How to take really great photos of divers

How to take great photos of divers

Here are our top tips for taking great photos of divers!

By adding divers to our underwater images, we can bring about a sense of exploration, highlight a focal point or provide an actual scale of size to the scene, especially in wide angle reef and shipwreck photography.

Over the years, I have learned several tricks which have helped me to take better photos of divers. You might want to give them a try on your next dive.

Check your buoyancy

My advice to any diver wanting to take photos – get your buoyancy right before you take your camera underwater. You cannot take photos of divers if you are trying to stay afloat or constantly inflating and deflating your BCD. If you focus on getting your buoyancy right first, your images will be so much better. Furthermore,the reef and your fellow divers will thank you for it.

Your model

It is easy to snap away at other divers underwater. However, your results will be disappointing. Additionally, it’s likely you will annoy people if you are constantly firing your strobes in their faces. To take great photos of divers, you need to have a patient buddy. They also need to be willing to model for you. They also need to feel comfortable in the water and have good trim and excellent buoyancy skills. A fellow underwater photographer is ideal as you can take turns modelling for each other.

Floaty equipment

When taking photos of divers, make sure your model’s equipment is in trim, clipped away and not dangling. Dangling equipment, whether looks untidy and could pose a threat to the reef. Incorrectly positioned equipment, looks unprofessional and will certainly raise a few eyebrows!

make sure your diver's equipment is well secured
Scuba diver at Steenbras Deep in Gordons Bay
Your model’s hair

Long, free-flowing hair can be hard to control underwater. This can be successfully managed if you are taking a photo of your model whilst they are swimming. All they need to do then is quickly tip their head backwards and swim across the frame. You can then take photos of divers with their hair flowing beautifully behind them. For photos where your model is not swimming, tie their hair back or put a hoodie or bandanna over it. This looks so much neater. Bandannas can also add a splash of colour to your photos and suit both male and female models.

Masks

Always remember to use your favourite mask ‘anti-fog’ before getting in the water. Firstly, you need to ensure you can see clearly when taking photos. There is also nothing worse than seeing photos of divers with fogged up masks. It is human nature to want to see the eyes. However, a fogged-up mask is distracting, looks unprofessional and simply ruins the shot.  Similarly, make sure your model does not have too much water lying in the bottom of their mask.

Mask types

I find that for most photos of divers, a clear or transparent skirt is the better choice. This allows more light to enter the mask and highlights the face and the eyes. For more of a “tech” shot, dark-skirted masks work well. You will need to get your lighting right to light up the inside of the mask and the diver’s eyes correctly.  

A photo of a diver with a wreck adds a sense of scale to the image
Adding colour

Get your model to wear gear with colourful details. Masks, fins, wetsuits and even BCDs with colourful inserts always help to add a splash of colour to a photo. I personally prefer these ‘splashes’ to all be the same colour or shade. A touch of eye makeup in the photos of female divers can help to make the eyes pop. But try to keep make-up natural if this is not a fashion shoot.

Using a torch

A nice strong torch can be used in so many ways when taking photos of divers. This works well when you are photographing a diver in a cave or wreck. It also helps where you have a dark background, and they are in silhouette. Have your diver highlight focal points with their torch as the viewer’s eyes will naturally follow the beam of light. When they are closer to you, they can even use their torches to give a snooted effect to the image.

Camera and strobe settings

Start your dive with your preferred camera settings for wide angle shots. Whilst diving, adjust your camera speed to lighten or darken the water column in the background.  Use your strobes to add light to your foreground and to light up the diver. Have your diver in the centre of the image when you’re taking photos of them, especially if you are using a fisheye lense. This will prevent them from looking distorted if too close to the edge of the frame.

If your diver is further away, you will not be able to light them u. This will result in a blue cast to their skin and hair. In this case, concentrate on lighting up the foreground and have the diver as a silhouette against the background. Have the reef, gorgonian, or marine creature as the star of the show; light them up and have the diver’s silhouette in one of the quarters of the frame.

get your diver to use a torch to point to the subject of interest
Plan your shots in advance

To benefit the most from your limited time underwater, it helps if you both know the dive site and the kind of marine animals you expect to see. Discuss the photos you want to take in advance with your diver buddy. I find it useful to have similar images on my iPad or phone that I can show my model beforehand so that they have an idea of what I am trying to achieve.

You can then show your model underwater how they look, not only will they appreciate it, but this will also give them the encouragement to continue and show them where they could improve.

Model Positioning

For close shots where your model is looking at a fish, critter, sea fan or artefact, have them face your direction with their mask but have their eyes looking at the point of interest (the angle should not be too big). This will enable you to light up their eyes with your strobes and create a point of interest as the viewer will follow the diver’s gaze. For closer photos of divers, get them to look over your shoulder instead. Divers looking straight into the camera always tend to look cross-eyed and a little crazed. 

Never allow your model to sit, stand, touch, or hold onto any marine life, reefs, or wrecks.  Not only can they damage the reef or marine life, but they can also injure themselves.

For wider angle shots, the diver should ideally swim across the frame either parallel to your camera or at 45 degrees towards you, preferably with their knees together and one of their legs bent in kicking motion. This is the most natural way to photograph a diver and gives you the opportunity to get great action shots.

When I am acting as model, I find it useful to look at my reflection in my buddy’s dome port to check whether my positioning is correct.

Bubbles

Exhaled bubbles in your model’s face will ruin a shot. As divers should never hold their breath underwater, tell your model to breathe normally and take your shot once they have exhaled and the bubbles are clear of their face and slightly above their head. I also prefer to leave the bubbles in the image, keeping it natural rather than removing them in post processing.

when your diver is too far away to light up, use them as a silhouette instead
Communicating with your model

To get the images you want, communication is paramount, and it is therefore vital that you agree on the hand signals you will use, which could include:

  • Come closer / move further away.
  • Stop.
  • Go up / go down.
  • Hold your body horizontal / vertical.
  • Face this way / face the other way.
  • Keep legs straight.
  • Bend your knee (and which knee).
  • Swim in this direction.
  • Do it again.
  • Torch on / off.
  • Look at the subject / look over my shoulder.

Taking great photos of divers underwater does take a lot of pre-planning and communication.  It really is a team effort. Once your model has dived with you a few times, they will start to understand what you require of them, especially if you look at and discuss the images together afterwards. Always remember that it must be enjoyable and safe for both of you and have no impact on the environment.

We offer a range of online and in person underwater photography courses, hosted by Kate Jonker. Please contact us for more details!

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