iso or even 320 iso depending on visibility.


The aperture

The second value you have to take in count is the aperture


Do not hesitate to close. Personally, I don’t ask myself a question: if I am in 10 to 15 m of bottom in clear water, I close between f16 and f22.

Caution: although the sun should be considered as a subject in its own right, the focus should be on your foreground.

For the shutter speed, it must vary between 1/100 (speed works everywhere) and 1/200. Speed is the last value to be adjusted after sensitivity and aperture.



Managing the sun and foreground exposure !


Iso 100; f22;1/100, the exposure slider is completely left.

Even with the sun in the frame, you are under-exposed between -3 IL and -5 IL depending on the conditions.

“It’s the goal.”

Without flash, your foreground is completely clogged. Not to say in the complete darkness. So we’re gonna have to bring in some light with the underwater flashes.

This foreground must be properly composed but also well exposed. The dosage of the power of underwater flashes and their orientation will therefore be decisive.


This is one of the biggest challenges of underwater photography in wide angle: knowing how to deal  with natural and artificial light.

You will have to find a good balance so that the two sources of light are harmonious, without one of them dominating the other.

The power of flashes will depend on the distance between your first shot and your camera.

  • If your subject is very close, almost touching your dome, a power of between ¼ and ½ will suffice. However, special attention must be paid to the positioning of flashes.
  • If the subject is a little far away, for example more than a metre away, don’t ask yourself any questions, adjust the flashes to their maximum power (for backlighting, a powerful flash is very appreciable).

The settings I just quoted are valid for a large majority of underwater photos in backlight.

This does not mean that they are suitable for all situations. You will have to adapt to each condition.


Check out this picture :


The exifs of this cliché are 1/100; f10; iso 250.

I was about 20 meters deep when I took this picture, but the visibility was really very poor.

In fact, the atmosphere was dark enough to make it difficult for the sun to penetrate the particle-filled water.

In this case, no need to close the diaphragm more than that. I just modified the iso from 400 to 250.


The composition of a photo in backlight: show the foreground wellmanage-backlighting-underwater-photography-7

As said in the introduction, the sun should be considered as a subject in its own right. Its position in your composition is just as important.

It is sometimes difficult to find the right placement, especially since there are many natural obstacles preventing us from positioning ourselves as we please.

To do this, ultra wide angle lenses will be more than necessary.

I’m thinking of course of fisheyes, or short focal lengths like 16 mm, see even more wild!!

It will take imagination to find a good composition.

  1. Placement of the sun in relation to the subject of the foreground must be consistent
  2. The reading of the image must naturally lead us from the subject to the sun.


If, in spite of everything, the brightness of the sun is too strong, try to hide it partially with an element of the reef as on this image :

manage-backlighting-underwater-photography-composition d’une photo sous marine en contre-jour - bien exposer le premier plan 2

Or like this :


A moving subject can do the trick like this manta ray photographed without flash :


Or this green turtle as an anti “burnt sun” pellet :


The different renderings of the sun in underwater photography :


The rendering of the sun varies according to a multitude of natural factors that cannot be controlled.

It is therefore necessary to judge these conditions to know whether or not a backlight photograph is possible during the dive.

« If some of these conditions are met, do not hesitate to take advantage of them and anticipate future shots. »



Let’s recap the 5 keys to taking a great backlit picture :

To be successful, a photo in the daylight must:

  • be under exposed
  • have a clean Dome/tube
  • have a good orientation of its flashes
  • be well composed
  • to have a sharp lens


The look of the sun varies according to many factors

Here is a non-exhaustive list:

  • depth
  • Visibility
  • cloud cover
  • the time
  • inclination
  • the lens
  • les éxifs
  • post-processing

composition d’une photo en contre-jour, bien exposé le premier plan

As you understood, there are a multitude of factors that influence the appearance of the sun.

You can play with some  and suffer from others.

« Keep in mind that in pictures, the most important things are not the difficulties imposed but rather the possibilities that allow us to make the most of the present moment. A good technical knowledge is essential for this.  »

However… that’s not enough, you also need a bit of experience (which translates into the number of right-clicks + trashcan of each one).

And yes, we’ve all been there at some point. The best learning is practice.

« It is the field experience that will allow you to assess the situation and make the right choices at the right time. .  ».


Post-processing a backlit image

Once the RAWs are in the camera,  the cards (SD) are discarded and it’s time for the post-processing to take action !

If the sun is too “burned”, if you have not under-exposed enough, it is “right click + delete”.

On the other hand, if this is not the case, then the photographer that you are is going to be able to express himself and make the most of the possibilities of his RAW.


Let me show you :

  • how to process a backlit photo with Lightroom
  • how to restore the radiance to the sun while paying attention to its surroundings.

And all this without using Photoshop and layers

It will be necessary to play with parsimony on the sliders to obtain a natural rendering without unsightly halo, and without frank “rupture”  between the light and dark zones.


Example :

For this example of treatment, I chose this picture of a Ptérois in backlight. The picture was taken in December 2016 in Moheli, a small island in the Comoros archipelago.

The material used is a Canon 5ds with 15mm Canon fisheyes optics. The picture is taken at a depth of about 15m.

pteroi en contre jour - photos sous marine

You can download this raw file to follow the same operations

Let’s go on ! We are gonna load the file to Lightroom CC :


It is immediately noticeable that the white balance is completely off,  the dominant one strongly draws towards the green …

We’ll correct that right now with the magic pipette!!

Of course, I’m talking about the localized white-balance compensation tool.

As this tool is very handy, you will find it in the Basic Setup tab as shown below :

l’outil localisé de correction de la balance des blancs

The principle of this tool is to correct the white balance.

To do this, use the pipette to click on an area of the picture that is supposed to be white (be careful: this tool does not work in burned areas such as the sun).

For this photo, I know that the contour of the eye of the Ptero is white. So I’m going to select the target’ neutral’ color :


Here is the result :


The dominant green is less present.

It can be noted that the color temperature and hue have been automatically modified :


I leave these settings like this because we readjust the WB (White Balance) at the end of processing.

“The goal of this action is to have a more precise vision of the final rendering of the photo.”

I will now lighten up the shadows and whites and add a bit of clarity before going further :


Now, the next step will be to work on the sun and its contour.

The contour of the sun is too bright for my taste, so I will try to retrieve information on the outline.

Problem: if you vary the High Lights or White slider will appear an unsightly halo as on the example (a bit exaggerated) below.


And that’s just impossible !!!

The problem comes from the transition between the cyan hues, which surround the sun, and the blue of the photo. This problem is recurrent on all underwater photos in backlight.

In addition, the dimming of the high lights also affects the whole image, including the Pteroes and small fish in the foreground.

To avoid this, I reset the high light slider to zero and use the localized processing tool that will allow me to work only the sun and its contour without influencing the rest of the photo.


By clicking on this tool, this should appear :


The circles indicate the area where the treatment will be effective. The first circle represents the area where 100% of the actions will be applied. Between the two circles, this is the transition zone. Beyond the second circle there will be no changes.

Place the center of the circle on the sun and increase its diameter (with the mouse wheel) until it is completely covered as I show you on the screenshot below:

photo en contre jour plongée sous marine - post traitement lightroom

Once the treatment zone has been defined, I will look for information in the area closest to the sun.

To do this I turn down the high lights with the associated slider.

At this stage, the rendering of the sun is not yet correct. The halo is present today.

But don’t panic, it is now that we will get to the point.

Once the sun’s high lights have been recovered, the goal is to suppress the halo that we made appear with our treatment.

To do this, go to the TSL / Color / BW menu. In the hue section select the green blue (cyan) cursor to shift it to the right :

Here is the comparative result on the sun

Before :


After :


Changing the cyan shades to blue erases the halo that appears when you pick up the high lights.

This is one of the most important actions when processing a backlight, but also for other types of photos where cyan color is present.

Indeed, the transition between cyan and blue requires a great precision and delicacy. At times, the easiest way is to replace these shades.

Here is the whole picture after the localized changes of the cyans :


Then, still in the TSL / Color / NB tab, click on the Saturation icon and increase the Green Blue saturation. Here a value of +65 is enough.


The purpose of this action is to bring blue back to the place where the cyans disappeared.

We notice that the rendering is no longer the same. We recovered as much information as possible around the halo-free sun.

However, it is still possible to give the sun a little pep’s to reinforce its presence.

To do this, we will return to the localized action tool by clicking again on the tab below the histogram.

The small dot in the center of the sun appears. Just click on this small point to find the local settings you have previously made.


Small precision, the red halo that appears is an indicator of the area where the tool will be active.”

I will now boost the clarity to increase the impact of the rays on the sun’s perimeter.

Which gives this :


Sun treatment is now complete

All that remains is to work the foreground with a radial filter (viewed in the last tuto) like this :


Here, in just a few clicks, is the possible result of a backlit photo :

fin de traitement lightroom d'une photo sous marine en contre-jour

Conclusion on the treatment of an underwater photo in backlight

This treatment remains nothing more or less than a basic work of “derawtization”. There are other ways to refine the rendering of the sun, especially with Photoshop.

But it will be the object of future Tuto.

« I repeat myself, I want to say it again: to make a successful underwater shot in backlight, it is imperative to bear in mind that everything is a matter of shooting.”

Normal, as always you’re about to tell me… yes, but in this case it’s crucial. 

In other contexts, some errors are allowed.

This is not the case with the sun in the frame.

This tutorial, like most tutorials, is an example of processing.There are other techniques, other ways of doing it.

In the next tutorials, I’ll start talking about Photoshop and setting layers.