Underwater Photography: Scuba vs Freediving

By: Rayna O’Nan (@oceanraysphotography)

No matter how you choose to explore the underwater world, there is a good chance you have wanted to take an epic photo to document your adventure.

As a photographer, I have had the opportunity to explore different techniques when taking photos on scuba vs freediving.  In this article, I’ll talk about the pros and cons of scuba photography vs freediving photography and the equipment I use to capture the underwater world.

Before picking up a camera you must be comfortable holding your breath or being on scuba.  Working as a scuba instructor, I see people pick up a camera right after they are certified and get overwhelmed with controlling their buoyancy and handling an expensive gadget.  I recommend getting some dives under your belt to practice your buoyancy on scuba or practice holding your breath and clearing your ears with something in your hands for freediving.  Safety should always be your top priority and taking a photo should never be more important than the safety of you or your buddy.  Taking continuing education classes for scuba and freediving can help tremendously with setting you up with the skills you need to take underwater photos with ease.

Once you have those necessary skills down, it’s time to look at the pros and cons of each activity.

It’s no surprise that you get more time to set up the perfect photo when you have a tank strapped to your back. Scuba photography allows you to think about your composition, lighting, and wait for the perfect moment to snap a photo in most situations. When freediving, you’re working within a shorter time frame and you tend to be moving much faster through the water. It can be easier to practice your photography skills and tweak your settings on scuba simply because you have more time to do so.

The next thing to consider is the marine life you plan to shoot and the location. From whales to the smallest nudibranchs, there are tons of different approaches to capturing digital moments of the underwater world. When shooting small subjects, it’s better to be on scuba so you can sit and wait for the perfect moment and focus on your subject.

When shooting something big that is moving through the water column, it might be better to be on snorkel.

Some animals also shy away from bubbles, and freediving allows you to get closer and have better interactions. Many places where you can see large pelagic life like whales, dolphins, sharks, and manta rays require you to freedive or snorkel. These regulations are usually in place for the animals’ safety. In situations like these, I think it is advantageous for scuba divers to also be trained and comfortable freediving so they never have to miss out if scuba isn’t permitted.

The reverse can also be true in some places.  Strong currents and surface waves make it difficult if not impossible to freedive in specific locations.  Having both freediving and scuba skills will open the possibilities of what you can capture.  While I love sitting with a small fish and capturing its daily habits, there is no better feeling than swimming next to a pod of playful dolphins and being able to twirl and glide through the water while freediving.

The equipment that I use for freediving photography vs scuba photography differs slightly due to the nature of each activity.

When I’m on scuba, I take my full rig with long arms and video lights or strobes since I’m typically deeper with less ambient light.  Water filters out more and more light from the surface the deeper you go which causes you to lose color.  Even with the smallest camera, bringing a light can make a drastic difference in photo color and clarity.

I rarely bring my lights with me when freediving, because there is more ambient light closer to the surface.

It is also difficult to swim with a camera that has extra appendages like arms and lights, as extra gear creates drag through the water and will likely cause the arms to fold in or move.  It can also be a hassle to push everything in the water if you are trying to keep up with wildlife. There is no hard rule for this, but most of the time I believe the simpler the better when freediving.

No matter how you choose to take underwater photos or what equipment you use, the important thing to remember is to get creative and have fun.

Nature photography often boils down to being in the right place at the right time, so just keep shooting!  As divers, we have a unique privilege to experience part of the world that some people can only dream of.  I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and pursue the training to grow your underwater photography skills either on scuba or freediving.

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