As a studious new underwater photographer, I like to take every chance to study light and different shooting circumstances. So when Cayman dive operator Divetech organized the first freedive event on the Ex-USS Kittiwake, the latest artificial reef addition in Cayman waters, I tagged along!
None of the brave breatholders had any photo experience, so I gave a quick briefing about composition. It must have sounded like gibberish because rather than a controlled photo shoot, I soon found myself with sleek figures darting around me in all directions. I was smack dab in the middle of a freediving frenzy.
Beginning Freediving Photography
The dive kicked off at 1PM, with the sun straight above the wreck—not ideal for creating the gloomy mood of traditional wreck photography. Additionally, there was the challenge of shooting the shallow wreck (60 feet max) in a white sandy bottom. The combination of sun and sand guaranties a lot of light diffusion—a bit too much for natural light photography.
With the dive well underway, I positioned myself under the bow of the wreck, hovering around 50 feet. I composed the tip of the bow just entering the frame, hoping to reflect the dark mood of a wreck. One of the freedivers, Mark Tilley, positioned himself beneath it on the sand, head down, long fins extended. I had my first picture: “Contemplating at Bow.”
After gaining a little confidence with the first shot, I repositioned to include the entire bow with the diver. The result: a classic picture you see often in portfolios of photographers visiting Grand Cayman, but not without my next freediver Humberto Scanio in the frame.
The Challenges of Photographing Freedivers
The sunlight became too harsh and I swam to the side of the wreck to get some shade. Tom Quin practiced a very slow ascent between the wreck and a coral boulder, head down, knees together, just the subtle movement of the fins, totally in his zone: “Ascension.”
By then it was time for my safety stop and I got back into the light at 20 feet. Another boat with snorkelers had now joined us at the Kittiwake, and inspired by what they saw, they tried to descend to the upper deck of the wreck. Lacking practice and dedication they ended up kicking around at the surface.
The contrast between the peace of Steve Underwood in the water, his freediving buddies waiting at the surface, and the group of kicking and swimming snorkelers in the upper right of the picture made the next picture: “Colored Frenzy.”
Even in the final minutes of the dive, I kept looking for photographic opportunities. The spot where the steering wheel once was made a nice background and Humberto was willing to pose at his “office” for the day. Shooting down allowed me to avoid too much ambient light.
I always have an eye on my settings, as you never know what you might encounter. So even planning to get back to the boat, I was prepared. And that brings me to my favorite shot: Kurt Randolph making his ascent in front of my dome, a cloud weakening the strong sunlight, the wreck in all its glory resting on the sandy bottom. This all gave me a perfect sense of freedom.
I absolutely loved my first afternoon with this freediving group and hope for many more. The way they move is very different from fish behavior, hard to follow when you focus manually, but once you start to compose your shot, you decide when to pull the trigger and look for different opportunities.