Beaming Down from Up On High

Getting great sunbeams and rays in your underwater shots...


I really love that when you’re diving, and the sun is shining down, the wonderful optical effect of the rays hitting water and being diffracted and moved into pillars and curtains of light that dance around the scene in front of you.

For me it’s one of the most magical occurrences  of the whole underwater experience, and I love attempting to capture it as best I can in camera.

So as I’ve actively pursued this type of shot over many years of taking underwater pics, I’ve learnt a few things that have been helpful to me and so i’m going to share what I’ve learnt so far in this particular blog post.


I’m also going to (try) and keep it shorter on words and share more pictures with captions explaining what I’ve done and the thought process behind the end result.

First though I’m going to quickly share the simple methodology behind most shots that give good beamage, that’s a whole new word I’ve made up there, but I like it, and i’m writing the blog so thats that.

All these shots have been taken using wide angle lenses, and in my  last blog series I covered some of the methodology of shooting wide angle.

So please check out.

The Wider View


Wreck Shooting with your Wide Angle


Close Focus Wide Angle



Sun Block


The most important thing in getting good rays is to actually not shoot the sun at all.

If the sun is well into the frame then it’s quite rare to get great beams of light.

Far better to either hide it behind something or someone.
This will generally result in beams radiating outwards from the subject.

Or try and place the sun just out of the frame.


"I was lucky to have this Manta circling around so I had a few bites of the cherry to get a shot where I completely covered the sun to get the lovely beams of light radiating outwards. I also had the strobe fire, but to be honest I wish I'd given the flash a little more oomph and turned it up a touch. Excitement made me forget !"




Reduce Your Exposure to the Sun


Another vital component is to try and underexpose your background blue water as much as is feasible.

This will be dependant on if you’re shooting available light, in which case you’ll be able to shoot across your shutter speed range, upping the speed to give you a nice dark background blue.


If you’re shooting with fill in foreground strobe light with a DSLR or with most interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras then you’ll be limited by the synchronisation speed of the flash on your particular camera.

This can range from 1/320 sec down to as slow 1/160 second, and the slower speeds allow you less flexibility in balancing your exposure, particularly in very bright ambient light.

Another reason for shooting with a fast(ish) shutter speed, is that if there’s a lot of surface water movement then the beams will be dancing around quite quickly, so a faster speed ensures that they don’t blur as they move around.

If you’re shooting with a compact camera and using a strobe to light the foreground then you’re very lucky in that you’ll be able to synchronise the flash across most of your shutter speed range. Giving you the ultimate in flexibility.


" I first established the exposure and flash settings for the foreground subject, making sure my shutter speed was as fast as was possible on my camera. I then just shifted around until I was just blocking the sun out with the edge of the table coral. It's important to review often on screen to make sure you're completely blocking out the sun, or at least as much as you can"



Don’t Look Back Into the Sun


A much more practical limitation becomes very evident when you first try these shots and you’re shooting with a camera that has no optical viewfinder.

All compacts, and Mirrorless cameras rely on a digital display, even if they have an eyepiece viewfinder as well.
And unfortunately when you point these sunwards it’s actually very difficult to see where the sun is in relationship to everything else in the frame accurately.

It’s something you’ll need to practice, especially where the sun is actually somewhere in the frame, even if you are trying to hide it behind an object.
The LCD displays struggle when presented with such an extremely bright light source, so you will have to practice to get used to doing this.
Start with shots where the sun is out of the frame before venturing to get shots with the sun well into the frame, as the former is much easier to gauge accurately.

If you’re shooting with a DSLR though you have another potentially more problematic issue with only an optical view direct to our closest star.

It’s just not safe and good for your eyesight to look into the sun via any optical apparatus if it’s not being displayed second hand onto an LCD screen.

So whilst it’s easier to place the sun with an optical finder on a DSLR you risk damaging your eyesight if its done for any length of time repeatedly.
So please be careful.

Personally I shoot with a micro 4/3 mirrorless rig, and sometimes with a compact, and it’s very doable with a bit of practice, it’s just not easy to start with.

So let’s cut to the chase and look at some more pictures that demonstrate a variety of different sun beam techniques.

I’ll explain what I’ve done in the captions below them.


"This shot is using the beam of light streaming down from the jungle above, as the main subject in shot. With a diver in the beam illuminated inside the famous Pit cenote in the Yucatan in Mexico. Technically it's all about underexposure, no strobe is used only the available light, which there actually isn't a lot of. So whilst it's not hard to shoot the light itself, and you can't actually see the sun as it's above the jungle canopy, you are actually shooting at the limits of what the camera can record in the gloomy interior"


It's a beautiful day

Ok, the above shot is a bit of an outlier, and I plan on doing a whole other blog post examining more closely the techniques required to shoot inside caves and very dark interiors. However it is an example of photographing the light beams and them being the actual main subject rather than taking on a supporting role.


"This is one of those beautiful early morning scenes that are sometimes hard to translate into a successful shot. What I do is first get my background exposure correct, and the blue of the water looking as dark as I can make it, which usually means the fastest shutter speed that my strobe will allow, in my case a 1/320 sec.
I'm usually shooting a a middling aperture of around f8 or so, all I then have to do is turn the strobes up or down to provide the right amount of light on the foreground. Framing to get the beams is done by carefully tilting the camera down until the sun is only just out of the frame. It helps enormously to be close to the surface as well, for these shots"


Symmetry Above and Below

Next picture uses an almost identical technique but i'm a whole magnitude closer to the foreground, if you'd like to know more about Close Focus Wide Angle shooting my most recent blog covered this subject in greater detail. Check it out and click here.


"This appealed to me because the composition I had in mind was to mirror the foreground coral at the bottom of the frame with the beams coming down from above to create some symmetry , so it needed me to be really close to the subject. You've got to be careful as you can easily scratch your dome being this close, and you'll need to reposition your strobes and their output to illuminate the subject evenly"


Monochrome View

Next shot is much more subtle and the beams are there as just one of the elements in a picture with a variety of elements.


"my partner and buddy pictured in a dramatic black and white, as she returns to the boat after a late afternoon dive. This was all about just using what nature provided, and I was conscious to try and position myself so that the sun was just out of sight behind our dive boat, knowing full well that this would result in beams. So then it was a matter of exposing just enough so that I got a balance between the much darker foreground and the lighter top half, trying not to lose too much of either. This type of picture becomes the finished article in the edit, as you have to balance a tricky exposure situation by careful control in your editing software"



If You Can't Make it Fake It!


Finally what do you do if you get the shot and angle that you'd like, but it was spontaneous and difficult to repeat, and instead of blocking the sun with the subject, you've ended up with an ugly sunball  spoiling your shot?

I personally don't like it when the sun ball is in the frame, because digital cameras suffer by being unable to register extremes of light, and so they show up as burnt out patches where there is no digital data to be recovered in your favourite editing software.

We can visit your dive club or dive shop and teach photo editing in a fun packed informative weekend check out the details here

Luckily you've got choices to salvage a shot where the sun is actually spoiling your composition.


"the shot on the left is the original, and I didn't like the ugly sunball.
So by using a bit of post processing trickery you can choose to hide it completely, seen in the middle shot, or you can even add some fake sunbeams to jazz it up a bit in the shot at the right.
Ok, it's not as good as getting it right in the original shot, but if you need the composition for an advert or webpage where the original sunball would be a distraction it certainly gives you options"



In Summary ( or should that be Summery?)


Sun beams can be very attractive aspects of your wide angle compositions, and even be the main feature in the shot. All you have to generally do is be mindful to try and either place the sun behind something, or just out of frame for the best results.
After that it's just a case of getting used to how your camera handles being pointed sunwards, and even more importantly that you don't take unnecessary risks by overdoing it and staring directly into it.

If you want more specific advice or have a suggestion for a blog subject feel free to get in touch, details on how to do this are on our contact page. Do the same if you'd like a quote for equipment or to book on one of our courses or workshops (dates are on our Events page). Anyone with an interest in photography is welcome to join the Alphamarine Photography Q and A