Freedive Photography

There is a secret that has long remained hidden from the majority of recreational divers interested in underwater photography; big name underwater photographers and cinematographers get a good deal of their big animal work done while free diving. Much of the free swimming creatures that grace posters or are seen on television the likes of turtles, dolphins, whales, sea lions, and seals, actually anything free floating that operates withing thirty feet of the surface, was probably shot while on a free dive. Yeah, you might argue, but those guys are super divers, been doing it for years, the ocean is their home. Probably true, they have been doing it for years. Super divers? That depends on how you define super.

Super in that they are both proficient with scuba and free diving, then yes. That they can dive to a hundred feet on a breath-hold for four minutes, no.

Free diving has always had much to offer the casual ocean explorer as it has the professional. The difference lying primarily in that recreational diving programs rarely emphasize free diving as a valuable aspect of ones underwater development, and thus it has passed virtually unnoticed as an important and necessary skill particularly with regards photography.

The mind set of free diving is different than with scuba. Using scuba one must bring into a natural environment linear properties, laws, if you will, that govern the use of scuba. If one does not adhere to those laws, serious consequence results. The free diver is free, hence the term, to move up and down the depth scale without those same concerns. The laws of physics have been replaced by the laws of individual limitations; ie breathhold, leg strength coming from depth, and the psychological barriers of depth that are inherent in the breath-held dive. There are no written manuals on one’s personal limitations, no one can tell you exactly what your limits are, you must find them for yourself.

Those big name photographers who have spent time in the water and understand their personal limits operate very well within those limits on each and every free dive. Super divers, no, anyone is capable of free diving and doing it well if they are willing to put in their time.

The idea behind free dive photography is that the photographer is able to get much closer to certain animals than he could on scuba. Pure and simple. The free swimmers of the underwater environment, including fish and the mammals previously mentioned, react principly to a world of sound and movement. Quick movements and sound of almost any kind conjure a flight response in most free swimming creatures. Test it out. Move your hand in a normal manner from your waist to face around a school of wild fish and observe what happens. Then slowly move your hand in the same manner and see the difference. Then scarcely move at all and see the difference. The fine art of free diving is to be able to move without the appearence of movement. The Tai Chi of stalking. Think of it as a disciplined martial art. Move without moving; what a concept! Yet it can be done. As an example, in ten feet of water, and weighted properly, ( that is the key,) one can glide about the shallows, using the surge if there is any, to move about without the use of my appendages. No kicking, hand on the camera close to your face, just a harmless log drifting on the surface or just below, no threat to anything. Try it, you’ll be amazed at the results. Gently rising for a breath, maybe a kick or two, then settleing on the surface, breathing, taking one last breath, slowly pulling the snorkel out of your mouth to insure no bubbles wander out in the dive, and hang out. Become a part of the whole, a piece of the main, integrate into the underwate world on its terms and see what new photo opportunities will be revealed.

Now assuming you have done a bit of free diving, and have established your limits to be ten feet and a breath-hold of thirty seconds and you are quite comfortable in your chosen body of water, the sun is out, the water is clear and flat, and the hour is somewhere between 10am and 2pm, lets put a camera in your hand.

If the water is not calm, and flat, if it is surgy, or even slightly rough then the movement will affect your shot if taken from the surface. For the most part all free dive photos should be shot beneath the surface, perferrably at eye level with the subject, or slightly below. But if you’re just beginning you need to test this whole business out, so shoot from wherever you are comfortable, but be forewarned the shot may be blurred due to excessive movement.

Begin your freedive photography using a small camera. There are plently around. Nikonus and Sea and Sea cameras have been found to be mechanically sound and quite reliable. In any case choose a camera wherein the shutter speeds and aperture settings can be adjusted. You will also need a light meter if one is not already incorporated into the camera.

I would recommend that for the first several dozen or more dives you select a shutter speed of 500, using 400 asa black and white film. This will compensate for excessive movement by the diver who, rather than fastened to the bottom, is hanging in mid-water and susceptible to the whims of the sea. Until body control is understood and corrected, such movement will affect the sharpness of the image. The high speed film will allow plenty of latitude in terms of shutter speed and depth of field. Additionally, black and white film is inexpensive to process, and one can get a much better understanding of the way light works underwater when using black and white film. In the end, subject matter aside, it is what the photographer does with the light that distinguishes his work. With the black and white film one can learn the play of light underwater, and begin to understand how to use ambient light to accentuate the subject, thus rendering the photograph unique.

Once the free dive photographer has become accustomed to using a camera on a free dive he may want to reduce the shutter speed to 250 using a 100 asa film. This is the speed I find best suited for the majority of shoots involving free swimming animals. When using color film the ten foot depth should retain much of the color spectrum using ambient light, and if you can find a white sand bottom, all the better. (As evidenced by dolphin photographs shot in thirty feet of water using ambient light reflected off the sand bottom.)

In the matter of lenses it quite naturally depends on the subject. But if you have refined your dive techniques and understand the principles of breath-hold stalking you are going to get much closer to the subject than you ever imagined, and wide angle lenses will be the tool most often used. I recommend using the equivilent of a Nikonus 20 or 28 lens when starting out. (A Nikonus 20 computes out to a 24mm standard lens in a housed camera.) Then as you build up your freedive skills and can get closer to larger animals the Nikonos 15mm is far and away the best lens for the job. This lens is the equilvelent to a 20mm standard lens in a housed camera and is the work horse lens used by professionals on large animals in free dive situations.

One of the distinct advantages of free dive photography is the panoramic overview that eludes the scuba diver and is essential when covering free swimming animals in the mid-water column. If one is diving in thirty feet of water, and is moving up an down the depth scale at regular intervals, one is seeing far more of the overall ocean. Typically, the free diver is getting a conoid, or cone shape panoramic view from the surface to the bottom and points in between as opposed to the scuba diver who is generally restricted to a sea floor perpective. Additionaly, if the free diver is moving across the surface, which is generally the case, then this perspective is always changing encompassing still more ocean.

There are other, seemingly insignicant advantages to free diving that over time begin to add up in its favor. For example, when the scuba diver runs out of air in an hour or so he is pretty much through at least for a period of time. In that same hour however, the free diver is just beginning and has many hours of diving and photography still ahead of him for the day. Once a scuba diver is out of film he has to ascend, perhaps make a decompression stop, then swim back up swim to the boat and reload. For the free diver with less gear and on the surface already this task is accomplished much quicker and easier.

On the other end of the spectrum, and there is always the other end, free dive photography begins to get a tad more difficult as one moves into housed cameras due to the size and thus drag that inhibits the fluidity of the diver. However, housed cameras offer several advantages to the Nikonos or other such cameras. For starters, one can see exactly what is being composed through the lens. As opposed to the guess work required when looking through a viewfinder. (Though it must be remembered that the lens of the Nikonos or RS camera is far superior to any lens shooting through a plexiglass port.) Also I prefer electronic advance and rapid fire shooting if the moment dictates, as it regularly does when shooting fast moving creatures. Still, a housed camera is larger and though not heavy in the water creates drag that affects the divers’s movement both on the surface and in the ascents. Add to the housed camera a strobe or two and all the arms that go with it, and a good deal of drag is created, so much so that one can scarcely push through the water unless he is in good physical condition. Which is of course the answer; get in good free diving shape. Physical condition notwithstanding a housed camera and strobes can undermine the advantage of the freediver, and should be carefully considered when making the move towards artifical light.

A few tips on capturing good images while free diving:

Keep it simple. Don’t bring unnecessary articles into the water that may be distracting to both you and the subject. The idea is to be free of the bells and whistles so that the mind can fully focus on the photography at hand.

For stability, and eliminating the necessity of kicking down, when in shallow water, overweight slightly. This is something that has to be experiemented with in small increments. Obviously one does not want to become too overweighted for you will just sink on the surface. You should be able to float belly down on the surface, then turn, as if into a hand stand and drop without the need to kick.

Unencumbered by a scuba unit and under the demands of a breath-hold there is a tendancy for new free divers to rush into a shot. Or worse, chase after a subject. Avoid the temptation. Study the subject. If, for example, it is a dolphin, then observe its fundamental characteristics and behavior patterns. Read the line of its flight from the surface then determine an angle and dive and glide to its inteception point. In other words be waiting for as it comes to you.

Become integrated into the sea. Rather than aggressively pursuing a subject, move slowly and behave in a manner that will attract its curiosity. This will insure sometimes hours with a subject rather than seconds. I have known this tactic to be of great value when working with dolphins, manta rays, seals, and sea lions.

Becoming proficient at photography while free diving will open the ocean world to boundless opportunities. Subjects that are wary and difficult to approach with scuba will be filling the frame. The ideal of course is to utilize both free diving and scuba as all good photographers eventually must do. In those skills the ocean becomes almost as limitless for a human as it is for the creatures that dwell in that magnificent world.

Carlos Eyles

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