Learn how to add divers to your image without the use of a dedicated model
It’s easy to see the reasons why to include divers in your wide-angle underwater images. Divers spice up the composition; they can be used to show scale of an underwater object; and a human element gives something with which the viewer can connect.
At the same time, getting divers pleasantly placed in your frame isn’t easy at all. In an ideal world, you’d have a terrifically trimmed buddy who is willing to be your dedicated model. But who wants to spend their entire dive dedicated to your photographic whims? And so, we must learn to add unsuspecting divers to our images. It’s a skill that once mastered will improve your imagery and reduce the reliance on a model.
You can create stunning images even without a model by following a few tips and techniques
Why Use “Real Divers”
As the Editor for DPG, I often go on assignments alone—but I still need to find a way to include divers in my images to tell a complete story. The first option is to ask a dive guide to pose as a model. However, they often have other guests to manage and can’t afford the time.
Another technique is to self-model: Set up your camera on a tripod and use a timer while you swim into position to pose. It’s effective, but it’s also time- and air-consuming. Often, the simplest solution is to use “real” (aka regular, normal) divers as impromptu models.
The resulting images might not have the same look as staged, modeled shots where the diver is perfectly poised with legs together shining a light back into the camera. You’ll notice that in these images, the diver is often performing an activity such as taking a picture or swimming towards an animal. However, they do often have a tone of authenticity and spontaneity that is missing from modeled moments.
A diver actually explores a U-boat wreck off the coast of North Carolina (no model used!)
They might not be as perfectly posed as model divers, but "normal" divers add a certain tone of authenticity and are readily available
Setting Up the Shot
It is essential that you are prepared to take the image long before your unsuspecting diver swims by. Because your subjects aren’t delegated dive models, they won’t pause their dive to adjust positioning, so you can reshoot or adjust lighting settings.
1. Get Ahead: This is perhaps the most difficult part for underwater photographers, as we like to take our time and hang behind the group. But when trying to include other divers, getting ahead of the group and letting the subjects swim into the frame is the way to go.
2. Identify Foreground Subject: Getting ahead of the other divers also gives you time to identify potential foreground subjects. If you’re just getting started with this technique, stick to stationary subjects like coral growth, sponges, anemones, or shipwrecks. Once you’ve built up experience, you can switch over to more mobile animals like turtles, fish schools, and even pelagic animals.
3. Practice First: Once you’ve identified the subject, take the time afforded by being ahead of the group to nail down the lighting and composition. More advanced shooters can even begin to adjust their camera exposure and strobes as they approach the subject and fine-tune the settings upon arrival. When composing the shot, make sure to visualize where in the frame you want to place the diver.
4. Timing is Everything: Often, you only have one shot to include the diver in the image as he/she swims by. So, while the main subject is stationary, the exact moment the diver is in the proper position in the frame is fleeting. You need to press the shutter at the exact moment the diver is between the edge of the frame and your foreground subject.
Getting ahead of the diver and properly framing the shot (left), seeing the diver approach and fine-tuning exposure (center) and finally snapping the shutter at the right moment (right)
Preparation is key: In the first image (left), improper strobe positioning leads to harsh lighting. After adjusting the strobes (center) for a more evenly lit image, I wait until a diver swims overhead (right)
The Camera Effect
It’s rather surprising the impact being photographed has on divers—and how it differs from one person to another. In general, I’ve found that if divers anticipate they might appear in an image, they will act more model-esque. This usually involves straightening their posture and bringing their legs together in a streamlined position—an ideal reaction for the photographer.
However, sometimes you will see quite the opposite and the diver will pose for the image. If this is the case, expect to see a combination of “OK” and “Thumbs Up” hand signals as a reaction. But this is usually just the beginning: I’ve seen everything from divers summersaulting in excitement to taking off their mask and placing it upside down. I’ve even gotten the middle finger underwater. The point is that these poses aren’t ideal for authentic images. The last thing you want to do is distract from the primary subject in the frame.
Sometimes divers give hand signals or unwanted gestures when they know they are being photographed
If you find that your dive group has a tendency to act strangely—or more common—swim away from the frame, you can try the classic trick of the street photographer. Start by following steps 1–3 of setup (get ahead, identify the subject, and practice the shot). But instead of looking through the viewfinder as the subject approaches, pretend (or actually) look down at the LCD screen as if reviewing an image before swiftly raising the camera and snapping a shot at the right moment. I’ve gone so far as to turn completely away from the scene and swing around at the last second to catch the divers swimming by. Talk about a candid capture.
Try waiting to pick up the camera until the last second to capture the divers in their most natural form
Sometimes a "strange" behavior is sweet, such as these two divers unexpectedly holding hands
Tips and Techniques
One of the more frustrating elements about photographing non-dive models is how much of the situation is out of your control. You can’t control how they act, where they swim, or what they do. But here are some tips and techniques to achieve a higher success rate when incorporating divers into an image.
Choose Your Divers Wisely: Subject selection is one of the toughest tasks for underwater photographers—with only limited time on a dive it’s important not to waste time on an uncooperative or poorly placed animal. And the same goes for your human subjects. Identify which divers you want to add to your frame ahead of time. Typically, these divers will have a trimmed kit without dangling hoses or accessories and are calm and graceful swimmers. Keep an eye out for those divers using a torch because the dive light can add another element to your image.
Watch the Bubbles: Bubbles can make or break an image of a diver—especially if the humanoid subject is close to the foreground or lit by the strobes. It’s very distracting if the diver is exhaling a burst of bubbles in front of his/her face when the shutter is pressed. That’s why you want to watch the diver’s breathing pattern and wait for the inhale to take the shot. That way the bubbles should be long gone.
Wait for the diver to inhale so that you don't have bubbles distracting from the subject
Shoot in Burst Mode: We’ve established that timing is key when incorporating non-model divers in your image. While you can do a lot to ensure that the composition is ideal in preparation, there’s nothing like a little “spray and pray.” We recommend shooting these types of images in burst mode—even if the foreground is stationary—because it will ensure that at least one of the images has the diver positioned perfectly. Essentially, shooting in burst (4–10 frames per second) mimics the luxury of being able to direct a dive model to move one way or the other.
Shooting in burst increases the odds that you'll get all of the elements right: In this case that means proper exposure, no bubbles, and the diver's light shining right at my camera
Photograph Photographers: There are numerous benefits to choosing other photographers as your impromptu model. First, you are unlikely to have a situation where they give you the middle finger (or any other unwanted pose) because their hands are busy holding a camera. Secondly, they often are slower moving and tend to hover around a subject longer—giving you a moment for a second or third shot attempt if needed. They also tend to have a video or focus light that punches up the image a bit.
Photographers make some of the best unsuspecting dive subjects because they tend to follow subjects and often have focus lights
Working with a dive model is a fantastic experience: Experienced models know how to position themselves in the frame and swim gracefully. Unfortunately, for most amateur photographers, finding a dedicated dive model or paying for such a service isn’t an option. But that doesn’t mean you can’t overcome the challenge. With a little preparation, compositional awareness, and insider tips, you too can create magazine cover-worthy images of divers interacting with the ocean environment.
Even with a dive model it’s hard to create authentic moments like when this red-lipped batfish surprises divers by swimming in mid-water in the Galápagos