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Dive Photo Guide

Free Diving Photography

By Ethan Daniels
I love free diving.  Absolutely love it.  No BCD, no regulator, little or no weight.  Compared to scuba diving, the feeling of being underwater virtually naked is one of complete freedom.  Unhindered by gear, free diving is a sport that everyone who enjoys being in the water should aspire to be better at. 

That being said, free diving takes more effort than scuba diving if you are looking to view as much of the ecosystem’s details as possible.  Carrying a camera rig while free diving can be especially taxing, but it can also produce spectacular results. 

This article is merely pointing out the fact that many photographers are missing out on terrific underwater photo opportunities because they feel permanently required to strap on a tank and regulator once they have their open water certification.  Just try free diving with your camera a few times, in the appropriate environment at the right time, and check out the results.  I’m not guaranteeing anything, but over time you should be pleasantly surprised by what your sensors capture. 
plate coral free diving komodo
 It’s not often that you find completely undisturbed hard coral reefs anymore since they’re often shallow and susceptible to abuse.  This particular setting was photographed near Komodo about six meters underwater.  It was an optimal day for shooting natural light since the water was relatively clear and there was plenty of sunlight. 
First of all, just like scuba diving, you must become proficient at free diving before bothering with a camera at all.  If you’re not comfortable holding your breath, clearing your ears, and taking pictures, then begin from the beginning.  Try each skill in your local pool.  Swim laps underwater.  Become proficient at clearing your ears. 

You might even consider take a free diving class in order to speed up the process of becoming comfortable underwater while breath holding.  You’d be surprised at how adept you can become with just a few pointers and easily mastered techniques taught by an expert.  A class will also help in determining how much lead is worn.  Too little and it’ll be a struggle to get down.  Too much and the surface will seem a mighty long way up!
free diver with manta ray by ethan daniels
One of the keys to capturing a viewer’s seems to be adding a human model in shots.  I don’t often do it, mainly because it’s not easy to find a model who knows what they’re doing.  But, when you have the opportunity to shoot big animals with an energetic, capable model you should do it.

But, just like anything else, practice makes perfect.  In order to shoot well while free diving it is not necessary to be able to plummet to 100 feet, but slipping down to 20 feet shouldn’t be much of an effort.  Go out and free dive in the ocean whenever you can.  Then do it again, and again, and again until it becomes second nature.  Become fish-like and relaxed while beneath the waterline.  When achieving adequate competence at free diving you’ll be surprised how long you can spend underwater. Once you’ve attained Zen-like peace underwater then you know you’re ready to shoot.
manta ray silhouette  by Ethan Daniels
I’ve found a few special places where mantas approach ships at night to capture plankton attracted by the ship’s lights.  Mantas can often be put off by the noise of regulators so free diving is the most effective (and fun) means of getting close to them.  Also, these night situations, where there is lots of plankton in the water often creates a lot of backscatter when strobes are in play.  So, I usually try to capture silhouettes of the mantas with other free divers in the background.  It’s difficult to shoot in these conditions due to the lack of light and focusing issues.  But, if the gods smile upon you, you’ll produce very interesting images.
As soon as you’ve gotten comfortable with free diving,  add your camera rig to the skill.  Before you head underwater be aware of what you’re trying to shoot.  Have your camera settings dialed in before heading down.  Most of the time I am shooting while free diving, the shutter speed is set around 1/80th of a second if not a bit faster.  Then I rarely think about it.  I’m more focused on the aperture.  Again, prior to diving into the abyss, I usually have the aperture set around f/8, but this depends greatly on how bright the overall light is, water quality, depth, etc.  The trick is not to be fumbling around with settings while your holding your breath, clearing your ears, and composing a shot.  Simplify, simplify, simplify!
gorgonians free diving underwater photograph
This image was all about finding an angle where the background contrasted the foreground.  It was also necessary to use strobes in order to create the needed contrast.  The best part about shooting a scene like this is that it doesn’t move, but clouds and light do, so don’t dawdle too much even in what seems like a still life.
The subjects you’ll be after are wide angle seascapes and/or large, slow, or relaxed animals.  You can forget about shooting macro.  My favorite lens for free diving is a Sigma 15mm fisheye lens that lets in a ton of light and allows me to get close to large, charismatic megafauna while still including their background environments.  Depending on how deep you’re shooting, you’ll want to bracket several images in order to get the correct exposure. 
manatee by Ethan Daniels
Florida manatees may be one of the easiest marine mammals to photograph on earth.  Their mellow demeanor makes it easy to get close thereby reducing particulate matter between the lens and the subject.  In Crystal River, it is illegal to free dive down to them so stay towards the surface where they regularly rise to breathe.  Find a particularly aesthetic setting and wait for them to pass by.  regularly
Remember that the deeper you go, the brighter the image display on your camera will seem.  Most of the time, I just use the camera’s image display to judge my exposure since there’s little time to examine histogram curves.  I’ve found that if the image looks slightly overexposed in the display then it’s probably just right.  By testing your camera display’s brightness at different depths you’ll understand what I mean.  Whatever the case, if the subject you’re shooting is still, attached, or moving slowly, take your time.  Return to the surface for a breath, adjust your settings if need be, adjust strobe angles if you’re using them, and dive again.
bottlenose dolphin by Ethan Daniels
 Yep, it’s that same Bottlenose that just about anyone who has been to the Turks & Caicos has photographed.  Don’t despair that particular images may have been tried millions of times by thousands of photographers.  Your take on it will undoubtedly be different.  Wait for the subject to swim into the right background.  Wait for the best light.  Be patient, persistent, and relaxed.  The more relaxed you are, especially with marine mammals, the more likely it is that they will approach.
Many of the photographs while free diving are best obtained with natural light.  Of course your housing will be much more streamline and easier to handle without strobes but the use or non-use of them will ultimately depend upon your subject and the environmental conditions.  If there’s bright, mid-day sun and you’re working on split shots in shallow water, there’s no need for strobes.  But on a dark, overcast day you will need artificial light in order to make your subject pop.  If you're shooting something big, such as a whale, forget about dragging your strobes around since they’ll be absolutely useless.  That said, you should try different options and not be afraid of breaking the rules once in a while.
Free diving underwater photograph
One of the most striking free dives in Palau is a dramatic sink hole along the southwest barrier reef.  Early morning light often cascades through the shallow water above the hole silhouetting divers or snorkelers.  This is one of those environments where it is useless to use strobes and essential to have an extremely wide angle lens.  those
Another thing to think about before plunging underwater is a composition.  Will you capture the subject from above or on an upward angle?  In most circumstances you’ll be able to take your time to set up your shot but there is a limit to the number of seconds you can spend on image arrangement.  So consider what your best chances will be before you waste energy and time underwater.  Ponder where the light is coming from and where you should be.  This advice seems common sense, but while scuba diving you have much more time to consider these critical decisions that taking time to compose a shot is rarely an issue while learning underwater photography. 
outrigger underwater photography by Ethan Daniels
In many places throughout the Coral Triangle, you’ll find local fishermen with their outriggers.  Boisterous youngsters from villages will often paddle out to see the strange visitors with their bizarre gear

Just like any type of photography, being in the right place at the right time is more than half the battle.  Bright sunny days with clear water are obviously choice for free diving and shooting, but even when it’s dark and stormy you have options.  On gloomy, rainy days don’t bother going below five or six meters.  Stay shallow.  Use your strobes, work on over/unders, attempt something unusual.  As long as the water is not too rough, there are always potential shots, especially shallow, that you might not be able to get while scuba diving. 
split shot by Ethan Daniels
In many cases, there is no need to actually ‘dive.’  The shallow reefs of Raja Ampat provide a plethora of over under opportunities, especially since there is almost always a dramatic topside backdrop to go along with the diverse underwater life.
As a professional, scraping by in this extremely competitive niche of underwater photography, I’ve found that, by far, more of my images produced from free diving photography have sold to publications than my scuba diving shots.  Everyone with half an eye at composition and good technical abilities can now shoot soft corals with a model in the distance while scuba diving.  But not everyone has the ability to shoot while free diving.  Most people don’t think much of skill in the first place.  Naysayers may think the shallows don’t hold interesting subjects, etc.  This is so far from the truth it hurts when I overhear people talking this way.  In fact, there are plenty of subjects that are easier to approach while free diving.
mangrove underwater photography by Ethan Daniels
One of the beauties of the underwater world is that there are many different habitats often found within a small area.  Reefs connect to seagrass beds connect to mangroves and each provides interesting possibilities to the photographer.  This image is an example of when strobes make the difference.  You can certainly shoot plenty of fantastic natural light shots in mangroves but to capture the colors of the Dendronephthya soft coral colony growing on the prop roots artificial light was necessary.
Whatever the case, get out there in the wild blue yonder and try free diving with your camera.  Always bear in mind that keeping things simple and uncomplicated will make your experience much more productive and enjoyable.  Not only will you take more pleasure in free diving than you think, but you’ll end up with unique, timeless images, which is what all the effort is for.
Free diving by Ethan Daniels
 Notice in this image that it was taken not quite at the surface but just about one meter under it.  Keep in mind that it’s not always necessary to dive deep.  Many of the most unusual and interesting shots will be found towards the waterline where light meets liquid.



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