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!