How to be a responsible underwater photographer

Romina Bayer

As underwater photographers we want to share the beauty of the oceans and its inhabitants. But we need to consider our behavior as well, in order to demonstrate some environmentally-friendly diving and photography habits. Here are 7 tips on how to be a more responsible underwater photographer.

Be aware of your body and equipment

Being streamlined is important in scuba diving in general. But as we add more and more underwater photo gear to our set-up, we tend to just clip everything to our BCD and let it dangle along. Big mistake. Not only does this decrease your streamlining, it also creates a bigger risk of your camera hitting something without you noticing.

Instead, you always want to be holding your camera in your hand. Yes, we still clip it to our BCD. But this is in order to secure it. Lanyards are great for this!

Responsible underwater photographer
Being a responsible underwater photographer means being aware of your body and your equipment.

Don’t touch. Anything.

This is a very basic rule you probably (hopefully!) have learned in your open water course: just look, don’t touch. Some people seem to forget that “touching” does not only mean touching with your hand. Your fins, your body, your equipment, all of this is included in the “don’t touch” rule. So do the reefs a favor and don’t just lay down on the sand or (even worse) the reef if you want to take a shot. Chances are, even in the sand there are some critters living and hiding beneath it. Just because you can’t see them does not mean they are not there. Which brings us straight to the next point…

Practice your buoyancy and spatial awareness

Before you pick up any camera underwater you should be able to control your buoyancy without hesitation. And you should be feeling comfortable as a diver. If you’re just starting out, don’t worry, it get’s easier with experience. But don’t rush it either: take some time to master your diving skills first and make sure you know what you’re doing as a diver. Only then take it to the next level and add a camera to the equation.

Spatial awareness is very important as well. Please consider your surroundings before you approach a subject. Ask yourself questions like: Am I able to approach without touching anything? Can I safely move away from the subject as well?

Spatial awareness is important in underwater photography
Consider the position of your subject before you approach.
Subject position in underwater photography
It’s better if the subject is in a position that is easier to access, like on top of a rock or a piece of coral.

Get ready before you take the shot

There it is! You finally found that juvenile harlequin sweetlip you really wanted to take a picture of! Instead of rushing in, realizing that your settings are completely off and you just missed that shot, take a moment to prepare. You can easily take a test shot of your hand if there is no other subject around. Or take one on the sand, pretending that a rock is your subject. Like this, you can make sure your settings are set correctly, the photo is well exposed and you are ready for your real subject.

Limit your number of shots

A lot of marine life is very sensitive.

An interesting (and controversial) study conducted by lead marine biologist Maarten de Brauwer of Curtin University in Western Australia showed that it is actually not so much the light of a flash, but the behavior of the diver that is harmful to critters.

They tested the effects of photography on fish behavior on 14 benthic fish species and the effects of photographic flashes on seahorse behavior, and ocular and retinal anatomy in two laboratory studies. The findings might surprise you: the use of strobes (or flashes) did not have a stronger impact on the animal’s behavior than the mere presence of divers. Nor did it cause changes in the eyes of the seahorses. HOWEVER, manipulation of marine life caused dramatic distress in the animals.

So far, there have been very few scientific studies conducted on that matter. Especially the effect on critters living in deeper depths (and thus lower-light environments) have not yet been explored. Although the study by de Brauwer et. al. has not found any negative effects on the animals caused by the strobe lights, I believe that we should limit our number of shots. The longer we stay with a critter, the higher are the chances of us causing it distress. Especially when we are talking about critters that are very slow-moving or have limited capacity of “getting away” from us, like sea horses or frogfish, we should allow them to take a break.

My recommendation: Limit your number of shots to just a few per subject. Like this, you can minimize the stress level for the animals.

Thorny seahorse
Thorny Seahorse: like many marine animals they are very sensitive to light. Limit your number of shots.

Don’t chase any animals

…and if they swim away, let them! Don’t chase any marine life, just because you want a picture. You will see that it pays off to be patient and let them come to you. Sure, it won’t happen that every fish will come to check you out. And that’s fine. Remember that it is not all about getting a shot. And sometimes it is just better to enjoy the moment anyway.

Patience is key

That nudibranch might be in a really bad position. And they are slooooow… but if you are patient, you can manage to get great pictures. Take your time, prepare your camera and maybe you will get lucky. And before you know it, your subject has moved into a more favorable position. Many fish will be shy when you first approach. But give them time to get used to you, and you might suddenly witness some extraordinary behavior.

Becoming a more responsible underwater photographer means being aware

If you keep these tips in mind, you’re on your way to become a more responsible underwater photographer. Remember, that it is not always about snapping that perfect picture. We need to respect the marine life and behave accordingly.

Especially if you’re just getting started with underwater photography, take your time to practice, practice, practice…

Are you looking for more input to take your underwater photo skills to the next level? Learn more about marine life and how you can photograph them in my live webinar!

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