Most of the photos we take in the ocean are of animals, corals and other little critters. But why not also include a diver in your photos, or even capture nice underwater portraits of them? Adding divers to your photos adds an extra dimension to them. It also very nicely portrays the interaction between the diver and the animal, which helps illustrate the human element of scuba diving. The viewer will be able to better perceive the actual scale of the scene within the photo – even more so when you use a wide-angle lens.
This concept can even be as simple as: why not just take a cool shot of your buddy underwater?
In some cases, I can imagine an underwater photographer may feel a bit too advanced to capture simple moments of divers with their thumbs up?
To me it is a very rewarding process to work with divers as underwater models. In my experience, they love to have their pictures taken underwater, or may be even more excited to see themselves in a photo alongside a turtle, porcupine fish, shark or any other beautiful animal.
Here are my 10 tips to taking stunning underwater photos of divers.
#1 Be A Good Diver
Good buoyancy control is key and must be second nature. Learning how to hover in different positions is a great start. A good way to achieve this is to practice first with your model in a sandy, shallower area. You can both kneel and try different lighting and angles. But be careful not to stir up the sand, as that will ruin your photo! For example, I once photographed an underwater wedding alongside an underwater videographer who didn’t have his buoyancy control in order, landed in the sand several times close to me, essentially disturbing opportunity to take my perfect shot. I was forced to get much closer to the bride and groom to reduce blurry shots…
Once you are ready to swim and, for instance, take some nice shots along the reef wall, you must be sure to create enough distance between yourself and that wall while you position yourself for the perfect shot. The last thing you want is to crash into a barrel sponge while getting your settings right. Finally, never hold on to a piece of coral while focusing – that is so NOT done! In the beginning, diving skills are even more important to learn than photography skills.
#2 Choose the Right Model
Working with a model who is an experienced diver will create a great advantage for you as a photographer. He or she needs to be both comfortable underwater and also very patient. Be sure that your dive briefing includes an explanation of the most important signals, such as: wait, one more time, stop, look up, look down, be horizontal, be vertical, inhale, move this way, move that way, look over my shoulder and look in the lens. Also, in my experience, I have learned that it is most helpful for everyone to count down from three, after which they all inhale to reduce the bubbles in the photo. For a group photo, it is a must!
#3 Organize your Dive
Conduct a good briefing with your model beforehand. Know the dive site where you are planning to go very well. Also know what type of photos you would like to take and during which part of the dive. Your briefing should include what kinds of creatures you might expect to encounter and how she or he would fit in that picture with, for example, a school of horse-eye jacks. It’s also important to thoroughly explain any necessary extra signals that can make it easier to position them for a great shot. For example, if you would like to have your model in front of a school of fish, point out where they should be positioned and how. Let them keep their legs together. Remember, bubbles can ruin a shot, so make sure your diver inhales after you count down from three with a signal, then focus and take the photo. Needless to say, they should never hold their breath for a shot. Establish a clear signal to use if you want to repeat the shot, and make sure the diver has time to breath out before the retake, and then to breath in again when taking the next shot. The safety stop, while you are hovering anyway, is also a perfect moment to take headshots with natural lighting.
As we all know, certain colors disappear underwater. The longest wavelengths with the lowest energy, are absorbed first. Red is the first to be absorbed at about 20 feet of depth, followed by orange and then yellow. Yellow is the most visible of all the colors; it is the first color that a human eye notices. Blue penetrates the deepest, which is why deep, clear ocean water appears blue most of the time. So feel free to let your model wear colorful gear, masks, fins, and wetsuits. Detailed colorful prints are even better, as they add more to a photo. Personally, I am not a fan of violet gear, but it looks great underwater! Orange still can be seen to a depth of 60 feet. When shooting models, I suggest to not go too deep anyway. Always bring a spare mask with a clear skirt and make sure it is not foggy! For close-ups, you want to see their bright, shiny eyes! Let them also look up into the sun, as this produces a cool effect when the glass of the mask shimmers like a mirror. If your model has long beautiful hair, let her wear a bandana headband of a bright color and maybe with a funky print. Let her move her head to create great effects with her hair.
I like to shoot close-ups of models. However, it is important when doing so to focus on their eyes, because in the end, it’s all about the eyes! You have to be very clear in giving your signals when you are ready to take your shot.
Also, if you use strobes instead of ambient light, move your model further away from the camera and point the strobes more outwards. Otherwise, during your post-production you will discover backscatter, which I find the most annoying thing. The strobes need to light the model evenly and light up the face properly.
If you like to take close-ups with a black background, which can be very cool, increase your shutter speed. For a compact camera, I suggest using 1/500th in combination with a small aperture that will block any ambient light.
With a DSLR it would be around 1/200th – 1/250th, your strobe sync speed.
#6 Something in the Foreground
Of course, it is partially a matter of luck to encounter a marine animal that moves in the right direction and can be between your lens and your model. However, in order to increase your chances, hover around and be patient about finding the right moment to capture. Your shots will definitely help create depth by adding another point of interest to the scene. A wider angle will let you get closer to your subject, while still capturing both in their entirety. Make sure the focus is on the diver or, even better, on both the diver and animal. To make this happen, the diver must be close to the animal. Needless to say, never upset an animal to get that perfect shot. Alternatively, you can capture something else in the background, like a beautiful piece of a coral head.
Of course, the most important skill is to have perfectly neutral buoyancy and maintain a good trim. Divers who master these techniques will experience less fatigue, reduce their air consumption and probably make fewer mistakes because there is a lot to think about while using a camera underwater. It is important to stay within your limitations and not take risks because you may be too determined to get that perfect shot. A very beautiful spotted eagle ray may cruise pass, deeper than you are supposed to be. So remember that chasing this animal is not an option to get a closer shot. Also, be careful not to get too distracted and lose track of time, as a result of forgetting to check your pressure gauge!
#8 Be There, Be Patient
Always let the animal come to you, and observe what he is doing. A candid shot can be an option too, as some situations just happen. If you are just in the right place at the right time, using stop F8 is mostly a guaranty to capture a great shot, and will produce good results in most situations. Always remember to be ready as soon you descend to start your dive, as you never know what will quickly come across your path at any moment!
#9 Have Fun and Make Selfies
It is always fun to take selfies of just you or with one or two buddies. Even cooler are selfies with a big animal in the background! It is not always easy to find the right spot and it takes a bit to prepare when you are with more people. Make sure you have the sunlight on your face, and be aware that shallow shots with ambient light can turn out nice. If you are deeper, use your strobes but point them out wider. You can see yourself in the dome to help get the right position and you all fit in the frame.
#10 Be Creative
In any way you can, be creative with your shots. You can bring stuff like colorful shawls, or a torchlight – anything you might think that can make a photograph different than photos you already have. By asking them to hold a dive light, you’ll add another interesting element to your composition. The light beam can give an interesting effect, especially in caves and wrecks. A perfect example of adding creativity was the underwater wedding shoot I mentioned earlier, where there were a lot of creative preparations involved. For instance, they made a beautiful altar for the bride and the groom, and even spread out a red carpet where they started their ceremony swimming down the aisle surrounded by their guests.