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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

Why Is Choosing Your Underwater Housing Important?

by Chris Kovaz

Every time I go diving on a boat, I always get a remark, “What is that thing?” The “thing” the diver is referring to is my underwater camera housing. After I explain what it is and tell him/her how much it costs, they think I am completely insane. Underwater camera housings can cost from $200 to $10,000 or more with all the bells and whistles. I think that the cost of your housing should reflect the price of your camera. For instance, I wouldn’t have a ten thousand dollar housing with a cheap compact 5 Mega pixel camera. And vice versa, putting a Canon 1DS Mark II or the Nikon D2X in a cheap, hundred dollar housing just doesn’t fit. For people who shoot compact digital, I will always tell them to go for something plastic, like Ikelite housings. It’s likely that, down the road, they will replace their camera system, so this is just something they have to get by with for now. I have sunk way too much money into finding the right housing, and the ordeal of switching systems has got to be one of the hardest things to do financially. On the other hand, if someone has a digital SLR camera that I know they will be keeping for a while, I wouldn’t send them down the plastic housing route.

I chose Sea Cam for my housing, but I will not always recommend Sea Cam, as your housing needs depend on the camera and the photographer. Not to mention that there is a chance that Sea Cam won’t have a housing for your particular system. When I had my Canon 300d digital Rebel, I used Sea and Sea. This was a great housing that had an inverse of half metal (front) and half plastic (back). I had no problems at all with this housing and have great respect for the company. After I had decided to shoot the Canon 1DS Mark II, I discovered that Sea and Sea had no housing for the MKII, so I went with Sea Cam. It is an all-metal housing with a moisture alarm system. Housings have various controls, options, and features for using your camera underwater. It’s important to understand how your camera works and then research the features of the different housings that work with your camera. Depending on what you’re looking for, you could easily narrow your search by eliminating housings that don’t meet your requirements.

Figures: Inside of the housing

Now, I can’t say which type of housing is better. It’s all about the user and what you want to do. I like Sea Cam better now for a few reasons. It’s the lightest housing I have ever used, which makes it easy to position my camera when setting up my subjects. It has the most interchangeable port systems. Along with that, they can make a focus ring for any lens that you use. What they do is measure the lens and then create a focus ring just for you. That way, I never have to worry about buying new lenses and them not working with my housing. Next are the viewfinders. With the new 45 and S180 viewfinders, Sea Cam really got my attention. These new enhanced viewfinders give you an increased magnification of -0/+3, which gives you the advantage of perfect vision underwater, even for those of us who wear glasses. Finally, Sea Cam created optical coating for the ports. This ensures that there is a better chance of not having the lens’s reflection from the port in the image. I don’t know about other photographers, but I have had countless images ruined because of my lens’s reflection in the image. Even with Photoshop, sometimes the image just can’t be saved, which can be very frustrating.

Dome Port
Dome Port

I hope that, in the future, photographers take their time and research their cameras and housings before buying them. While ultimately the decision is yours, I urge you to take advice from tech’s and professionals before spending a lot of money.

After the Basic Underwater Photo Course

What Do I Do Now?

Mike Haber from the Jim Church School of UW Photography coaches a student during an Aggressor Fleet charter
Mike Haber from the Jim Church School of UW Photography coaches a student during an Aggressor Fleet charter

If you’ve already done the basic photo class, where do you go and what do you do now, other than go out and dive, dive, dive. After the first introductory photo course, there are other basic and more advanced or specialized classes available. These cover the range from locally taught advanced classes to vacation photo trips to exotic locations and live-aboards around the globe. Talk to the divers in your local dive club and local dive shop. That’s frequently a great place to meet other photographers and find out what’s going on locally. Many scuba clubs have a photographers group within the club. Your dive shop owner knows which of his/her customers are photographers and may even be planning a trip based around photography. Ask! Check out the next scuba expo or show near you, there may well be a professional photographer teaching an underwater photo seminar there.

Mike Mesgleski from the Jim Church School of UW Photography conducts a class aboard the Aggressor Fleet

Even if they are teaching a short “basic” class or seminar, I’ve found that I frequently pick up little pearls of knowledge that help tie all the pieces together. Check to see if there is an underwater photography organization in your area. For example, South Florida/Miami area has the South Florida Underwater Photography Society and the Los Angeles, California area has the Los Angeles Underwater Photography Society Organizations such as these really help you learn more about the art of underwater photography, as well as find like minded people to talk to about underwater photography. Look through the scuba publications; many pros, groups, and businesses advertise the photo classes and trips that are currently being offered. There are even classes on the web. Marty Snyderman offers a class on the web; the class is at The folks at Underwater Photo Tech have an offer to give you the first Marty Snyderman class for free! The folks at Underwater Photo Tech also have photo dive trips/vacations. If you’re interested in making prints of your photos, and would like to learn more, Epson has a course on line that covers a variety of photo and printing subjects and info at .

Frequently, the more exotic trips for photographers are set up for the more advanced skill levels and equipment configurations. One notable exception to the “far away is only for the more advanced” thinking, is the Jim Church School of Underwater Photography taught by Mike Mesgleski and Mike Haber aboard the Aggressor Fleet live-aboards worldwide and They teach from beginners to the advanced, and everything in between. Beginners need not be intimidated. These entertaining and personable guys truly enjoy showing their students how to bring home great underwater photos. By the way, they also teach video if you or someone you know is interested in that aspect of the underwater photo world.

Another exception to the “far away/more advanced” thinking is Cathy Church. If you’d like to get away, but prefer a land based photo class for whatever reason, then, the Cathy Church Underwater Photo School at Sunset House on Grand Cayman might be more to your liking and Cathy teaches from beginners to advanced and can take you from wherever you are on the learning curve and really help boost your knowledge and skills.

In addition to the photography classes, groups, dives, and vacations, don’t forget the specialty classes about the different aspects of improving your diving skills and widening your experience. The diving specialty classes can help improve your ability to get the photo that you want, (such as Peak Buoyancy), as well as widen your potential list of photo subjects, (wreck, deep, fish ID, night, or advanced OW course, to name a few). The choice is up to you. Now that you’ve got the basics, work on improving your knowledge and skills. You’ll love the results and the feeling of accomplishment.

Photo Composition: Rule of Thirds

Arranging Before You Shoot and Editing After You Shoot

Figure 1
Figure 1

Composition or composing the picture before you shoot could be considered a form of editing. This article applies to both shooting technique underwater and things to look for while editing after the shooting is done. Lots of people can tell a well composed picture from a poorly composed picture. They just say “This one “looks” better!” even if they can’t say why. It’s part of the way humans view the world. Part of it is in our training while growing up, (there are cultural differences) and part of it, is the way our brain and eyes work together to reproduce the images from the world around us. Some arrangements of the elements in a photo or scene just look more pleasing or natural than others.

Keep Reading

The Tech Photographer

by Pete Nawrocky

Many of today’s divers are engaged in “technical” diving. Simply stated, “any dive in which a diver cannot surface immediately and directly to the surface, is performing a tech dive.” However, most of the time “tech” diving is looked upon as dives requiring gas mixtures other than air or dives that require decompression or entering overhead environments. It may be necessary to switch regulators underwater or work with computers that need to have gas changes accomplished during hang times. Carrying the extra load of double tanks and stage bottles causes even more drag. Now add a camera into the whole mix. Before you decide just to “grab and go” do not bring a camera into any situation that you have not encountered before, plan your dive carefully.

Carrying a camera can be considered task loading on just about any dive. Why? It’s simple. The diver has just lost the use of one hand. Access to all equipment has to be accomplished without damaging that expensive piece of photo gear. It may be necessary to cut or remove a piece of monofilament. It’s simple enough to do when both hands are free. However, if the cutting shears are placed where only your right hand can reach them and the camera is now occupying this hand, you know have a dilemma. How do you cut the line in a ripping current when the left hand is holding you in position on the anchor line? What do you do? Consider reconfiguring your equipment.

Photographers occasionally disregard their planned dive profile or run low on air. The following statements are commonly used for justification. “I had to hang because I wanted the shot and had to wait for the right conditions.” Or, “I wasn’t paying enough attention to my air supply because I was to busy taking pictures.” Photography is never an excuse to proper dive safety protocols. Buoyancy control is very important not only for reducing the possibility of silting out the photo but also energy conservation. A diver that is neutrally buoyant expends less energy and reduces gas consumption. The following areas are just two of the many “tech” situations that a photographer may encounter.

Cave Diving
Diving and exploring the subterranean world of an underwater cave takes special training and equipment. Double tanks, backup lights, and the necessary reels needed to safely navigate this environment quickly take up all available body space. One hand is occupied with the primary dive light and the second hand may be needed to pull through a strong current. Kicking hard only tires the diver, so where does the camera go? First of all, the photographer should leave behind the camera until this area has been dove beforehand. Maybe the current is too strong to swim a housing against and a Nikonos is a better option. Strobe lighting is essential and multiple strobes are considered standard. Is the cave opening large enough? Side mount explorers may have to change their approach in order to get the diver and camera through a two-foot wide crack in the earth!

Following a dive plan that has been agreed to is required if the photographer expects results. After the site has been chosen and a decision made on what subject to photograph, the divers have to get into the cave. High flow areas may require modifying techniques. One technique is to allow the diver without the camera to lead the dive. The lead diver can actually deflect part of the strong current. The photographer has to stay close behind to take advantage of the flow deflection. An errant kick however can be devastating to a camera system. The photographer does not only have to protect the camera from his dive buddy but maneuver in such a way as to avoid slamming it into the bottom or the cave walls. Fortunately, in many cave systems, the flow is strongest at the entrance. Once inside, it is necessary to swim with a light and camera system at the same time. Attaching a primary light to the camera system is one technique of using a “Goodman style handle” on the light allowing the diver to hold the camera and light at the same time. Navigating through very tight areas may require reconfiguring equipment and thinking.

Side mount diving has gained much attention lately. In this situation, the tanks are moved from the divers back and are mounted along side the body. Air management is even more critical since the entire air supply is not accessible from one regulator. This type of diving requires multiple regulator exchanges during the dive. This configuration is considered extreme and should not be attempted without proper training. Placement of camera lanyards must not interfere with regulator access. In this case, it may be best to dispense with any lanyard to avoid entanglement with regulator hoses. Multiple strobe systems may not work in tight areas because the strobe arms cannot be extended properly. It is important to have a pre-dive briefing explaining when and how the photo is to be attempted. You may wish to have your buddy carry and position the secondary slave strobe in order to achieve results in tight places.

Many divers are using nitrox as a breathing medium and a second gas with a higher percentage of oxygen to assist in decompression. Most cave divers leave the “deco” bottles at the cave entrance where decompression stops are done. Some buddy teams work with the photographer allowing his buddy to carry his/her deco gas into the cave while they manage the camera system. It’s the photographers’ responsibility to ensure their deco bottle is placed properly and secured.

Wreck Diving
Exploring shipwrecks in deeper water for longer periods of time has become commonplace for the advanced wreck fraternity. Cold-water explorers already know how gloves hinder movement and dexterity. Many divers find themselves needing deco stops that require maintaining proper depth in current or wave action, occasionally both. Unlike cave divers that more often than not put a camera down and free up both hands, wreck divers are hanging in open water and may have to stay close to or hold onto the anchor line while maintaining neutral buoyancy. Wrist lanyards can be uncomfortable because of the extra weight or drag on the arm can be fatiguing or interfere with gear management. Computers that require manual changes may be difficult to work with unless the camera system is “clipped” off and allows the use of both hands. Accessing a second regulator with one hand while holding the anchor line and a camera interfering with the other can turn into a nightmare. Remember in this situation, neutral buoyancy is important to maintain depth. The left hand needs to be free so that the power inflator can be manipulated. It may also be necessary to access dry suit valves to prevent over or under inflation. Wrist mounting the computer is one solution. Hold the anchor line with the same hand the computer is attached. This allows the opposite hand the freedom to clip off the camera and then perform computer or regulator changes.

Selecting the type of camera system that works for the planned dives is just as important. Housed systems are bulkier to work with in the water and create more drag, therefore more fatigue. Aluminum housings tend to have deeper working ranges than plastic housings. However, metal housings can have problems with fogging when encountering drastic temperature changes. Using a desiccant to absorb moisture or cooling the housing down prior to submersion can alleviate this problem. It is best to check with the manufacturer for the maximum working depth of the equipment. Although the camera system may be rated to 200 feet, it may impossible to use the housing effectively past 150 feet. Systems for handling gear are available with retractable lanyards. These gadgets work well since the lanyard can be locked into a preset length or set to retract. The camera can now hang in front of the diver and both hands are free. This allows full access to all valves with either hand. The attachment clip should be of a style that can be released with one hand and is different than any other clip. After surfacing, it would be best to hand the camera system up to some one on the boat.

This probably sounds like a lot of work…well, you’re right! This is the reason that any dive of this nature should be planned out and discussed before hand. If you don’t know the dive or the gear, leave the camera behind. Work as a team to achieve the best results!

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