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Proper Etiquette for Underwater Photographers

Proper Etiquette for Underwater Photographers

As more and more photographers find themselves shooting below the waves, it’s important to discuss proper underwater photography etiquette, reflect on our own behavior underwater, and address poor behavior when it occurs.

Recreational scuba diving is for the most part a relatively safe sport, but when we add a camera system and other variables such as low visibility, currents, and pushy photographers it can become much more challenging and potentially dangerous. While some photographers may get away with being inconsiderate, there really is no place for such conduct in underwater environments.

So whether you are just starting out or have been shooting underwater for a while, here is a list of some things to keep in mind:

1. Control Your Buoyancy

Having control of your buoyancy is extremely vital to the health of the reef and your personal safety. Coral is a living, breathing structure that provides us with every other breath we take. Breaking a piece of coral or stirring up a sandy bottom can happen to even the most experienced divers, but it is far more likely to happen to new divers. Getting your buoyancy under control is paramount. I understand the photographic temptations that lie below the surface, so I suggest practicing your buoyancy in a place devoid of photogenic subjects or keeping your distance from the seafloor and reefs until your buoyancy improves.

2. Let Others Have an Opportunity

This is basic grade school stuff, yet it happens so often. It can be exciting to encounter something you’ve never photographed before, but try to be aware of the fact that it might be someone else’s first encounter too. Take some shots of your subject, check who is waiting patiently for their turn, and back off to give others a chance.

3. Stay With Your Dive Group

It’s never fun to play follow the leader. Most dive guides expect you to keep up and not fall behind, yet sometimes you need a little extra time with a subject. If you repeatedly find yourself separated from your group you need to consider how that is affecting others. They need to stop moving throughout their dive to wait for you, or worse, end their dive to look for you at the surface. Please try to show some respect to your group by staying with them. If you find this frustrating, there are other options, such as hiring a private guide, or attending photo workshops or trips dedicated to underwater photographers. All attendees and guides will be on the same page.

4. Slowly Approach Marine Life From an Angle

It can be very annoying to come across an animal that appears relaxed and approachable only to have an inexperienced diver head straight for it. The animal usually feels threatened and disappears in the opposite direction ruining any opportunities for your fellow photographers. Please try to avoid this. Instead, slowly approach the animal from an angle. More often than not the animal will linger around, and you’ll get your shots.

underwater photography etiquette, joanna lentini

5. Don’t Harass or Manipulate Marine Life

Nobody needs a thousand images of the same subject. Be mindful of the fact that your presence could be putting unnecessary stress on your subject, who may not be able to get away from you. Whether it’s a nudibranch or a turtle, create some images and back away. If you don’t get what you are looking for in the first few hundred images chances are you need to brush up on your photography skills and leave the creature alone.

It’s not new news, that manipulating marine life for image creation is not acceptable. Please keep your hands and pointer sticks to yourself. Find a subject that is already in an appealing position and a place where you can safely photograph it without damaging the reef. Sometimes it just does not work and that’s okay. Move on.

6. Avoid Contact With Other Divers

It can be quite startling and is always unacceptable to have someone nudge you out of the way for a shot underwater. If this happens to you or you see it happening to someone else, it needs to be addressed. More thank likely, it’s not the first time the diver has behaved that way. Beyond being rude, it can be extremely dangerous underwater. There is no excuse for it.

7. Don’t Obstruct Someone Else’s Shot

Whether it is bubbles created from swimming below a photographer, an action cam stick sneaking its way into someone’s shot, or swimming into a shot someone worked hard to set up, try to be cognizant of your surroundings and who is shooting what. Swim around a diver, rather than below. Keep your camera parallel to or behind their camera housings handles, and look around to make sure no one is shooting in your direction.

8. When It's Over, It's Over

We’ve all been there. We found a subject towards the end of our dive and we don’t want to part with it. We want to take a few more images, but the dive guides are banging on their tanks to get you out of the water. It’s bound to happen. But, when it becomes a habit, then it’s a problem, and people will start taking notice. Try to think about how this impacts the others in your group and please be considerate.

I hope it goes without saying that this list is by no means exhaustive, but they are some of the more frequent things I have noticed and discussed with other photographers throughout the years. Staying mindful of these points will keep your dive buddies and fellow photographers happy, and will also set a great example for new underwater photographers. Has something happened to you underwater that I didn't list here? Let us know below.

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Deleted Account's picture

All common sense except for #1. I would have never thought about that being an issue. Thanks!

steve E's picture

The reality is too many divers have the money for UW photo equipment but not the basic UW skills to control their buoyancy whilst composing photo's and too often crush and break off corals in the process.

Deleted Account's picture

I don't remember the number but some time ago, I read an article by an experienced UW photographer, 'You shouldn't start taking photos until after x number of dives.' It was a very high number so I gave up the idea of getting into it. Considering where I live, along with other commitments, I'd never make it. :-(

Joanna Lentini's picture

I think the number is somewhere around 50 to 100 dives. But not all in the same conditions. It's important to expose yourself to different conditions such as currents and low visibility.

Deleted Account's picture

Sorry to belabor the subject but, is a dive, one descent or do multiple descents on a trip constitute one dive? I'm sure it's not as simple as that but I'd like a realistic idea of whether or not this is something I can aspire to.

Joanna Lentini's picture

No worries. A dive is one descent. As to what constitutes a dive, well that depends on who you ask. PADI (the Prof. Assoc. of Diving Instructors) considers a dive to be at least 20 minutes long and at a minimum depth of 5m/15ft. Hope that helps...

Deleted Account's picture

Thanks a lot!

Nesh Soni's picture

Nice One!

Chad D's picture

sure we would have fun talk story over a coffee :) with about 15,000 dives and 15 years of teaching world wide OH BOY do I have some stories :)

lucky when I lead dives I was good with photographers and would let them do their own thing for the most part
so I would say you can hang out away from us just keep us in site etc.. if you fail that I will ring you in a bit more so just keep your eye out for us and give a solid plan of what we are doing

my main rule was do not touch it unless it touches you first :) and if I am getting your attention there is a reason and be honest with your air to me when I ask :)

on some dives I would also bring those back who are low on air under the boat (good dive planning) and send em up, the crew knew this and would handle them the rest of the way so the others could keep going and I would sit below the boat and tell the others just keep me in site do your thing

the common thing I saw is the over teched divers ! they bought every gadget in the store :) look at most dive instructors/masters who are leading dives and they are quite minimal simple
sadly some dive leaders do get burnt out and are not photographers :) so you get the cattle boat mentality

which brings me to the most important thing just have a honest chat with your dive guy what you want out of the dive this was a huge thing for me to make sure folks who wanted to see something or experience something I could try to deliver :) and be honest with them of your experience and intentions
hey I am so so at buoyancy I just got this or that I would like to hang a touch away from folks etc..
if I as a leader know this I wont be trying to wrangle you in :)

really miss doing what I was sadly I had my lungs start to fail and had to quit :( I had planned on another ten years and then move to full time captain of a dive boat :)

I used to get a lot of folks who would also act like they were the center of the dive and some ace diver who does not need me ! try to over compensate their experience etc.. trust me unless you have 1000 dives most of us think you are a newb :) but reality is diving is insane easy and you are your own person and those people were rare compared to good honest folks

funny I almost never banged my tank but used my fist and open hand to get attention :)

my best dive ever was on the USS Arizona memorial and allowed to take photos :) had a insane good career diving

Joanna Lentini's picture

I can imagine the stories you must have from all of those years teaching. Perhaps we should have that coffee sometime. Would love to hear more. Thanks for all of your feedback...