How to Shoot Underwater Photography – Unless one is an accomplished free-diver with exceptional breath holding skills, the first step for a budding underwater photographer is learning to scuba dive and, secondly, learning and mastering buoyancy and breath control. Without these two skills, the resultant underwater photographs will strike fear in the hearts of those who feel obligated to view them. It’s much better to receive oohs and ahhs than see your audience squirm, yawn, and suddenly remember they have several important phone calls to make. There is a vast difference between looking into the viewer’s dull, bleary eyes and looking into bright, admiring eyes eagerly awaiting the next photograph.
Many a beginning underwater photographer has become discouraged, given up, and sold his equipment on E-Bay simply because his buoyancy and breath control skills were not up to par.
“I don’t know how you take photos like that? I can’t even get fish in my photo”. How many times I have heard those statements. The solution is quite simple. The discouraged photographer was bouncing around in the water column like a ping pong ball or floundering and flapping, trying to stay put while the subject of the photo is either right where it was when first spotted or has fled in terror.
With many recreational diving certification agencies, beginning scuba courses are designed simply to teach new divers the most basic skills. Many students are greatly over-weighted in order to get them to the bottom. Too much weight creates many problems, especially for the underwater photographer. Too much weight means difficulty holding position. Too much weight causes stress, which leads to increased air consumption and shorter bottom times. And, too much weight means poor diving posture and loss of fin control thus silt, mud, and sand foul the water and misplaced fin kicks damage the marine environment. An over-weighted diver often ends up plopped on the bottom like jetsam.
To gain confidence and polish skills, new divers should continue their education with advanced courses and practice with experienced divers. Most certification agencies offer buoyancy control courses upon completion of the beginner course. Not only divers but also the marine environment would benefit greatly from all divers enrolling in buoyancy courses, particularly those who want to take underwater photos.
Underwater photographers must have exemplary buoyancy skills; otherwise, the camera lens probably won’t be locked on the subject and the photo will be blurry because, just as on land, the photographer and the camera must remain completely motionless. A moving camera makes for a blurry photo and there’s nothing a photo editor can do to fix that.
Poor buoyancy and breath control skills lead to missed photo opportunities, stress, and sometimes danger when the photographer has ignored the basics.
Imagine finding a large patch of Blue Bell Sea Squirts growing on the side of a shipwreck. Their spectacular dark blue-purple against yellow sponge and rusty ship hull will make a fantastic photo.
It’s the spectacular shot for which the over-weighted photographer is hoping. He concentrates on focusing but the Blue Bells disappear from the frame. He looks around the camera and sees the Blue Bells 10ft below. He descends. He starts to focus, no Blue Bells, he looks around the camera, the Blue Bells are now 15ft above.
Up and down completely unaware until his dive computer beeps. He’s run low on air, has no photos, and because his buoyancy skills are so poor he’s burned a tank of air and now must make a surface swim to the boat. His struggle to stay in place created what is known as a ‘bounce’ dive and violated a basic rule of diving. Know where you are in the water column and do not ‘bounce’ up and down because you could be setting yourself up for a trip to the chamber.
Until you can pick a spot on the anchor chain, stare at it, and be still, you are not ready to enter the water with a camera. So, while you are researching underwater photo gear and figuring out how you will finance the latest and greatest, take a buoyancy course and practice, practice, practice.
Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.