Photographers going steady
A QUESTION AT THE DIGITAL CLINIC at the London International Dive Show got me thinking - which diving techniques would it be useful for photographers to practise
The panel at once and rightly advocated buoyancy control, but when I thought it through, there is plenty more that budding photographers and videographers can do to develop their diving skills for better results.
Buoyancy control is the fundamental skill at the centre of so much diving, not just photography. Fine control reduces gas consumption and damage from kicks to the environment, and generally helps divers feel more comfortable under water, and at one with the marine environment.
Photographers need to get closer to their subjects, and often to a reef, just to get a good camera angle on their subjects, all without damaging marine life or stirring up sand that could cloud their pictures.
Many divers think they are neutrally buoyant until something like a training exercise or taking a photograph distracts them, and they start to sink. In fact they are just negatively buoyant, and finning all the time to stay level.
For those not used to neutral buoyancy, being neutral often feels as if you are about to float off. This is quite natural. Neutral buoyancy is the art of maintaining an unstable equilibrium at this point, using as little change in lung volume as possible to keep depth constant.
To practise, pick a fixed point and hover horizontal and level with it. Get a feel for things, then close your eyes and continue to hover, opening your eyes to check.
See for how long you can close your eyes and keep the hover. If you find you are using your hands or fins, clasp your hands together and cross your ankles. Then learn to do it all with a camera in your hands.
A training trick the DIR divers use is to hang a mirror in the water so that they can admire themselves hovering perfectly in front of it. It may seem narcissistic, but it does help to fine-tune buoyancy skills.
Many experienced divers have excellent buoyancy control when horizontal in the water, but give them a camera and ask them to take an upward shot, where they have to roll on one side and twist slightly to get the angle, and their buoyancy skills desert them. Yet experienced underwater photographers perform such manoeuvres without a second thought.
Neutral buoyancy for a photographer is not just while level in the water. It has to be achieved at any angle from which you may want to take a photograph, whether twisted to one side, on your back, head down or feet up. Practising this is just an extension of the previous exercises. Be creative with your orientation while hovering, first without and then with a camera in hand.
Not all underwater photographs are taken while hovering stationary. Often you will want to photograph a diver, fish or other marine animal swimming towards you. If stationary, you will get only one shot when it as at that perfect distance.
If you can move backwards, you can get several shots before having to shuffle about and start setting up the whole picture again.
Another situation is where a very mild current is coming from behind, but you want to hold position in front of something on the reef, backing into the current to stay still.
Or, with no current to consider, you may have manoeuvred in close to a subject and need to back out again, without turning or manhandling the reef. With a camera occupying your hands, you cant use them to scoop backwards - you have to use your fins. The technique was explained in detail in 5 Ways To Better Finning (December 2006, and on Divernet.com).
In essence, you frog-kick in reverse, scooping water forwards with your fins, then turning them so that they slice sideways back to their starting point for another cycle. The scooping action can be as long and wide as space permits, or short little scoops in a confined space, or where fin-wash could stir up sand and silt.
MODIFIED FROG KICK
Another technique covered in that earlier article was the modified frog-kick.
The frog-kick with which most divers are familiar can be shortened to the point at which only the ankles make small sculling motions. This is great for creeping in on a subject while hovering with perfect neutral buoyancy.
With very little wash, and the fins never extending wider than the rest of the diver, horizontally or vertically, it is also good for getting close to a reef, or a sandy or silty seabed.
The final finning manoeuvre worth practising for photography is the helicopter turn, rotating on the spot without swimming backwards or forwards. If you can manage a modified frog-kick and swimming backwards, a helicopter turn is just a small step on, because it involves the smallest frog-twitch with one leg and backwards with the other leg.
Many divers find it easier than swimming backwards. It can be very effective for up-close manoeuvring, or manoeuvring in a tight space.
Its the same as a tracked vehicle such as a tank or bulldozer turning on the spot by moving one track forwards and the other in reverse.
You may have noticed the skipper of a twin-engined boat pulling a similar trick with his propellers, though with the vast amounts of wash that photographers prefer to avoid.
FINGER ON THE ROCK
Careful swimming, manoeuvring and hovering doesnt always works. Sometimes a light touch of a finger on the rock or sand is the best way to keep you stable while taking a photograph, or to move you safely away from a reef without bashing it.
The key point is to choose the right place for the finger, where your objective can be achieved without damaging any marine life or injuring yourself. Using gloves for such protection is the mindset of a camera-wielding vandal, not a photographer. Good photographers may need to wear gloves in cold water, but never for the purpose of grabbing the reef.
Find a fingertip-sized spot of bare rock. On a reef this is usually white or grey, but not everything white or grey is dead, so check.
There may be new marine life just becoming established, very fine marine life easily smeared by a careless touch, or a stinging hydroid that will leave your finger sore. It could even be a stonefish youre about to put a finger on!
If parrotfish are active on a reef, a recent gouge in the coral from a parrotfish bite can provide a useful place to put your digit.
LIFTING OFF THE SAND
Sometimes the only way to take a photograph is to settle gently on the sand. Perhaps youre waiting for a small critter such as a shrimp or garden eel to pop its head out of a hole.
Again, look carefully. What looks like plain boring sand could be some poor critters home youre about to trash, or the critter itself.
Having said that, the real danger to the marine environment is when you lift back off the sand, when a careless kick could send clouds flying to settle on something that cant survive being buried, or hamper your own efforts to take another photograph.
The trick is to do it all with buoyancy control.
If you first settled on the sand by breathing out a little from neutrally buoyant, then breathing in a little from neutrally buoyant will tend to raise you again, perhaps assisted by a small squirt of air into a BC or drysuit.
Usually this will tend to pull you upright in the water. The important thing is to relax and let this happen as slowly as possible, rather than kicking to get back to horizontal.
Wait until your fin-tips are well clear of the sand, then pull them towards you before performing whatever contortions you favour to get horizontal.
At this point you could be 2m or more clear of the seabed, so may then have to breathe out all the way to get back to a stable hover just clear of the sand, or even dump a little bit of buoyancy.
The technique is an extension of the fin-pivot exercise you may not have used since basic training, and is best practised on a bare patch of sand well away from any reef. When you think youre clear of the sand, look under and back to see what you have actually stirred up.
Some critters just dont like divers bubbles, so any trick to eliminate bubbling can be tremendously useful to an underwater photographer.
Using a rebreather is an expensive technical solution, but introduces other issues, with more difficult buoyancy control and additional dangly bits.
I regularly use rebreathers, but there have been very few situations in which such a unit has enabled me to get closer to marine life than I could using well-timed breath-holding on open-circuit scuba gear.
With practice, all divers should be able to hold their breath for a minute. If they couldnt, their lungs would not be fit to pass a diving medical.
Having spotted a subject that will be easier to approach without bubbles, begin your manoeuvre by backing off sufficiently to take a couple of deep breaths to clear your lungs, but never so much as to hyperventilate.
While distant, make any camera and flash adjustments, so that everything is ready for a closer approach. Then move in closer while continuing to breathe, being very careful to exhale by slow trickles rather than sharp bursts.
As you get closer, breathe out and hold it while creeping in that last little bit.
You can now take small sips of air to ease the urge to breathe in again without breathing out between sips and, ultimately, snap that picture of a bubble-shy creature.
Once the photograph is taken, resist the urge to exhale and take a deep breath until you have backed off again. This way, if you are lucky, the critter will remain unspooked, and you can repeat the procedure.
Dont overdo this. Excessive breath-holding can lead to carbon dioxide headaches, and even a fatal black-out while under water. Also take care not to hold your breath while ascending.
Hovering horizontal in the water, however, leaves you safe from barotrauma.
Of course, you also need to balance your breath-holding against your buoyancy control.
If you really want to learn about breath-holding, take up playing octopush (underwater hockey), or join some freedivers for lessons.
PREPARE TO BE ALONE
Whatever your convictions about the buddy system, as an underwater photographer you have to accept that there will be times when you are diving alone.
Even with a buddy, you may have moved so far away from him to prevent him disrupting a shot that you are too far for immediate assistance, and effectively alone.
Or perhaps your buddy is also a photographer, and has his head buried in the viewfinder, just as you do (The Last Diving Taboo, August 2008).
Skipping past all the details, solo-diving is as much about a self-sufficient attitude as it is about equipment. If you get tangled or trapped in a net, you need to be equipped to cut yourself free, or better still, stay sufficiently alert not to get trapped in the first place.
If you dont want to be troubled by an unpleasant out-of-air surprise, build a habit of checking your contents gauge between each photographic subject.