By adding divers to our underwater images, we can bring about a sense of exploration, highlight a focal point or provide an actual scale of size to the scene, especially in wide angle reef and shipwreck photography.
Over the years, I have learned several tricks which have helped me to take better photos of divers. You might want to give them a try on your next dive.
Check your buoyancy
My advice to any diver wanting to take photos – get your buoyancy right before you take your camera underwater. You cannot take photos if you are flapping around trying to stay afloat or if you are constantly inflating and deflating your BCD. If you focus on getting your buoyancy right before you take your camera into the water with you, your images will be so much better from the start, and the reef and your fellow divers will thank you for it.
Although it is easy to snap away at other divers underwater, your results will be disappointing, and you will probably start annoying people if you are constantly firing your strobes in their faces. To take great photos of divers, you need to have a patient buddy who is willing to model for you, is comfortable in the water and has good trim and excellent buoyancy skills. A fellow underwater photographer is ideal as you can take turns modelling for each other.
Make sure your model’s equipment is in trim, clipped away and not dangling. Dangling equipment, whether it be gauges, their octo, torch or surface marker buoy looks untidy and could pose a threat to the reef. Incorrectly positioned equipment, such an octo hose over the model’s shoulder (instead of tucked underneath) looks unprofessional and will certainly raise a few eyebrows!
Your model’s hair
Long, free-flowing hair can be hard to control underwater. The only time it can be successfully managed is if you are taking a photo of your model whilst they are swimming. All they need to do then is quickly tip their head backwards and swim across the frame as you take photos of them with their hair flowing beautifully behind them. For photos where your model is not swimming, get them to tie their hair back or put a hoodie or bandanna over it. This looks so much neater. Bandannas can also add a splash of colour to your photos and suit both male and female models.
Always remember to use your favourite mask ‘anti-fog’ before getting in the water. Firstly, you need to ensure you can see clearly when taking photos. There is also nothing worse than seeing photos of divers with fogged up masks. It is human nature to want to see the eyes and a fogged-up mask is distracting, looks unprofessional and simply ruins the shot. Similarly, make sure your model does not have too much water lying in the bottom of their mask.
I find that for most photos, a clear or transparent skirt is the better choice. This allows more light to enter the mask and highlights the face and the eyes. For more of a “tech” shot, dark-skirted masks work well, but you really must get your lighting right to light up the inside of the mask and the diver’s eyes correctly.
Get your model to wear gear with colourful details. Masks, fins, wetsuits and even BCDs with colourful inserts always help to add a splash of colour to a photo. I personally prefer these ‘splashes’ to all be the same colour or shade. A touch of waterproof mascara and eyeliner can also help to make the eyes pop, but it is not necessary to go overboard – try to keep make-up natural.
Using a torch
A nice strong torch can be used in so many ways, especially when you are photographing a diver in a cave or wreck, or where you have a dark background, and they are in silhouette. Have your diver use their torch to highlight certain areas as the viewer’s eyes will naturally follow the beam of light. When they are closer to you, they can even use their torches to give a snooted effect to the image.
Camera and strobe settings
Start your dive with your preferred camera settings for wide angle shots and adjust your camera speed to lighten or darken the water column in the background. Use your strobes to add light to your foreground and to light up the diver. Make sure they are as close to the centre of the image as possible, especially if you are using a fisheye lense, or they will become distorted if too close to the edge of the frame.
If your diver is further away, you will not be able to light them up and they will have a blue cast to their skin and hair. In this case, concentrate on lighting up the foreground and have the diver as a silhouette against the background. Have the reef, gorgonian, or marine creature as the star of the show; light them up and have the diver’s silhouette in one of the quarters of the frame.
Plan your shots in advance
To benefit the most from your limited time underwater, it helps if you both know the dive site and the kind of marine animals you expect to see. Discuss the shots you want to take in advance. I find it useful to have similar images on my iPad or phone that I can show my model beforehand so that they have an idea of what I am trying to achieve.
You can then show your model underwater how they look, not only will they appreciate it, but this will also give them the encouragement to continue and show them where they could improve.
For close shots where your model is looking at a fish, critter, sea fan or artefact, have them face your direction with their mask but have their eyes looking at the point of interest (the angle should not be too big). This will enable you to light up their eyes with your strobes and create a point of interest as the viewer will follow the model’s gaze. For closer shots, get them to look over your shoulder instead. Divers looking straight into the camera always tend to look cross-eyed and a little crazed.
Never allow your model to sit, stand, touch, or hold onto any marine life, reefs, or wrecks. Not only can they damage the reef or marine life, but they can also injure themselves.
For wider angle shots, the diver should ideally swim across the frame either parallel to your camera or at 45 degrees towards you, preferably with their knees together and one of their legs bent in kicking motion. This is the most natural way to photograph a diver and gives you the opportunity to get great action shots.
When I am acting as model, I find it useful to look at my reflection in my buddy’s dome port to check whether my positioning is correct.
Exhaled bubbles in your model’s face will ruin a shot. As divers should never hold their breath underwater, tell your model to breathe normally and take your shot once they have exhaled and the bubbles are clear of their face and slightly above their head. I also prefer to leave the bubbles in the image, keeping it natural rather than removing them in post processing.
Communicating with your model
To get the images you want, communication is paramount, and it is therefore vital that you agree on the hand signals you will use, which could include:
- Come closer / move further away.
- Go up / go down.
- Hold your body horizontal / vertical.
- Face this way / face the other way.
- Keep legs straight.
- Bend your knee (and which knee).
- Swim in this direction.
- Do it again.
- Torch on / off.
- Look at the subject / look over my shoulder.
Taking great photos of divers underwater does take a lot of pre-planning and communication. It really is a team effort. Once your model has dived with you a few times, they will start to understand what you require of them, especially if you look at and discuss the images together afterwards. Always remember that it must be enjoyable and safe for both of you and have no impact on the environment.