While 2010 was Chinese “Year of the Tiger”, in underwater photographic circles it appears to have been “Year of the Snoot”. More apparent than in previous years, in 2010 many a serious underwater photographer could be seen entering the sea with various appendages attached to their strobes.
Having viewed the inspirational images of Keri Wilk I ventured into the world of the snoot, particularly in relation to my macro photography. Until this point I had a strong preference for wide-angle photography as I found my macro images to be uninspiring flat images of subjects literally blasted by strobe light.
What is a Snoot?
From Wikipedia “In photography, a snoot is a tube or similar object that fits over a studio light or portable flash and allows the photographer to control the direction and radius of the light beam. These may be conical, cylindrical, or rectangular in shape. Snoots can isolate a subject when using a flash. They help by stopping "light spill", or when lighting falls in a larger footprint than intended.”
A variety of snoots are available commercially; however effective snoots can be manufactured simply and cheaply using everyday household objects. I have used plastic disposable food containers, petrol funnels and the top section cut from plastic water bottles, painted black and attached to my strobes using a section of neoprene sleeve from an old wetsuit (Images 1a and 1b). A basic lanyard, essentially a length of string is recommended to prevent any wayward snoot from escaping towards the surface.
A number of factors affect the resulting light beam, the prime considerations being the length of the snoot, the diameter of the snoot and the diameter of the exit aperture. A combination of a longer snoot and small diameter exit aperture results in a narrower beam of light while a shorter snoot length and wider exit aperture provide a wider beam more suitable for wide-angle photography. Some commercial snoots come with a variety of extension lengths and exit aperture diameters allowing the photographer to easily change snoot configurations at will; the Seahorn snoot offers exit diameters of 21mm, 17mm and 7mm.
My first experiments
Initial experiments were with the home-made snoot, a single strobe and 60mm macro lens. Due to the limited beam of strobe light the use of snoots can initially be frustrating resulting in a catalogue of under-exposed or black images; this is where the benefits of instant image review with digital cameras pays dividends.
The “discovery” moment for me which demonstrated the potential of the snoot was in Nuweiba whilst shooting eels against a cluttered backdrop of oil drums. I positioned the snoot above the lens port pointing straight down in spotlight fashion and my first shot initially lit the very end of the eels snout, however the potential was immediately obvious; with a slight adjustment in strobe position I took my next shot and a captured a decidedly pleasing shot of the eels head poking out from the darkness (Image 2) and from that moment I was hooked. Not only did this provide a classic shot but allowed for subjects to be isolated where the negative space detracted from the main subject.
On or Off camera snooting?
Initial experimenting involved the snoot being attached to the camera. Using the 25mm snoot this worked well (Image 3), although could still be hit and miss due to slight camera movements requiring re-adjustment of the strobe position.
I did use the Inon strobe spotting light to see where the main strobe beam would light; however that is not fool proof as there is a slight difference in where the main beam illuminates compared to the spotting light. Again the process of shoot, review and adjust allowed necessary corrections to be made to the strobe position.
I also experimented with removing my strobe and arm from my housing and hand holding the snoot. This worked particularly well for moving subjects, although resulted in shooting single-handed. For more static subjects I connected my strobe arm to a gorilla-pod tripod placed on the sea-bed thus freeing up both hands to use the camera (Image 4). In both cases my strobe was still attached to the camera housing by the cable but this still allowed a greater degree of flexibility with regard to strobe and camera positioning; this flexibility could be further increased by the use of a remote trigger.
Using the 7mm snoot exit aperture was infuriating due to the resulting pencil thin beam. This required the assistance of a willing buddy to hold the strobe and snoot, and even then involved trial and error to get the desired shot. However the small beam of light is ideal for super macro work to highlight specific features of the subject and is worth persevering with, as can be seen by the nudibranch image (Image 5).
While I have majored on my experiences with macro, I have also experimented with the use of snoots to emphasise subjects in my wide-angle photography. I used a corresponding wider snoot of 60mm in conjunction with a Tokina 10-17mm FE I to light a sponge.
With the wider spread of light, appropriate strobe positioning and subsequent light direction is far easier to achieve than with the narrower beams required for macro subjects; additionally the wider exit aperture allows more control of the light strength using the strobe power settings.
By setting a fast shutter speed (1/250th sec) achieves a strong image of the snooted subject against a dark background; in my image this also allowed the inclusion of the sun ball without blowing out the image. The addition of my buddy with dive torch completed the image (Image 6).
Snoots & UK Diving
By reducing the spread of light, a key benefit of the snoot is to minimise the illumination of particulate in the water and hence reduce the effects of backscatter, particularly prevalent in the green waters of the UK.
As such I now regularly use the snoot when diving in the UK to produce substantially cleaner images than the conditions would have normally allowed (Images 7 and 8).
Next generation snoot
Many current snoots are little more than tubes. These have a downside that dependent upon the snoot dimensions determines the strobe power required to adequately illuminate the subject due to the light drop-off between strobe and subject; consequently it is often required to use the strobe on full power thus limiting light control, and running down the batteries more quickly.
More recently fibre optic snoots have become available providing more efficient light transmission. I have recently purchased a ‘flexiflash’; early testing by other photographers have produced promising results; roll on Nuweiba when I can try this snoot for myself.
Although I have been taking underwater images over a 10 year period, it has been my recent experimentation with snoots that has provided me with a greater appreciation of the impact on my images through the control and direction of strobe lighting and has rekindled my enthusiasm for macro photography.
Not only has the use of snoots added a new set of techniques to add to my current photographic skills, but has led me down a path of further experimentation and discovery with other lighting techniques that I believe has improved the quality and impact of recent images.