Being a great underwater photographer is not just about the pictures you take, but also about how you go about getting them.

After making some rookie mistakes myself, I decided long ago that I never wanted to be ‘that photographer’. Therefore, I made these rules to dive by.

What do I mean by ‘that photographer’?

We have had some terrible experiences on dives with underwater photographers. This is by no means all of them, after all, I am one too.

It seems that some think having a camera in their hands somehow makes them more important, or gives them a ticket to see whatever is pointed out, first. Others have taken their sweet time with a subject that they know other divers are waiting to see. As well as bumping divers out of their way to get to a subject.

A Hawksbill sea turtle

One thing that every good DM would tell you in a dive briefing is to not chase after the sea animals. This usually frightens them away. If you calmly hang around, they would most likely stay a little longer and even interact with the divers. But lo and behold, that one photographer is chasing after the sea turtle like a motorboat. Claiming the sighting for themselves and spoiling it for everyone else, who only got to see the tail end of the turtle rushing away into the murky distance.

So, here are my 10 Rules to make you a better underwater photographer

“Manners are the sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
— Emily Post

A photographer taking pictures of a large school of snappers

1. Always have Good Underwater Manners

Showing good manners underwater can be difficult since you’re unable to talk to others, but there are some universally understood hand gestures that will take you a long way. Give others the right of way, make space for them, apologize if you bump into someone, and be respectful of others. Even when your dive group spot that one special sea animal, don't get over excited. Take a breath and see how you can best posotion yourself for the shot.

2. Keep your Dive Buddy in Mind

Be considerate of your dive buddy. If they are not taking pictures with you, keep that in mind. A good idea is to chat with them before the dive about what your and their expectations are for the dive so that there are no misunderstandings underwater. For instance, if you have a macro lens on and intend to spend a lot of time in one spot, run that by your buddy and plan your dive accordingly. It usually works best if photographers dive together. 

3. Keep Up!

When you are focused on taking pictures or videos, you can easily get carried away. Before you know it, you have moved too far from your buddy or fallen way behind, which can potentially be a dangerous situation. Especially on lower visibility dives you really need to keep track of the group. Keeping track of time underwater can be challenging sometimes too, remember to look up frequently keeping an eye on your buddy and the group. 

I had a buddy on a deep dive in the Red Sea that saw a nudibranch some way below on the wall that we were diving. She went down to photograph it, but in doing so, she did not stay close enough to her buddy to be safe. She also went a few meters deeper while the group was slowly shallowing up, by that time I was forced to go get her attention because she was not looking up nor keeping up with me or the group and was at risk of going into deco time. 

Remember that safety is always first. 

A group of divers exploring the reef

A group of divers exploring the reef

4. Prioritize the Animals and Environment

Never take a shot where you will damage the reef or frighten marine life. By controlling your buoyancy as best you can, and not going into spaces where you might cause damage to the reef with your fins. Don’t have a never-mind attitude towards the underwater world, conservation starts with you. Be a conservation-conscious diver.

5. Some Shots are Better Left Not Taken

Don’t touch, fiddle with, or agitate marine animals to get a better shot. If you want the nudibranch to face a different direction, you have to move to its other side. If that is not possible, then that shot wasn’t meant to be taken today. Maybe next time. Or, if it would look great if the turtle was swimming off into the blue but it’s just sleeping on the reef, too bad. Leave him be.

Many marine animals are very sensitive to touch and it can be detrimental to them as well as yourself if they turn out to be poisonous. We are entering into their home and must be respectful as well as display model behaviour for other divers.

A Crowned nudibranch Polycera capensis underwater

A Crowned nudibranch (Polycera capensis) underwater

6. Always be Kind and Show Other Divers what you Find

People are usually interested in what you are photographing, so when you’ve taken your shot turn around and show the other divers. Share your special experiences, great satisfaction comes from sharing with others.

“Happiness is not so much in having as sharing. We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
- Norman MacEwan

7. Never Hog a Great Find

Take your shots and move on, everyone wants to see, even if they don’t have cameras. Here I have found that going last is a good option for the photographer, then you can spend time with the subject without being ill‐mannered. With this approach, depending on the type of sea animal, you run the chance of missing it since it may move away. But I have found this to work best for me.

8. Always Have Fun! Don’t be too Serious

Have fun! Underwater photography is a special hobby that few have the opportunity to pursue. Do it for the enjoyment of nature, appreciation of beautiful things and the love of photography. This will keep your attitude positive and bring you many unforgettable experiences.

Octopus underwater contorting its body in order to camoflage itself

Octopus underwater contorting its body in order to camouflage itself

9. Don’t Forget to Connect

There are great moments that nature offers us, small windows of connection through special interactions. Some of these are once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Don’t miss out on them because you were too busy trying to ‘get a shot’. Remember to stop and just breathe, notice and soak up these moments.

Lower the camera. Open yourself up to interact with the animals if that is what they are offering you. This is an amazing privelage, don't squander it by looking at your lcd screen instead of in the eyes of a creature you'll most likely only meet once in your life. You never know what special experience is waiting to happen.

10. Inspire to Protect

Inspire others with your beautiful underwater photographs and most of all, with your model behaviour. How we act speaks much louder than our words.

“The greatest danger to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
— Robert Swan

We Protect what we Love. Join the movement!

by Madelein Wolfaardt
Images ©️ by @sealife_madeleinwolf

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