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The Science of Color Underwater

Working with both underwater and above water elements, there is a considerable color difference.

Generally speaking, color is perceived by the light that is reflected off of and/or absorbed by an object. Color is interpreted by receptors in our eyes, and varies depending on the light’s wavelength (measured in nanometers, or “nm”). Light with a wavelength of around 700nm is perceived as red, for example, while a wavelength of around 400 nm would be interpreted as violet. The colors of the visible light spectrum are red, orange, yellow green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Excellent llustration of color absorption under water from

Due to the way that water absorbs light, there is a loss of perceived color when photographing underwater. The longer the lights wavelength frequency, the easier it is absorbed by the density of water. As depth and distance increase underwater, the harder it is for light to travel through. In addition to getting darker, color too begins to fade, beginning with the red end of the visible light spectrum and followed by orange, green, blue, etc. (An interesting point: While there is a point that the transmittance of color reaches absolute zero and none can be perceived, you could use something like a red filter and a longer exposure to filter out the blue light and give more time for light towards the red end of the spectrum to be detected.)

When we can simultaneously see light reflecting off an object- in this case, a figure- that is both inside and outside of water, the color shift is unmistakeable. In every day seeing, we may take this dramatic change in color for granted as we are used to perceiving it that way, but to be able to examine the difference in a still, two dimensional image can be an entirely different experience. I photographed under water for 14 years and never consciously noticed this remarkable color difference until seeing the images after those initial shoots in color. I’d spent years integrating the three layers I’d become aware of– above the water, below the water, and the reflection on the surface of the water. Shooting in B&W, I was always focused on the forms and relationships I was seeing happening within those three layers. In working with the natural phenomenon of how water absorbs light, I found a fascinating fourth layer.

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I discovered, quite by accident, that I could exaggerate the disparity of how things appeared above and below the surface of the water. By lighting the portions of the body that are outside the water with warmer, natural light, while illuminating the submerged portions with a cooler, bluer underwater strobe, the passage from above to below became extraordinarily distinct. The boundary between above and below water became charged, creating fascinating transitions and bizarre transformations. [Since the strobe only illuminates what is under the water, there is also a significant exposure difference between what is above and below the surface. By considerably slowing the shutter speed, the body above the water becomes soft due to the motion blur, while the strobe freezes the body underwater into sharp focus. This differentiation can give the body outside the water an ethereal, flame-like feel that contrasts with the hardened, cold, stone-like feel of the body underneath, like in this image from 2009:

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In this image, the shutter speed is so slow and the exposure is so long that the warm light above the water manages to illuminate the body just barely below the surface. You can see how the strobe has sharpened the right side of his face that is submerged in the water, making it both sharp and much bluer in hue.

I find all of this- and the science behind it- just incredible and truly fascinating. I had no idea these dramatic effects of light and color were happening right before my eyes for so long, and the discovery of them reinvigorated the intrigue I’ve always had for working with this subject matter.

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