Lesson 9 The Underwater Photo Course
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Diving and Photographing

Diving skills

Underwater photography demands a considerable amount of concentration, and your diving skills must therefore be quite automatic, particularly in the areas of

Safety must come first, and is best achieved through second-nature diving skills, otherwise your single minded concentration on the photography will put both you and your buddy at risk.

Dive practices

Know when to say No. It is inadvisable to take your camera on a dive

Photos vs. snaps

It is possible to polarise underwater photographers into two types, being

These two people plan their photographic dives quite differently. If you want a good 'dive', leave the camera behind, because your photos will be poor. If you are going 'photographing', don't lead your buddy to expect an 'exciting' dive.

Choosing the site

Pick a site for one or more particular features, or known subjects, of interest you want to photograph. If the site has been chosen for you, than ask someone who has dived it before about any special or unique features. Plan the photographs that you want to take as a part of your dive plan. Involve you buddy in the planning, and let any Dive Marshals or Dive Guides know if you are likely to get left behind on a group swim-along.

Better photographs are taken in conditions which assist photo taking by

Underwater approach

Concentrate on the particular features of interest that caused you to choose the site. If you chose the site especially for its anemones, don't waste your roll of film on the wrasse that keeps swimming around you.

Concentrate on one particular type of photography per dive (e.g. Wide angle / macro). Most of you won't be able to change lenses underwater anyway, but those of you who can should resist the temptation to spend half your dive changing lenses as alternate wide angle and macro subjects appear in front of your eyes.

Don't flit around snapping everything in sight - your pictures will be mediocre at best. Good results come from carefully selecting a subject, and thinking about how you can best capture it.

Settle on a subject, and keep photographing until you think you've got it right. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush". You might not find another subject as good, and it seems silly to move on unless you feel you've given it your best.

Keep your eyes open, you may spot the ideal subject for your next dive, but can't use it this time because you've got the wrong lens, or you've used all your film.

It may well be true that many good photographs, particularly of large pelagic marine life, are essentially opportunistic (lucky!). You can't know when a particular creature is going to swim by, and can help yourself by preparing for it. Generally such creatures are large, and so if you have the facilities, then carrying a spare camera (despite everything I've mentioned above), with a wide angle lens, but without strobe (as most shots will be available light) could help you to catch that special picture.


A little bit of preparatory thought about your expedition can remove any number of little niggles that distract you from what you're trying to do.

Make sure that your equipment is properly insured. As long as you are not using it for professional purposes, then you may find that you can cover it under your home contents insurance, but be aware that many policies have item value limits. Insurance cover can be obtained without excesses for a premium cost as 2% of value in some cases, yet other policies I have seen demand premiums as high as 14% of value, and will only cover you for 80% of any loss. Not being insured is a needless risk, and will only result in worry every time you take your camera into the water.

On a similar financial note, ensure that you take with you photocopies (not the originals which might be needed by the insurance company!) of receipts for all your equipment (hopefully itemising serial numbers), just in case you get asked awkward questions in the Customs Hall on your way home. I pack mine behind the foam in the lid of my camera case, so it is always there, but never in the way. Some countries have special customs forms so that you can register equipment as you leave the country, proving that you took it with you.

Always take plenty of film and fresh batteries from home wherever you go, and don't be afraid to use a lot of film to get the photograph you want. Many professionals will tell you that they might use a whole roll in order to obtain one or two excellent images. Think about fashion photographers, especially those who shoot for calendars such as Unipart and Pirelli. They will spend days and rolls and rolls of film just to get precisely the shot they have imagined and planned. There is no reason why you should not do the same if you are determined to get a particular image.

Never hurry your camera preparation, and do it well before the dive if possible, even the previous night in your hotel room.

It is worth thinking about your dive equipment and how you can modify it to improve your photography. You might choose to use a low-volume mask when using a housing, to give you a better view of the viewfinder. When taking macro photographs, in certain attitudes, weights worn on your sides will tend to make you fall forwards into your subject, so try carrying them more around the back instead.

Do make sure that your diving gear doesn't get in the way of your photographs. The last thing you want to find is your BC inflator bobbing around in front of the camera lens. Keep your diving gear to a safe minimum, and make sure everything is tidy and tucked away until it's needed. The five pound lump hammer and cold chisel might be an integral part of your weighting system on UK wreck dives, but they are only going to get in the way when you want to take photos. Resist taking that 150W searchlight with you as well, as having a free hand underwater is essential in order to:

Above all, be prepared for anything - you may meet sharks, dolphins, mantas, or all three as you enter the water, so be ready to shoot or you'll miss them.

Diving and photographing - the challenge

I discussed much earlier the challenge of diving and photographing at the same time, commenting on the photography skills, which when added to my diving ones, would produce results that could not be obtained by either set alone. I further mentioned earlier in this section that underwater photography demands a considerable amount of concentration, and your diving skills must therefore be quite automatic.

However good a diver you may think that you are, as you start photographing you will find that your diving skills have to actually improve to catch up with what you are trying to do.

Photographers have also been known to dive without a buddy or 'solo'. There are many plausible reasons given which I can understand, but, as an active instructor, cannot condone. Those who practice such techniques speak of 'redundancy' and 'self-sufficency' as essential components of such an undertaking.

Work this one out for yourself when you feel that you have both the knowledge and experience to consider all the issues, and a driving need to dive without a buddy. There is actually a very good book written on just the subject, which I recommend that you read fully before even considering such a venture.

Preservation and conservation

Sensible attention to buoyancy control, or attendance at a workshop, will probably highlight how poor your buoyancy skills really are, especially if, as the standard UK wreck diver, you have developed your technique as primarily a bottom dweller. Not only is good buoyancy important to approach your subjects, it is increasingly considered to be poor form to devastate large areas of coral reef in search of your subjects.

A little concentration will prevent the average diver from stirring up the sand as he fins along, and general observation should prevent his fins from breaking off clumps of coral. The photographer however doesn't have the luxury of this surfeit of concentration, and therefore excellent and responsible buoyancy skills must be learned early on, as well as a very good spatial awareness of what is behind, above, below, and to the sides of him.

Most divers can get their weight more or less right, though many still carry too much, but beginning photographers frequently forget to allow for a negatively buoyant camera system. The answer is not to remove lead from your weightbelt, as this may make you dangerously buoyant if you have to ditch your camera system in an emergency. The best answer is probably to precisely adjust the buoyancy of your system by adding neoprene collars or shrouds around items like the strobe or lens port. You may even choose to make it slightly positive, so that a dropped camera goes to the surface, and not to the depths!

Do not be single minded when photographing, and especially, do not let the desire for that 'special' shot lead you into damaging the marine life around you, even unwittingly as the slight current drifts you straight into an ancient gorgonian while you are looking in the other direction..

Obtain and read information from agencies such as the Marine Conservation Society, and take an interest in programmes other environmental groups. Respect and follow the rules and bye-laws of any Marine Conservation Areas and Parks that you visit.

If you help preserve the underwater environment, and encourage that in others, then the photographic opportunities and sites available to you will still be there in years to come.

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This page was last updated on 11 August 1998
Please address any comments to Mark Mumford