Buoyancy Control for Underwater Photography

Lee beside Dry Tortugas coral and fans. Buoyancy   control is essential for both the photographer and   the model.
Lee beside Dry Tortugas coral and fans. Buoyancy control is essential for both the photographer and the model. Text and photos by Steve May

Good buoyancy control for photography underwater isn’t just being able to get to the bottom without crashing into the reef or getting back to the surface without violating your computer. It’s about real, fine-tuned control and awareness of your position in the water column in relation to everything else around you, as well as your photo subject. It’s also about being able to move or change that position, at will, without hitting, stirring up, or disturbing anything else. It’s a somewhat more expanded definition of buoyancy control as compared to the basic definition of “just” neutral buoyancy. It’s a tough assignment! But, that’s definitely the goal. If you can’t fine tune your buoyancy or maneuvering skills, then you’ll be fighting against yourself the whole dive, making it difficult to focus on photography for more than a few seconds at a time.

Underwater photographers can be hard on reefs. Trying to get the best angle for a shot or trying to get close enough sometimes results in kicking, standing, or kneeing on the reef. All of these can damage a reef. Having excellent buoyancy control is essential for photographing close to a reef and getting the shot you want, while avoiding coming in contact with the reef. Hovering just above your subject or contorting your body into a weird position for the right angle with a camera in your hands requires precision and perfect buoyancy control.

Experienced cave divers probably have the best buoyancy control of any group of divers around. They get lots of practice maneuvering close to silt they don’t want to stir up, as well as walls, structures, and growths they don’t want to touch or damage. In short, their specialty absolutely demands great buoyancy and maneuvering control.

So, where do you start if your buoyancy and body control skills aren’t quite up to cave diving levels?

Instructor Nadine Nero demonstrates the Skydiver Position
Nadine demonstrates the most commonly seen unbalanced position – Foot down. This position damages coral and stirs up silt with it’s downward fin thrusts.

First, test yourself in the water with your gear in its usual configuration. You and your buddy can watch each other. Float neutrally buoyant several feet above the bottom, (preferably an open area of sand) and assume the horizontal “sky diver position.” In other words, belly toward the bottom, looking straight ahead, arms out to the sides and legs spread and slightly flexed at the knees. Just stay there a few minutes. Relax and let nature take over. Let yourself roll or fall in whatever direction you go in. Do this a couple of times to verify what happens. Some folks didn’t even know they had a roll problem until they tried this test. They just thought you had to fight buoyancy the whole dive. Notice if you start to roll to one side or the other. Notice if your feet start to sink or you start to fall forward onto you head. (This test does assume you can achieve basic neutral buoyancy in the water column). This test tells you if your weights and/or tank and/or gear are not balanced.

If something is pulling you in the particular direction, take a look at your weights. Are they evenly placed? Same amount of weight on each side? Are the weights toward the back, pulling you into a roll once you start in that direction? Do you wear a piece of gear on one side that could pull you toward that side? All of these questions help sort out the “roll problem.” Adjust things when you get back to the boat; it could be hazardous trying to change your weights around on the bottom. If you fall forward or your feet sink, it means that possibly your tank is too high or too low on your back. When you adjust where the tank rides in the BC, it only takes a small change to make a big difference. How high or low you wear your weights could also affect the falling forward or sinking feet. If you have weight pockets instead of a weight belt, and moving the tank isn’t comfortable or possible, some people resort to putting a small ankle weight on the tank neck or on their ankles or at the base of the tank to adjust their trim. All of the adjustments we’re talking about here are small increments toward the goal of perfect balance.

Mr. Buoyancy Control. Work to make your buoyancy control as good as this guy.

Once you’ve achieved balanced buoyancy, you’ll notice photography and everything else is a lot easier. You don’t have to constantly fight to hold position or flail around trying to get back to where you want to be. You’ll also save on air consumption during your dive, which in turn will give you more time to find that perfect photo.


  • underwater model photography