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Underwater Photography: 
basics and beyond

by William W. Hartley 

Welcome to the wonderful world of underwater photography. A world within our world. A world of water. A world of perpetual motion. A world of mountains, valleys and trenches. A world often devoid of light, yet filled with vivid color. A world prolific with life beyond any other. A world that we still know little about and a world we have only begun to discover.

How do we as individuals enter that world of discovery, and as photographer capture the vivid flora and fauna? Where do we begin? Whether a beginning diver looking for a place to start taking photographs or an advanced diver wanting to improve my photography, the place to start is to perfect some basic diving skills. Just as how you stand and hold a camera on land can have a dramatic effect on your photos, basics diving skills can give you that sought after edge underwater.

Buoyancy for Photographers
Buoyancy is a skill that should be mastered before one attempts to become an underwater photographer, even before you bring a camera underwater. For those of us who are underwater photographers, we should endeavor to become more proficient with our buoyancy in order to create better photographic opportunities, images and to preserve the creatures and habitats we have come to photograph.

In the past underwater photographers had earned a bad reputation due to the environmental damage they sometimes caused. In the early days of diving, many underwater photographers wore additional weight to make sure they would be able to stay on the bottom. This excess weight ensured a lack of movement, in turn allowing the photographers the necessary time to compose their works of art. Unfortunately, little was known and therefore, no thought was given, to the impact their techniques would have on reef ecosystems.

Things have changed, and the pursuit of an image is no longer considered justification for damaging the underwater landscape. Today, underwater photographers are held to the same "no-impact" standards as the rest of the diving public.

In reality, anyone using a camera underwater must develop superior swimming and buoyancy control skills. The seemingly simple acts of holding and manipulating a camera system can turn even highly experienced divers into fumbling novices.

Remember when we received our diving certification, we were given a certification that we now had the skills to begin to learn. Buoyancy control is by far the single most important dive skill one needs to master before attempting to take underwater photographs. And only through practice can one master this dive skill.

Controlling Buoyancy
Buoyancy control can be divided into three levels of expertise. It is sad to say, but most divers never put enough time into reaching the third level. They flounder somewhere between levels one and two, unknowingly bumping the reef and kicking up silt. Before taking a camera into the open water, you should develop your buoyancy skills to the highest level.

When we first started diving, remember how we flailed around, arms and legs akimbo, not yet comfortable in controlling our movements? At this most basic level, we needed to learn how much weight was required to make ourselves neutrally buoyant. Once properly weighted, we gained some control. But we still drifted up and down with each breath and used our hands to steady ourselves.

To achieve the second level of buoyancy control, we must learn to imitate marine mammals, with our arms and hands folded and stationary, our bodies relaxed and horizontal with a slight arch. With practice we can learn to use our breath and fins and ascend and descend, hold position and accelerate. Through controlled breathing, we can remain suspended in mid-water with no hand or leg action.

To practice this skill, select a stationary point of reference then attempt to hold a vertical position. If you start to descend, take a deeper breath and if you start to ascend, exhale. Remember to breathe continuously and be conscious of your breathing. Once you can maintain position for about 60 seconds, you are ready to master skill level three.

Hand Movements
Now, it is time to learn to work with your hands in a proper and responsible way. Start by twirling your thumbs; get a length of rope and tie some knots. Write a poem on your underwater slate or just take some notes. At first, your buoyancy skills may deteriorate, as your mind is focused on the hands. With time, however, you will be able to handle both tasks simultaneously. Now, it's time to add a camera.

Start in a pool or a shallow sand-bottom lagoon. Bring along a handful of objects that can be positioned as imaginary photo subjects. 

Next, enter the water with your complete camera setup in hand, whether it is just one camera or underwater housing and strobes. 

Check your weighting, it will have varied with the addition of a camera. Then descend and establish neutral buoyancy. Assume different body positions and practice holding them. Focus and compose images while maintaining buoyancy.

Be conscious of your fins and knees. Are they off the bottom? If this were open water, would they be causing environmental damage, stirring up silt, or kicking the reef?

Good buoyancy control will ensure you as the photographer will take only pictures and leave only bubbles, a world to return to and photograph on another day. It also allows you to hover and hold any position without undue body movement; which will reduce your air consumption. And using less air means more bottom time to compose that prize photograph.

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