When I first started diving for a living the number of divers with a camera in their hand were relatively few and far between. Serious divers would carry a Nikonos V or video camera while those who were after a bit of fun would often have a Sea and Sea MX10 at their disposal. However, with the recent explosion of digital photography, it seems everyone now has a camera of some description; from small compacts to multi strobed housed SLR monstrosities. This is great in some respects, as the art of underwater photography has really blossomed and these images are being shown in more and more mainstream media helping to raise awareness of our fragile eco-system.
However, as popular as photography has become it’s having an inverse affect on what we love; the reefs of the world. As we should practice what we preach, here are some guidelines the conscientious photographer should follow in order to protect the underwater environment.
As photographers, we spend a lot of time with a subject looking for the perfect angle and trying to capture the essence of that animal. Whereas the average diver often gives only a cursory glance and moves onto the next subject. As we spend an inordinate amount of time in one place, we have to be more aware of our positioning and surroundings than everyone else. Unfortunately, many careless photographers don’t care about their surroundings and zero in entirely on their subject. Not only does this give photographers a bad name, but it destroys the reef and reef life around them. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this: look around before you settle in for a photograph. Be sure that your fins will not be resting in an anemone or sponge, keep some air in your BCD in order to keep your torso off the ground, have your “danglies” clipped onto you, and use a finger to keep yourself steady. It is far easier to keep your balance if you use your left hand as a steadying tool rather than on the camera. By looking around before you settle in for a photo, it’s easy to find a bare patch or rock in which to support yourself. Don’t just stick your hand out to grab the closest object if you find yourself losing buoyancy!
Not only could you damage a delicate coral, you may stick yourself on a poisonous creature. And of course nothing ruins a photo more than the off balance diver who tries to skull their hands to keep off the bottom, this results in stirring up backscatter particles in front of the lens. When you are finished photographing your subject, take a breath and allow yourself to float away from the bottom before you start kicking your fins. Trying to kick off the bottom will result in a major dust cloud and broken bits of coral flying everywhere.
In wide-angle photography there is another dilemma that comes into play: current. It’s not easy to keep yourself in place taking a photo if you have current pushing you along. If you find a subject along a current swept wall there’s an easy way to stop yourself and get that photo. Simply turn around and face into the current and steady yourself with a one or two finger grip on a bare patch on the wall. By doing so, you won’t have to fin a lot and therefore not kick any fragile sea-fans or soft corals. Once you are finished, push yourself away from the wall with that hand, don’t kick with your fins in an attempt to turn around! This will only result in damaging the marine life around you.
Getting Sticky With It
Cameras aren’t the only recent development that have gained in popularity the last few years; “pokey sticks” a type of stainless steel rod, are now just as commonly seen as cameras. When used appropriately, these are a great asset to photographers and non photographers alike, as they allow the user to hold themselves away from the bottom with one hand instead of grasping onto coral and other fragile organisms. But, used in the wrong hands, these instruments can be a weapon of destruction. Many talented dive guides are able to use these tools in a professional manner by ruffling the dirt in front of a mantis shrimp hole or tapping on a rock to get the attention of an octopus. There is no problem with this, as long as it’s done in a gentle manner. However, many regular divers and photographers have now taken it upon themselves to use their “sticks” to try to manipulate the critters on the reef. Oftentimes, it’s not done in a gentle way and photographers are the guiltiest species of all as they try to pry a mimic octopus out of its hole for a once in a lifetime shot. Photographers are also guilty of tempting dive guides to do this in exchange for a healthy tip. Unfortunately, this scenario is playing out more and more often in popular diving spots and its effect can be seen by dwindling numbers of creatures on dive sites. As responsible photographers we can have a great influence over the behavior of others, by showing an example and not doing it ourselves and encouraging over zealous dive guides not to do it for our benefit as it’s not acceptable behavior.
Don’t rush in to take photos or prod a mantis shrimp with a stick, as your intended subject will only retreat back into its hole. Instead of trying to force subjects into certain behavior, it’s far better to display patience with marine life and allow them to act naturally. By watching your subject from a comfortable distance, you can gauge their natural patterns and behavior. It will also give them a chance to get used to your presence and gradually allow you to get closer. You can then move forward and hopefully get that winning shot. In this vein, also remember that you can’t disturb or potentially harm animals in an attempt to add the perfect photo to your portfolio. Deliberately bending sea fans to get a better angle of a pygmy seahorse or pulling the arms off of a crinoid to shoot a shrimp are completely unacceptable behavior for everyone.
Courtesy is Everything
It’s not only the marine life that should be treated with courtesy but your fellow divers and photographers as well. As most dive resorts practice “group diving”, odds are you will be diving with other photographers and divers when you are underwater. In order for everyone to have a successful dive, it’s common courtesy to take a few photos of a subject and then move along so others also get a chance. If it’s a subject that you have a particular desire to spend a lot of time with, wait until everyone else has taken their photos and then come back to shoot it again. Also, be careful when you leave a subject you have been shooting. Be sure that you don’t disturb it when you leave in order to give your fellow divers a chance to shoot it as well.
Do you hate it when someone comes up to you and takes your photo with a bright flash? This is the same feeling that fish and crustaceans feel when photographers barrage them with light. The sensitivity of the optical nerve of organisms that live underwater is far greater than humans due to living in a dim environment. Therefore, the effect of bright strobes is felt much more so by the oceans’ inhabitants. In order to lessen your impact upon marine life it’s wise to limit the amount of photos you take of any particular subject. Not only will you be taking photos of that cute little pygmy seahorse, everyone else on the dive will too! By being patient and waiting for your subject to get in position before firing off a shot, you will have far less impact on it than those who “machine gun” image after image in order to capture one perfect shot. The sea life will thank you for it.
At the end of the day, we all love photography and can’t wait to get back in the water after our latest trip has ended. Unfortunately some of us have returned to places we have been in the past only to find the inhabitants we interacted with are no longer there! Although this may be caused by natural events such as storm damage or coral bleaching, there is no denying that popular dive locations suffer from a large amount of diver damage as well. By practicing considerate and safe photography you can lessen your impact and footprint on the coral reef. If everyone does their part, by following the guidelines above, we will all benefit in the long run with a healthy and happy underwater world.
About the author: Originally from Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Wetpixel moderator Mike Veitch is a professional underwater photographer and trip leader. After spending many years working on boats and resorts in the Indo-Pacific region, Mike has settled in Indonesia where he spends his time photographing the worlds richest marine bio-system and conducting photography workshops and leading trips throughout the country. For more information please visit his website.
Mike is a frequent contributor and field editor to Scuba Diver Australasia magazine where he wrote the “how to” underwater photography column, “In Focus” from 2006-2009. This series is a collection of his “In Focus” articles that originally appeared in the magazine during that time, the format and photos have been updated for Wetpixel.