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The art of shooting underwater

Published on 2010-04-04 23:10:01

Just like everything you do while diving, shooting pictures underwater requires some skills not necessary while shooting on land. This short tutorial gives a few hints and tips to help you improve your art.

1. Buoyancy

Moving while taking a picture often result in blur. This is even truer underwater as you are shooting at a relatively slow shutter speed. At such speeds, a quick movement will create a big blur (also referred to as the BBB, the big blue blur).
When shooting a wide angle subject, it is important to immobilize yourself. Sometimes it's helpfull to just sit at the bottom, but you will find out that most of the time you end up shooting while floating. If you have hard time with your buoyancy, the only advice I can give you is to practice and master it first before trying underwater photography.
When shooting Macro, immobility is also of the essence. However, point and shoot cameras require you to be very close from your subject to shoot in macro mode (2-4 inches) so chances are you can stabilize your camera on a rock or stabilize yourself on the reef. If you're shooting macros of floating stuff such as a jellyfish, you will need to have a perfect buoyancy control as you want both your picture to come out great as well as avoiding those deadly tentacles (I'm sure that's not the exact term for jellyfishes but hey, I'm no Dr Bill.)
When diving in Laguna Beach, it often feels like diving in a washmachine. When it come to underwater photography, even a mild surge is a pain in the ass. The problem is that whatever you shoot, you'll have to fight the surge. If you shoot an all-seeing-eye (see right) immobile on the rock, you're in the surge and the subject is moving relative to you (even though you're the one movig). If you wanna shoot a Spanish Shawl, it's in the surge, moving and you're in the surge moving too. Even though you're both in the same surge, your repective inertia being a little different (you're a little heavier than a Spanish Shawl, even a big one), you're not really moving in concert! To get a good shot you'll have to time it when the surge is at its peak when its speed is zero (i.e you and the slug are both immobile). All the more reason why buoyancy control is of the outmost importance!

Spanish Shawl in the surge: well timed shot
Same shot while moving

2. Get some grip!

As mentionned above, immobility is a key factor for a great shot. For that reason, I recommend using both hands when holding the camera. Trying to shoot with one shaky hand is doomed to the feared BBB! With two hands, you are able to compensate for most of the mild surge that will shake your arms before you press the trigger.
Your camera should be slightly buoyant underwater. The reason for this is that it's easier to pull it down when it wants to go up (just hold it) than pulling it up when it wants to go go down (you'll have to hold it in position). Most cases are. If yours is *too* buoyant, you can add some fishing lead inside or use the flash attachment points to mount external lead.

One hand: DON'T
Two hands: DO!

3. Getting in the surf

Before you can actually start shooting underwater, you will need to get in the water. In Laguna Beach, we do a lot of shore dives directly off the beach and getting in the water that way has an impact on your camera as well. You will need to secure your camera before you enter the surf zone. I found it usefull to attach my camera using its provided wrist strap on my left wrist where I also have my computer. The computer prevents the strap from sliding which will prevents it from getting loose even in tough surf (unless I lose my computer too, which will be deserved because I shouldn't be diving in 8 ft waves anyway). Once past the surf zone and once my fins are secured, I then swap the camera to my right wrist and I'm ready to shoot! As I'm using my right hand a lot of to put up my fins I found that this method frees my right hand and the camera never gets in the way. If you're a lefty you may want to try the contrary
I've seen others secure their camera to their BC (see picture on the left). I tried this when I started underwater photography and the strap I had my camera attached to simply broke. Snap. Just like that. I wasn't even in the surf or anything. I even think it was during my trials in the swimming pool... Anyway, without this strap I had to find another way and found out that the provided wrist strap always did the job. I'm now use to my wrist strap and I think I have enough crap hanging out of my BC, adding the camera would be a nightmare. It's even worse when you add external flashes which have the tendancy to make your camera negative underwater... Perfect recipe to harvest sand!

4. On a boat

Most dive boat crew will help you with your camera. They're used to this because people with giganormous DSLR with 6 flashes 4 wet lenses and integrated motors cannot get their cameras in the water by themselves. We could actually jump in the water with our point-and-shoots in their case. If you elect to do this, you need to be aware that the shock created when you enter the water can potentially force your case open or create an overpressure that may leak water inside the case. Although I've never personnally witnessed such an incident, I've heard it mentionned by divers around the world, often enough to consider it plausible. So if you want to enter the water with your camera, you should prefer a backflip and hold your camera with one hand against your chest (your other hand is on your reg, in case you wonder). If you have to do the giant stride, hold your camera with the hand that's supposed to hold your BC down. The only reason why you would go in the water with your camera is if you're drift diving and you may not be able to reach for the boat back to get your camera from the crew.


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