Light Cutting

Light 'cutting' is a term commonly used in studios. As simple as it sounds, cutting light basically means to block / cut the light out of the picture. This is usually done with a piece of black wooden or foam board held in front of the light source to create shadow areas. These black boards range from small A5 sized pieces to large 8 X 4 feet ones and are known as (you guessed it) 'cutters'. Photographers mostly use cutters to create mood shots with lots of shadow play, to isolate light to one point, or even just to block flare from going into the lens. So as you can

Picture of taped strobe (left) and bounce plate (right).

see, cutters are useful and they are no secret to studio photography but like the bounce technique, few underwater photographers use it.

The main use of cutters underwater is to isolate light to one point, to aim light at where you want it (on your subject of course!) while leaving the rest of the area dark. This is useful in creating the 'mood' shots that we have been talking about. Imagine a brightly colored shrimp on a brightly colored coral. It will be hard to achieve good separation if you just use the full coverage of your strobe to light up the whole area. Sure, you'll get your well exposed shot of the shrimp but it will be lost amidst the busy background. In short, you lose the 'wow' factor because your subject doesn't stand out.

One sure way of achieving good separation is to limit the light only to your subject area. Here's where cutters come in. Don't worry, I'm not asking you to bring black boards underwater! A roll of black duct tape would do the trick. You simply tape up your strobe leaving a hole about 1 X 1 inch wide. The size of the hole depends on how isolated you want the spot to be. (Bare in mind the smaller the hole, the harder it is to accurately aim your strobe onto your subject.) Of course a spot adapter would do the same thing and I know of strobe makers who produce them, but I can assure you they cost a lot more than duct tape!

To create good separation with lots of shadows and mood we once again rely on strobe dominated shots. Balanced light pictures don't usually work when you want to separate your subject. No point trying to isolate your strobe only to have the shadow areas filled in by the ambient light. With that in mind, the same high f stop (f/ 22 and above if your camera supports) and fast shutter speed (1/125 or faster) applies. Accurately aiming your strobe takes a little experience. Due to the taping up of your strobe, high f stop and fast shutter speed, a poorly positioned strobe would leave your subject totally in the shadows. So take your time to get it right. Remember, those pictures you see in magazines didn't happen within 1 frame, taking more than 10 frames for 1 good shot is not uncommon.

For those using strobes with detachable diffusers, I would recommend getting a spare. Duct tape one and keep the other in your BC pocket or strap it to your strobe arm. That way you can easily change your set up when the right subject comes along.

I hope these two simple techniques will help you achieve some great shots. As I said, they are nothing new to photography, just that few of us thought of using them underwater. Now that you know them, the least you can do is give it a shot. Duct tape and small metal plates are not huge investments, but you will be surprised how something that simple can produce great results. Enjoy!

Aaron Wong

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