So you want to be an underwater photographer? You might think that the most important skills to master are all the technical aspects of using your underwater camera equipment. But the first and most important skill to master is actually good buoyancy control. In this month’s blog I talk about why it is so important. There are also a few tips and tricks to help you improve your buoyancy skills so you can start taking better underwater photos.
Good buoyancy is a skill we practice from the very beginning of our diving career. It is one of the first skills we learn and one of the most important. It requires practice, but for most divers who have a few dives under their belts, buoyancy soon becomes second nature and they rarely even need to think about this basic skill anymore.
Good buoyancy is important to help us preserve our beautiful reefs and to conserve our energy as we drift weightlessly through the water. Having buoyancy control means we won’t crash into and damage the reefs, accidentally kick the coral, scare the fish and destroy their homes.
Being properly weighted is an important part of this. Avoiding over-weighting not only stops us from becoming reef crawlers, it also helps us to conserve our energy and therefore our air supply. This gives us longer underwater to spend taking beautiful pictures. Take some time at the beginning of your dive to do a weight check. Remember from your open water course that if you are properly weighted you should be able to float at the surface at eye level while holding a normal breath. Then just breathe out and you should slowly sink. Adjust your weight so that diving becomes an effortless pleasure not a constant struggle to stay off the bottom.
Having good buoyancy also makes it easier to approach shy marine life and maintain your position when you are taking photographs. You will be able to stay effortlessly and quietly in one place which means that timid eagle ray or shark will not be frightened away. It also means you are much less likely to stir up any silt that can ruin your photographs, and annoy other photographers. By maintaining neutral buoyancy, you can keep your camera steadier which will result in sharper, better focussed pictures. You can also get closer to the reef and your subject to get better composition. By having better control of your body position in the water you increase your possibilities for unique composition and interactions with marine life.
Buoyancy is an important skill to master for many reasons. It will make your dive easier, safer, and more comfortable, and helps you to get much better pictures, as well as preserving our beautiful reefs.
Once you have a camera in your hands everything changes. Most people do not realise that we subconsciously control our buoyancy with our peripheral vision, constantly maintaining our position relative to the reef. This is why many beginners find it difficult to complete a safety stop hanging in blue water or at night with no visual reference.
Once you start focusing your attention on something such as a camera, you develop “tunnel vision” and effectively lose your spatial awareness. We need to retrain our brains and eyes to widen that field of vision again despite close focus on a camera. Focus on developing a consciousness of the reef and other divers around you. Just as you practiced buoyancy without a visual reference in your open water course, you also need to practice controlling your buoyancy while taking photographs.
You don’t want to be that diver who swims around obliviously inconsiderate of other people and the environment. It is not the best way to win friends and influence people!
When adding a camera (or even changing to a newer model), just like adding any piece of new diving equipment, you should become comfortable and familiar with it first in the water without adding extra complication. If the camera is quite heavy, it can completely change your weighting and your buoyancy, and make simple skills quite difficult. You should dive with the camera without taking photos first until it becomes second nature and you are calm and relaxed with it in your hands.
If you are changing environments from warm to cold water, and consequently change your exposure suit, that can also affect your buoyancy. Add to that a new camera and it becomes even more complicated. For example, I have two different cameras in different types of housings, and two different ports (macro and wide-angle) for the DSLR. I need a different amount of weight depending on which configuration I am diving with, where I am diving, and which exposure suit I am wearing.
A camera may also change the way you dive. It can change your body position in the water. Previously, as a diver with good trim, you would have developed a horizontal “working” body position throughout the dive. However, fish and marine creatures are not always cooperative with where they like to swim or hide. It is not easy to photograph sharks hiding under a ledge or nudibranchs tucked into the coral without changing your body position. Maybe you even need to hang upside down to see under an overhang or rock. It is important to learn how to control your body position and buoyancy in the water so that you can remain neutral and hover in one place.
You might also find that you sometimes become upright when shooting something above you. It is easy to find yourself floating up in this situation as any finning or even deeper inhalations will send you drifting towards the surface.
When you are taking photos you also need to be aware of your position in the water for safety reasons. It is very easy to find yourself nearly at the surface before you even realise while following a turtle. This can put you in danger of being hit by a boat, or create a sawtooth dive profile, where you go up and down the reef repeatedly in pursuit of your elusive subjects. Unfortunately, fish are not restricted to safe diving rules and procedures as we are. Rapid uncontrolled ascents if you lose your buoyancy can result in a very serious injury to your lungs or cause decompression sickness.
While I don’t mean to frighten you, for these reasons it is very important to develop good buoyancy skills and awareness in the water when you are diving with a camera, before you even start taking pictures.
So how do we solve this problem? The answer is practice. Even though you are no doubt excited to get out there and start taking photos as soon as possible, the first thing to do in the water is to simply practice your buoyancy skills with a camera in your hands. You might be surprised how difficult it is.
Despite thousands of dives in many different environments, whenever I change to a new environment or new equipment configuration I do a test dive. This gives me the opportunity to solve any equipment or buoyancy issues before heading out on a “real” dive.
Start by refreshing yourself on your basic open water buoyancy drills, but this time focussing on your camera. Perhaps even start by practicing in the pool. Have a conscious goal to expand your spatial awareness and peripheral vision. Select a sandy shallow dive site. Buoyancy is usually most difficult to control in shallow water and if for any reason you need to get out of the water and change your equipment set up, it is easy to do.
Spend at least one entire dive practicing skills such as fin pivots, hovering in different positions (vertical, horizontal, inverted), back-finning, getting as close to a stationary object such as a rock as possible (not live coral) without bumping into it, swimming as close to the sandy bottom as possible without touching it or stirring up the sand, passing your camera back and forth to a buddy (preferably not over a bottomless wall), and adjusting your buoyancy with only your breath. Make sure all your gauges and hoses are tidy and not dragging on the reef, and that you know where to find them easily.
All of these skills are things you would normally be able to do without a camera. Note how much more complicated they become when you are concentrating on the LCD screen or eye piece.
Once you feel comfortable and relaxed and your buoyancy has become second nature, then it is time to start taking photos!