Since I started working as a full-time freediving instructor and judge, I've become extremely comfortable shooting without the aid of any breathing apparatu- now all my work, both stills and video, is done while free diving.
The benefits of freediving for underwater photography and video versus SCUBA diving warrants an entire article, but needless to say, I really enjoy the freedom and possibilities it offers.
I work in Dahab Egypt, one of the top places for freediving, and I've been lucky enough to have been trained by two of the best free diving instructors in the world, the owners of Freedive Dahab, Linda Paganelli (the model in my shot and multiple Italian record holder) and Lotta Eriscon (Former world record and Swedish national record holder).
On the day I took this shot we had actually been in Ras Mohammed National Park with a group of clients as part of a day outing. This being more of a fun dive, Linda and I went into the water without much of a plan and I was looking for possibilities for shots as they presented themselves. As we neared the end of the first session in the water I saw the opportunity of diving into this particular cave and shooting a "framed" shot of Linda ascending at the mouth of it. The idea was simple enough and given the great detail in the walls I was hopeful that it would be a good shot.
When you are using SCUBA, you can leisurely set your exposure, compose the shot and even take a few test shots; where as when free diving you need to be a bit more efficient with the time you have. For shots like this I usually ask the model (in this case Linda) to give me a 30-second headstart, which gives me some buffer time to prepare.
I try not to push the limits when doing dives where I'm taking photos or video, so an entire dive like this is quite short and usually doesn't take more than a minute to a minute and a half. In terms of safety and being able to do quick repetitive dives for shots like this one, it is always best to keep conservative dive times and never to dive alone. Interestingly enough, the fact that you are holding your breath is usually the last thing on your mind when you are preoccupied with getting good shots!
The floor of the cave is at about 15 feet, and the distance from myself to Linda (at the point where the shot was taken) was probably about twice that, so photographically speaking there was not that much light on my end. The obvious thing to do was to meter for the column of water behind Linda and to use fill light from my strobes to cover as much of the inside of the cave without making it look unnatural.
I knew that I needed quite a small aperture to achieve a pleasing depth of field. This was quite a tricky prospect given that at the same time I had a very limited amount of ambient light on my end of the cave, and that I usually aim to shoot faster than 1/125s (about as slow as I go for shots with moving free divers).
I started by setting the shutter speed to 1/125s, the aperture to f7.0 and an ISO of 250, as I prefer to stay below ISO 400 when shooting underwater. I explained exactly to Linda what I needed her to do, took a deep breath, and dived into the cave to find the ideal spot to position myself for the best composition and exposure.
I only shot two test shots; setting the strobes to 3/4 power. My camera's histogram confirmed that setting combination turned out to work perfectly, as it lit up the inside of the cave just enough to prevent loss of detail in the shadows.
I did two dives into the cave to get this shot and took six shots total: three of Linda descending and three of her ascending. Although there was absolutely nothing wrong with the composition and exposure with five out of these six shots (only one cropped the top of the cave), we decided to go with the final image I shot based mainly on the fact that it had Linda in the most flattering position in terms of depth, framing, body position (very important) and lighting. The shot is also completely un-cropped so the sharpness and detail are quite impressive.
The choice to present it in black and white was done simply because it gave the image far more impressive detail and also created the perfect atmosphere. An alternative version to this shot (shot on the first dive) in color also has garnered a positive response, but I personally prefer the black and white.
As an interesting side story, I nearly overlooked this image in its original RAW state. Viewing it quickly alongside other images it looked quite washed out and unimpressive when viewed on a monitor. A few days later while sitting with Linda and Lotta to look for a poster image for Freedive Dahab, Linda was the one who insisted I give these shots a try and after some quick levels and contrast adjustments it turned out to be one of the best shots I had ever taken!
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