Quick Tip: Shooting Monochrome Underwater

By Michael Zeigler

Kelp Forest

Visualization in photography is key, and being able to literally see the scene in black and white is a huge help for composition and exposure. Catalina Island, CA. Nikon D7000 with Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens, 1/80 sec, ƒ/7.1, ISO 400.

Photographing in black and white comes with its own unique set of challenges, and requires a different mindset when approaching a potential subject or scene. One of the tools I have found to be most helpful while shooting black and white images underwater is the Picture Control setting on my Nikon dSLRs. This is also referred to as Picture Style by Canon and other manufacturers. The Picture Control out of the box is typically set to standard (color), and by simply changing it to monochrome, you can immediately see the black and white composition as a JPG image on the LCD screen and adjust accordingly. The key is to shoot in RAW.

When you import your RAW images to Lightroom (and Camera Raw) while shooting RAW with the monochrome Picture Control, the image will appear in color upon import (disclaimer: I know this to be true with my Nikon dSLR and Lightroom software. Please test this functionality with your camera and software before heading out to do an entire shoot). After import, you can manually adjust levels and then convert each of your “keepers” to monochrome.

To take it a step further, you can change your image quality setting to RAW+JPG so that when you import you will have a black and white JPG next to the color RAW image. Or if you prefer, you can simply shoot in JPG and know that the monochrome image you see on your LCD is the one you will see when you import. Just know that you will be limited in the digital darkroom when you working with JPG images as opposed to RAW images.

This simple adjustment will help you visualize and compose in monochrome much easier than seeing the image in color on the LCD.

Most underwater housings for dSLRs have a button to change this setting easily. Please refer to your camera and housing manuals to find out the easiest way to adjust your Picture Control setting.

Sea lions

Sea lion pups dance together near the rookery at Santa Barbara Island, California. Nikon D810 in a Sea & Sea housing, Nikon 16-35mm ƒ/4 lens @ 22mm. 1/160 sec, ƒ/8, ISO 500.

Sometimes a scene is just so large and ever-changing, that you just need to turn off the strobes, watch the scene unfold, and fire away. Soon after being surrounded by a massive school of jack mackerel in the image below, I quickly changed my Picture Control to monochrome and just focused on the light and the composition.

Jack Mackerel

A massive school of jack mackerel surrounds my dive buddy at “The Arch” at Santa Barbara Island, California. Nikon D7000, Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens, 1/160 sec, ƒ/13, ISO 400.

SurfMichael Zeigler is a contributor, instructor, and trip leader for Samy’s Underwater Photo & Video, as well as an AAUS Scientific Diver. More of Michael’s underwater photography can be seen at www.seainfocus.com. For the latest information on workshops and trips, sign up for our newsletter.

Samy's Underwater Photo & Video

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