Editor’s Note: Brandi Mueller sees a greater role for your underwater photography—as a tool for changing attitudes and inspiring change. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
A filefish living inside a single-use plastic cup
We exist in a time where the ocean—and the planet—need our help. As underwater image-makers, we are in a unique position to have a positive impact on ocean conservation. We are the lucky ones. We get to experience the ocean in all its magnificence and we obviously love these experiences enough to invest a lot of time and money in doing it as often as possible. We have a responsibility to the ocean to take care of it, to share what we see, and, most of all, to be sure what we do is not part of the problem.
Document the Good—and the Bad
The ocean is beautiful and showing what is below can help change human attitudes and behaviors. Through the images we bring back to the surface, we can share the beauty and this special, mostly unseen world beneath the waves. With these images, there is an opportunity to inspire others to go underwater and love it as we do. Or, for those who don’t have the opportunity or inclination to dive, our documentation may inspire people to care about the ocean.
Sharing the beauty of the underwater realm allows non-divers to understand just what there is to lose
Divers also get to see the problems and the destruction firsthand. It is our job to bring those images and stories back and share them. If no one can see the issues—and we always present the ocean only in a way which is pretty, perfect, and healthy—then the majority will see no need or reason to make a change in their daily lives.
Consider Justin Hofman’s image of the seahorse clinging to a Q-tip. You remember it, right? Rarely do underwater images have such a global impact, but they can, and you never know which images will get noticed. I consider it our job to take these photos and share them. They might not reach the entire world, but they may still reach a significant audience through social media. You may think yourself just someone who takes photos for fun, but it can be so much more than that. So few people spend time underwater, and even fewer bring back images. Taking underwater images is something special and important.
The more we share what we shoot, the better
It Starts with Us
Our other responsibility is to be good to the ocean. Never should taking an underwater image cause harm. This great privilege of visiting and documenting the ocean should never turn into behaving badly underwater. This issue has come up in underwater photo competitions where animals are seen in places they are unlikely to be, and it is talked about on dive boats around the world. “Did you see that diver have his dive guide move the animal?” “That diver was taking a photo and kicked the reef behind him so hard, part of it broke off!” Bad actions do not go unnoticed.
A new mentality needs to be reached where we, as image-makers, exhibit only the most respectful interactions with the ocean. The goal of “getting the shot” is a strong one that we all have. But photographers should never resort to causing harm to the ocean or disturbing an animal for the sake of a photo.
As underwater shooters, we should constantly be aware of the possible negative impact of our actions—even if unintentional
To many of us, the mere idea of harming an animal or a reef is obscene. But it happens, possibly more than you realize, and sometimes by accident. While it seems obvious, divers should not pick up a camera until their buoyancy is perfect. They say the best way to take a good diver and make them bad is to give them a camera. Don’t forget the basics. It’s easy to become so wrapped up in getting a shot that you forget where your fins are and crash them into the reef, or you sink to the bottom and end up lying on the reef. Even in a sandy, mucky bottom, there are many critters, and lying in the sand is likely to scare or crush something—or may harm you if you accidentally make contact with one of the many poisonous creatures of the muck.
One should never manipulate animals. Contest judges and underwater photo editors can often spot an image that has been manipulated at first glance. Marine life has specific habitats and behaviors and if an image is entered into a contest that suggests an animal has been tampered with, it will be disqualified. Photographers whose images reach the final stages of judging are often asked to submit photos taken before and after the potential winning shot in an effort to determine whether manipulation occurred.
Resist the urge to tease octopuses out of their holes—technique and tenacity should be enough to get you a satisfying image
We alone decide what lengths we will go to take the image. In many places, divers can persuade dive guides to misbehave by offering small amounts of money. I don’t think we can fault the dive guides, who often make very little; the fault lies in the photographer doing the asking. Many dive shops explicitly prohibit the moving or harming of animals for underwater photographers, and dive guides may find themselves dismissed from their jobs if someone finds out. Never ask your dive guides to do such things and don’t dive with operators that allow guides to do it.
As photographers, we must also ask ourselves how much trauma are we willing to subject critters to, to get the shot. We go underwater, making a lot of noise, with giant cameras and lights that seem brighter than the sun. Then we take 100 shots of a pygmy seahorse, a tiny creature that usually lives deep in a mostly dark environment. These small creatures are very sensitive to light. When we repeatedly fire our strobes, there’s a danger of a seahorse being blinded and falling out of its gorgonian home, which can make it easy prey for predators. Is it worth killing a seahorse for a photo?
Seahorses likely aren’t the only critters sensitive to our powerful strobes: We should try and limit how many shots we take of any individual sea creature
Be Selective about Operators
As dive consumers, we play a large role in determining how dive operations and dive resorts behave. If we chose to only stay and dive with companies that do everything they can to take care of the ocean, we would force everyone to behave that way. Do your research before you book. What sort of environmental projects does that company participate in? Are they helping conservation, environment, or local community efforts? Do they care about ocean conservation or are they just making money off of it?
You should also choose your dive experiences wisely. If someone is offering a dive that “guarantees” you’ll get images of an animal you know is difficult to photograph, ask why. There are some shady ventures that have animals in cages or attract them in a way that harms the animal. In the end, you get to make the final decision if you think doing something is ethical or not.
With patience—and without manipulation—you can capture fascinating underwater behaviors
The more time you spend underwater, the more opportunities you will have to capture amazing things—like flamboyant cuttlefish eggs
Do No Harm
Make this your mission: Do no harm. Bring back the images—the good and the bad—and share them with the world. You document a very rarely seen environment on our planet. Help to inspire people to care about the ocean with your images. Sometimes it might not seem like it, but your shots have the ability to change the way people live their lives.
Show what you can do without moving or harassing marine life. Create images of wonderful critters in their natural environment even if it doesn’t lend itself easily to the ideal black background or the nudibranch’s rhinophores being perfectly straight on. Work harder, dive more, spend a bit more time with one subject to get the best shot. Create images you can be proud of, and respect yourself and your ability to get the shot while respecting the ocean.
A fang blenny in a bottle
About the Author: Brandi Mueller is an award-winning underwater photographer, writer, and obsessive traveler who tries to spend as much time underwater as possible. She is a PADI IDC Staff Instructor, and works as a dive instructor and boat captain, when not taking photos for fun or teaching photography.
Plan Your Adventure >