Underwater Photography in Tech Diving is Evil, isn’t it?
By Jens Meissner
When I moved into the advanced diving side of things as a dive guide in Italy a long time ago, I was not immune to encounters with underwater photographers. There was a marine biologist who needed to capture his critters with the lens to get his next book ready. Once he found his subject, there was no turning back: the thing had to get into the box, no matter what the cost. This photographer kneeled down, pressing into the mud, touched animals, and would move and do everything for the perfect picture. I received my first silt-out training back then – involuntary and without knowing. What a dork, I thought to myself.
The next photographer naturally lost his buddy underwater. Somewhat overwhelmed, the buddy surfaced and asked the boat operator slightly sourly “Yes, where is he then?”. Then the next underwater photographer – a woman this time – conjured most beautiful pictures – and was completely unsuitable for dive groups without other photographers, because she completely forgot to keep track of time underwater. Another one had a water ingress in the housing, followed by one who wanted to orchestrate a group photo underwater, what degenerated into chaos. Another technical diver got short of breath underwater at depth due to task overload.
All this to say, I think I have experienced most of the common problems in dealing with underwater photographers. So: underwater photography is evil, isn’t it? At least you can’t use such a devil’s work in technical diving! Or so I thought.
Six Things I Didn’t Expect From Underwater Photography
When I first entered the world of tech diving underwater photography, things went differently than I expected. Pre-loaded with my experiences from the other side, I didn’t know how much of a burden I would be to my partners. To my surprise, I gained a lot of positive side-effects from it. And these are the six things I didn’t expect:
- Task load training
Obviously, with photography, you add another component to the technical underwater setup that wants to be mastered. This takes at least months, if not years. In addition, the equipment has to be stowed away, and thus can conflict with other systems such as bailout and scooter. What I noticed, however, once I stopped taking the camera with me: With the additional task load, I also became more efficient. Without the camera, I suddenly had a much better overview because I was used to more task load by now.
- Better preparation requirements
The extra gear also required that I plan better. The shift away from photo snapping to taking more planned target photos is important for underwater photography. Few are so brilliant that they can do without planning. Only, better planning here is necessary for the entire setup: Not only for the photo, the subject, the perspective, the equipment, but also for the rest of the dive like the profile, the partners, or the exact timing.
- Increased awareness for others and the situation
With better planning comes higher awareness. You have to put yourself in the situation or in your dive models exactly. You need to think about what can be achieved in the situation or with the corresponding partners in the first place. This gives you an extra round of reflection that is worthwhile for the whole dive.
- Clearer Communication and Visualizations
This means that the briefing is also more extensive. More time is needed for agreements and that all those involved carry out better dive planning ‘along the way’. I have never experienced such clear briefings as I have in underwater shoots. It also helps that we in the team usually use visualizations of the scenario. A wreck is a piece of bark, a tree underwater is symbolized by a small branch, a drop-off wall is a line in the sand. And the divers are the backup lamp, a dive knife or a car key. The visualization makes everything much clearer to everyone.
- There is Strength in Calmness
Then, while diving, I noticed relatively quickly that there was nothing to be had in underwater photography in a hurry. Well, this is true not only for taking photos, but for the entire dive. If you arrive at great depth already stressed, you will certainly not produce good shots. One of our favorite wrecks lies at a depth of 100 meters. On site there are exactly eight minutes for setting up and stowing the equipment and the photo job. Starting these precious minutes stressed means not even producing a single usable photo, because you’re unlikely to get beyond the set-up.
- Dive Safe and Take Care of What you have
It’s no secret: underwater photography can be just as expensive as buying a rebreather with all the training up to full trimix level, and significantly more. The equipment is very precious. When I bought new equipment, I was always faced with the choice of whether to invest in photography gear or in safer diving solutions. Logically, the decision was always in favor of safety. If you have money to spend on photography, you can spend it on safety, too. However, with the training background in technical diving, the answer to this decision should be found quickly. There is no photography fun in safety! It’s a similar story with material care: If you don’t clean your camera conscientiously after every dive, especially in salt water, it won’t last long. My awareness of care for my diving material increased by leaps and bounds. For technical diving, this is good news!
Overall, I can say that I would have liked to know these aspects beforehand, but certainly had to gain my own experience first. I have certainly become a better diver through underwater photography in technical diving. And I had feared otherwise based on my experiences.
This is meant to be a TDI blogpost article. There is no course for “Technical Diving Underwater Photographer” but some SDI courses that would help you with the first steps, if you did not take them already: