A freediver comes bursting through a school of scads: It may look set up, but it was a complete surprise—and I have no idea who she was!
Up until about a year ago I did nearly all of my underwater filming and photography while scuba diving. It was without a doubt my comfort zone. Every so often I’d jump in the water and snorkel with some feeding mantas or explore a shallow bit of reef but that was more just a fun way to pass a long surface interval. Also, since I was typically quite saturated with nitrogen these little excursions didn’t allow for much freediving.
That all changed in 2019 when I accepted a position as a social media content creator and tour leader for a travel agency that catered exclusively for snorkelers called Snorkel Venture. Since then, nearly all of my content has been captured while freediving and snorkeling. I’ll admit that I was apprehensive at first about what I’d be able to see, not to mention produce with my camera, but after leading a few epic tours through places like Alor, Komodo, and a month exploring Mexico, I not only learned that I could still get the images I’d hoped for, but that age old saying, “you see more when you dive,” is quite false.
Snorkeling models are the best—no bubbles!
At the beginning, there were certain aspects of snorkeling and freediving that I absolutely loved. For instance, being able to verbally communicate with my buddies and guests who were willing models was a welcome relief from the unintelligible hand signals I was used to while diving. All the sublime natural light bathing the shallow reefs and bubble free encounters with large pelagic megafauna like mola molas and fleets of mobula rays was also a tick in the “awesome” column.
Another aspect of snorkeling which I quickly became very fond of was that my underwater profile and time in the water were not based on nitrogen bubbles in my body or how much air I had in my tank. If I wanted to spend three hours freediving on a reef, there was no theoretical model or finite supply of compressed air to limit my overall time in the water or to prevent reef-to-surface types of camera movements. True, I now had a significantly limited bottom time and maximum depth. However, the fact that most of my time shooting while on scuba was somewhere between 40 feet and the surface hasn’t really limited me much in terms of what I’d encounter or what I was able to capture as these depths are very much still withing freediving range.
This is actually the first living mola mola ever recorded in Raja Ampat and we were lucky enough to spend 45 minutes snorkeling with it as it swam around our boat
While on a scouting mission in Mexico for Snorkel Venture to put together some new itineraries, I was finally able to get in the water with that mythical school of mobula rays that gathers every so often in the Sea of Cortez
While I do enjoy the numerous benefits to freediving and the new encounters I’m having with marine life, this did not come without a steep learning curve when it came to shooting. With a total bottom time of just under two minutes, where roughly twenty seconds of it is spent descending and ascending, my window to frame the subject, get the settings right, and capture that peak of action shot was now much smaller than I was used to. Oh, and then there was the whole thing of keeping the camera steady while freediving, which I assure you is more difficult than it may seem.
All that being said, with a bit of practice on my breath hold, some forethought regarding my camera settings, a rough idea of my subject’s behavior, and just the right amount of weights, I’m now at a comfortable place with freediving film and photography and absolutely loving having no limit to my time in the water and my newfound creativity.
This stunning little pond is rarely visited despite being just a few feet away from one of the busiest cenotes in Mexico—purely because you can’t dive it
Bottom Time, Buoyancy and a Steady Camera
In my experience, the biggest thing to achieving a solid bottom time while maintaining a beneficial body position underwater is a combination of just the right amount of weight worn low around the waist or even around the bum (to help bring that flotatious rear end down a bit), a few big deep breaths before you dive down, and nice, long fin kicks. If you don’t have enough weight, you will have to fight harder to get past that first half dozen feet of water, which are the most difficult as the water’s pressure on your body is the least, and you’ll just burn up those finite amounts of oxygen much quicker.
The ideal body position, particularity when shooting close to the reef, should be more or less horizontal, like that of a well trimmed diver. If your fins are too high in the water, you’re likely to have very wobbly shots as you fight against floating to the surface. If you’re vertical in the water with your feet below you, there’s every chance you’ll damage the reef.
In Raja Ampat, large schools of fish often gather around the village piers. As these fish are a bit skittish, snorkeling is often the best way to guarantee prolonged encounters—the bubbles from divers make them quickly disappear
So, all of the above I’ve found to be very helpful while diving down beyond a few feet. What about shooting on the surface? Unless it’s just you in the water with glass-like conditions, you’ll find that even the smallest waves from a passing fellow snorkeler will set your whole body in motion—which is not ideal from a filming perspective.
The best way I’ve found to combat even the choppiest surface conditions is to exhale about a half breath to make yourself negatively buoyant and in a vertical position, assuming you’re not directly over a reef. This position will allow you to maintain a steady camera just beneath the surface as you shoot. Yes, because you’ve exhaled a bit your time underwater won’t be as long as if you’d taken a full breath, so timing is important here, particularity when marine life approaches. If you dip under too soon, you might not have enough air in your lungs to sustain you for a feeding whale shark’s slow approach and then be forced to pop back up to the rocky surface just as it passes you by.
Shallow reefs are like chocolate to me, especially when the light is like this, which it often is in the shallows
As with any type of filming or photography, subject selection will be one of the most important variables in making great images. If you’re coming from a background in shooting while on scuba then you’ll want to rethink the way you choose your subjects a bit. Reason being, smaller creatures like ghost pipefish or pygmy seahorses are significantly more difficult to shoot on a single breath, so much so that unless you are an expert freediver with a seven-minute bottom, you might find that it’s not worth the massive effort, especially if your goal is a shot that’s beyond a fish ID shot.
In other words, think wide angle and forget about anything smaller than a tennis ball as a potential subject. Reef scenes, over-unders, reflections, people, and large animals are going to be our bread and butter as freediving photographers and videographers. I realize that it wasn’t long ago that I said I never felt like I’d been limited in any way by what I was able to shoot now, and despite having most macro subjects removed my shot list, I still maintain that my menu of available subjects has grown significantly because of what snorkeling and freedving have opened up to me.
On scuba, shallow reefs are rarely visited. For most, they are where you spend your time as you wait for your computer to tell you it’s safe to ascend to the surface. With snorkeling we’re able to spend hours above arguably some of the most pristine and beautiful parts of a “dive site,” while also being able to explore other shallow water areas where most divers would never even think of going because it’s maybe not a traditional reef.
In just a few feet of water, well away from any mapped dive site, this reef was absolutely beautiful but never visited as it’s not a “dive site”
One of the first things I noticed upon arriving to Siladen Resort and Spa was their expansive seagrass beds just in front of the resort. Nothing like some abstract scenery with a perfect reflection to stimulate some artistic creations!
Places like seagrass beds or mangroves are highly photogenic marine environments, not to mention home to some iconic marine life like jellyfish, juvenile sharks, and unusual fish. Another type of subject that I’ve found myself in the presence of far more often than when I was diving on a daily basis are big pelagics. Since I switched to snorkeling full time just over a year ago, I’ve now been in the water on multiple occasions with blue whales, killer whales, thousands of mobula rays, dolphins, mola molas, dugongs, and more whale sharks and mantas than I can count.
The thing I’ve come to realize is that when you’re scuba diving, you are for the most part completely unaware of what is going on above you. Even if you did happen to spot a whale shark on the surface, it’s not like you’ll be able to ascend quick enough to have a decent encounter with the animal—not unless you want to visit a recompression chamber afterwards. However, if you’re casually snorkeling along a reef and the support boat spots a whale shark, even a few hundred yards away, you can still quickly exit the water and have them drop you just in front of the animal so you can swim side by side with the world’s biggest fish.
It’s precisely these unique and seldom visited marine environments—which for many reasons can yield images far more stimulating than another photo of a sea fan—and increased probability of once-in-a-lifetime encounters with the ocean’s most charismatic creatures that I’ve happily accepted them as replacement subjects for nudibranchs.
When you have just a few minutes to get your camera and jump in the water before your subject disappears, there’s no time to check your gauges and analyze your nitrox. Also, there’s no reason to use scuba if your subject is on the surface
In a lot of places where interactions with large pelagics are well regulated, like the whales in Tonga or these whale sharks in Mexico, diving is strictly prohibited, leaving snorkeling as the only and best option to interact with these beautiful creatures
The Camera Stuff
The camera side of things is significantly easier than the whole freediving bit, particularity if you have a background in underwater photography already. That being said, there are a few things that do change now that we don’t have a tank strapped to our back. First and foremost, the decreased bottom time means that we need to be ready to shoot our subject from the time we reach it. My suggestion would be that once you’ve located a suitable subject—let’s say you want to compose a nice bit of soft coral with some blue water behind—you’d then want to dial in all your camera settings and get your lights set up with your assumptions prior to diving down.
Use your initial dive down as a test shot, then fine-tune your strobe and video lights as needed once you’ve reached the surface again. If it’s a moving subject, like a turtle moving over a reef, you’ll want to adjust your settings while keeping pace with the subject and then dive down at a point in front of it so that once you reach its depth you’ll meet it head on rather than from behind. I’ll admit, it does take a bit of extra effort even for the most basic shots, but hey, at least you won’t need to get a gym membership!
My camera settings for my still images, with or without strobes, will typically hover around f/6.3–f/8, 1/200s, ISO 100–200. At the moment I’m using a Panasonic Lumix GH5 with the 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 pancake lens behind a Nauticam WWL-1 wet lens. While I do love the flexibility of this lens configuration for just about all shooting scenarios, a wet lens is not the most ideal when it comes to split shots, as the water between the port and the wet lens gives you a sort of second waterline when it drains out as you lift the camera out of the water. I will definitely be investing in a fisheye lens and port combination in the future so I can get back to the over-under shots again.
Mangroves are one of the most photogenic underwater environments, and since they are so shallow the best way to photograph them is by snorkeling
Some of the biggest and friendliest schools of fish I’ve ever encountered have been within the first 15 feet or so of water
I do most of my work with natural light rather than with strobes as there’s just so much ambient light in the shallows to take advantage of, not to mention the flexibility in working distance, which is such a nice change from the few feet or so we’re limited to with strobes. Still, I do usually bring my Inon Z-330 strobes with me for reef snorkels, as some subjects—like sea fans and soft coral—need that extra bit of light to really stand out.
Where video is concerned, I use the same camera and lens setup as with my stills, but paired with my Bigblue 6,000-lumen LED lights. I still do work mostly with the natural light but I will use the artificial light to help make the foreground colors pop a bit. I shoot 4K/60p, which is an awesome setting for filming while freediving as this increased frame rate allows me to slow my footage down 50% to help smooth out the inevitable wobbles associated with this style of underwater filming. One setting I’d suggest is customizing your camera’s display so that it includes a little level indicator overlaying the picture—most cameras have this option now. Since I started using it, my image stability has improved significantly as I now have that continuous visual reference for a horizon line.
A little taster of my snorkeling and freediving adventures—all shot sans scuba
The big takeaway from this article shouldn’t be that freediving is the better option for shooting underwater. It’s definitely a great option for things like big animals, shallow reefs, and unusual underwater perspectives, but it’s certainly not ideal for filming a hairy shrimp. Though my job with Snorkel Venture does require me to do a lot more snorkeling now, I still love diving and do my fair share of it.
What I did want to emphasize here—outside of offering up a few tips I’ve found to be helpful in my own work—is that freediving and snorkeling shouldn’t be looked at as something only the underwater model does or an activity to quickly entertain a non-diving companion. Snorkeling or freediving can be as serious as you want to make it, and I assure you it can help dig you out of a creative rut. If you are a die-hard diver with a camera who’s feeling like they’ve shot it all, leave the tank and snorkeling stereotypes behind and explore the shallows—I guarantee you’ll find something to get you back in that creative mindset.
Still not convinced the shallows are a viable option for underwater images? Just look through any underwater photo competition’s winning images and I’ll bet that with the exception of the macro categories, at least 70% of the images are taken by a photographer who’s in 10 feet of water or less with nothing more than a snorkel and a camera.
I’d dived this site in Komodo hundreds of times and had many wonderful encounters with mantas, but nothing compared to this one where 40 mantas swarmed around me and my guests as they went about their courtship ballets. There’s something about the lack of bubbles and being on the surface that puts marine life at ease…
About Alex Lindbloom: Alex is an award-winning underwater photographer and videographer originally from Boise, Idaho and Seattle in the USA. His work has been featured on the Discovery Channel, in various dive magazines, on display in the United Nations building in New York City, and even on a 100-foot monitor in one of Jakarta’s skyscrapers. After leaving the States in 2010 to pursue film and photography in Asia, Alex quickly fell in love with the never-ending diversity of Indonesia, where he has lived and worked since 2013. www.alexlindbloom.com