The most im­por­tant as­pects of be­ing an un­der­wa­ter shooter; an in­struc­tor makes a fa­tal mis­take while lead­ing a stu­dent.


Scuba Diving - - Contents - BY ERIC MICHAEL

Cap­tur­ing the splen­dor of the un­der­wa­ter world in pho­to­graphs and video can be re­ward­ing for divers. How­ever, shoot­ers can be­come so en­grossed that they for­get (or ig­nore) the ba­sic fun­da­men­tals of div­ing. In some cases, this of­ten-bliss­ful state of viewfinder dis­trac­tion can turn dan­ger­ous — to the diver, bud­dies and the del­i­cate ecosys­tem around them.

“Many pho­tog­ra­phers have a nar­row fo­cus,” says Tanya Bur­nett, a South Florida un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phy pro and in­struc­tor. “Their eyes beam to­ward a sub­ject with­out re­ally stop­ping to an­a­lyze the scene. Build­ing your div­ing skills as you im­prove with your cam­era will greatly ben­e­fit your pho­tog­ra­phy.”

“To pro­duce good un­der­wa­ter im­ages, div­ing must be sec­ond na­ture,” says un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­pher Ster­ling Zum­brunn of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “You have to be able to get ‘into the zone’ as you fo­cus on pho­to­graphic tech­nique to cap­ture your sub­jects, and can’t spend as much men­tal en­ergy on div­ing.”

“The more ex­pe­ri­enced I’ve be­come, the more pa­tient I’ve be­come, and that has made me a more care­ful, thought­ful diver all around,” says Al­li­son Vit­sky Sall­mon, an un­der­wa­ter shooter based out of San Diego. “Get­ting a great shot is a lot more re­ward­ing to me when I’m proud of the way I’ve dived.”

Ac­cord­ing to these three photo pros, fo­cus­ing on the foun­da­tions of sus­tain­able and safe div­ing will ben­e­fit not only your safety and en­joy­ment, but also the qual­ity of your im­ages and video.


No matter how strong your eye for com­po­si­tion, if your dive skills are lack­ing, you’ll never get the shot.

“Per­fect­ing your buoy­ancy is crit­i­cal,” Zum­brunn says. “It’s too easy to harm the very en­vi­ron­ment you

are try­ing to cap­ture with flawed div­ing tech­nique.”

Says Vit­sky Sall­mon: “You should be able to hover with­out think­ing about it. Adding other skills like the frog kick, mod­i­fied flut­ter kick and back kick will also help you avoid dis­turb­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and your sub­ject. You should be able to ap­proach a sub­ject, take pho­tos, and back away with­out stir­ring up sand.”

“Vary­ing dive con­di­tions and learn­ing new photo tech­niques will chal­lenge the way you ap­proach your sub­jects,” says Bur­nett. “Learn­ing how to ap­proach sub­jects from all an­gles teaches you how to move through the wa­ter bet­ter.”

“Bad be­hav­ior is com­mon, such as de­stroy­ing coral to take a photo, in­ter­fer­ing with ma­rine life, or bar­rel­ing over a group of wait­ing divers to get to a crea­ture first,” Vit­sky Sall­mon adds. “It’s this type of thing that gives un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phers a bad name.”


While your main fo­cus will be on your sub­ject, you can’t ig­nore what’s go­ing on around you. In fact, un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phers need to ob­serve an even-greater level of sit­u­a­tional aware­ness than reg­u­lar divers.

“Many pho­tog­ra­phers get wrapped up in their shoot­ing, and ei­ther crash into the en­vi­ron­ment around them or lose track of time and risk do­ing harm to them­selves by run­ning out of air or un­in­ten­tion­ally hit­ting de­com­pres­sion lim­its,” Zum­brunn says.

“The big­gest mis­take I see is pho­tog­ra­phers be­com­ing more fo­cused on shoot­ing than on div­ing, which has led to ev­ery ma­jor is­sue I’ve wit­nessed,” says Vit­sky Sall­mon. “The most crit­i­cal ex­am­ple is a lack of at­ten­tion to safety: I have seen shoot­ers run com­pletely out of air, chase ma­rine life to depths at which the mix they’re breath­ing is po­ten­tially toxic, and rack up so much de­com­pres­sion that an ex­tra air tank has to be brought down to com­plete the stop. No im­age is worth get­ting hurt, or worse.”

“Hav­ing ex­pe­ri­ence div­ing in all kinds of con­di­tions is im­por­tant,” Bur­nett says. “Be­ing an aware diver al­lows you to add more tasks like han­dling a cam­era rig, tak­ing pho­tos of a range of sub­jects while still main­tain­ing con­tact with your buddy, the en­vi­ron­ment and the over­all dive it­self.”


Un­less work­ing with a model, un­der­wa­ter shoot­ers are typ­i­cally a solo act. And that re­quires them to de­velop ex­tra safety pro­to­cols in case they are sep­a­rated from the group or ac­ci­den­tally have to sur­face alone.

“Like it or not, un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phy tends to be a fairly soli­tary en­deavor be­cause the buddy sys­tem falls apart as you search for and pho­to­graph dif­fer­ent sub­jects,” says Zum­brunn. “Fur­ther­more, chas­ing after that per­fect pho­to­graphic op­por­tu­nity can of­ten lead to you be­ing sep­a­rated from your group, es­pe­cially if you are in an area with strong cur­rents. For these rea­sons, safety gear, in­clud­ing an SMB and a trans­mit­ter such as the Nau­tilus GPS, be­come es­sen­tial, es­pe­cially if div­ing in re­mote lo­ca­tions.”

“I of­ten find my­self be­ing one of those pho­tog­ra­phers left be­hind, so I pay added at­ten­tion to brief­ings and ask ques­tions if there is a pos­si­bil­ity that I might be lag­ging be­hind the group, to learn what my op­tions are on the dive and to safely exit,” Bur­nett says. “I carry an SMB and reel to in­flate at my safety stop and mark my­self be­fore sur­fac­ing.”


Be­yond that shiny new cam­era rig, un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phers can im­prove safety and per­for­mance with spe­cial­ized equip­ment.

“While hotly de­bated, muck sticks can be used to keep your­self above the reef while com­pos­ing your shots, es­pe­cially in ar­eas with cur­rent, or in a site that is cov­ered with life that of­fers no good place to po­si­tion your­self,” says Zum­brunn. “I think, in the pho­to­graphic con­text, they do more good than harm, but they’re banned on cer­tain sites, so check with your op­er­a­tor about reg­u­la­tions.”

“For safety, I al­ways carry re­dun­dant gear, such as two com­put­ers plus a pres­sure gauge. De­pend­ing upon the dive, I may use a re­dun­dant air source,” Vit­sky Sall­mon says. “For ex­pe­ri­enced divers, a re­breather can be a very pow­er­ful tool to help with pho­to­graphic sub­jects, but it isn’t a piece of gear to be ap­proached lightly.”

“For me, photo sub­jects, the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment and dive con­di­tions ul­ti­mately dic­tate how I move through the wa­ter,” says Bur­nett. “Know­ing be­fore­hand what I might be aim­ing to shoot helps me get into the right frame of mind, and to ad­just my rig and dive gear to bet­ter suit the sit­u­a­tion or sub­jects.”


DIVE HACKS Keep­ing the fun­da­men­tals of div­ing in mind while shoot­ing LESSONS P84 FOR LIFE An in­struc­tor makes a fa­tal mis­take on a wreck dive P86 IMAG­ING Re­mov­ing un­wanted ob­jects from your un­der­wa­ter pho­tos P88

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