Underwater Lighting Fundamentals

Understanding lighting fundamentals and color temperature underwater
By Scott Gietler

This sections covers loss of color underwater, color compensation that your brain does, understanding color temperature, and reflected light.


The following topics are covered later on in this chapter:


Loss of Color Underwater At Depth

What color disappears first underwater?

Water absorbs different wavelengths of light to different degrees. The longest wavelengths, with the lowest energy, are absorbed first. Red is the first to be absorbed, followed by orange & yellow. The colors disappear underwater in the same order as they appear in the color spectrum. Even water at 5ft depth will have a noticeable loss of red. For this reason, strobes are usually used to add color back to subjects.


At What Depth Underwater Does Color Disappear?

  • Red - 15ft

  • orange - 25ft

  • Yellow - 35-45ft

  • Green - 70-75ft


Don't forget to add in the horizontal distance. If you are 10ft underwater, and you are viewing an object 10ft away, the light has actually travelled 20ft, and all of the reds will be filtered out.

Likewise, if you light up an object with your strobes 5ft away, the light has to travel 5ft to the object, and 5ft back to your lens, for a total of 10ft. This is a significant loss of reds. Be sure to always get close to your subject. Read more about getting better color in your underwater photos.


Magnification of Objects Underwater

Since we are talking about water, I should note that objects can appear up to 25% closer underwater than they actually are.

Objects will also appear to be up to 33% larger than they are. This is due to the fact that the index of refraction of water is greater than air. This happens behind flat surfaces, such as your mask, a compact camera underwater housing, or a macro port. It does not happen when using a dome port.


Color Compensation

Your brain will compensate for the loss of color underwater. This is why you still think you can see reds and oranges in deeper water, but when you take an ambient light shot with your camera, they aren't there!


Color Temperature

Light is often referred to having a certain color temperature. Strangely, warm light is a lower color temp, and cool light, blue, is a higher color temp.

Here are some temperatures of common light sources =


10000-12000     blue sky

6500-8000         shade

6000                  cloudy day

5500                  inon strobes, S&S strobes, sunlight, flash mode

5000                  S&S strobes with diffusers

4800                  Ikelite Ds-125,DS-160 strobes

3200-38000      tungsten light

2500-3000        sunrise, sunset

2000                  red light

1500-1800         candle



  • Increasing the color temp of a photo (called warming it up) brings out yellow, oranges

  • Decreasing the color temp of a photo (called cooling it down) brings out blues


Reflected Light and The Time of Day

The amount of light that penetrates the surface depends on surface conditions, the weather, and the time of day. Choppy waters reflect more light than calm waters. Sunlight from the horizon is reflected much more than sunlight from straight above. The brightest conditions underwater will occur on a sunny day, with a calm surface between 10AM and 2PM. Light penetrating the surface early in the morning and late in the day has a soft quality and can be great light for underwater photography, just like it is for topside photos.


Further Reading

Underwater Lighting Fundamentals
Scott Gietler
Understanding lighting fundamentals and color temperature underwater


Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. Bluewater Photo, based in Culver City, CA is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious underwater camera stores, serving many thousands of customers each year, where nothing is more important than customer service. The Underwater Photography Guide is the world’s first website to feature free tutorials on underwater photography, and has become the most trafficked resource on underwater photography worldwide. Bluewater Travel is a full-service dive travel wholesaler sending groups and individuals on the world’s best dive vacations. 

Scott is also an avid diver, underwater photographer, and budding marine biologist, having created the online guide to the underwater flora and fauna of Southern California. He is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, has volunteered extensively at the Santa Monica aquarium, and is the creator of the Ocean Art underwater photo competition, one of the largest underwater international photo competitions ever held in terms of value of prizes. He lives in California with his wife, newborn girl and scuba-diving, photo taking 4 year old son.

Follow Scott on Facebook or Instagram.


The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear


Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips


Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.