6 Essential Dive Skills for Underwater Photographers

underwater photography skills

Whether you’re new to the world of underwater photography or an experienced diver looking to transfer some of your skills to underwater photography, you’ve come to the right place.

underwater photography tips

Diving and underwater photography are incredibly rewarding but can also be challenging, especially if you aren’t comfortable under the water.

Sometimes, seeing an incredible subject and being able to get close enough to it without scaring it away or disturbing the environment can be a challenge.

However, underwater photography wouldn’t be as fun or rewarding if it were easy. Here are a few handy tips to help you get the best out of your underwater camera diving.

1. Become comfortable underwater

Being comfortable when diving seems like an obvious thing to mention, but many divers, particularly those new to the sport, are still learning and can often find themselves in situations they haven’t experienced before or aren’t comfortable in.

Diving is challenging and can take time to get used to, especially if you have new dive kit, are at a new dive site, or the conditions are different from what you are used to.

New kit, in particular, takes time to get used to. Swapping to a new pair of fins or a new BCD can take a few dives to get used to, and during that time you should prioritise your comfort and try not to take a camera with you.

underwater photography skills

It’s an extra thing you need to think about. Even experienced divers will take time to adjust to new equipment or conditions before using a camera or completing a more challenging task.

A drysuit is a great example of this. If you are newly qualified as a drysuit diver, you should take at least a few dives to get the feel of your new equipment and only introduce your camera when you feel comfortable. Don’t rush these things; they take time!

Another common thing that can throw you off is the dive conditions themselves. If you have never experienced low visibility or swell, then this might not be the best time to take your camera, as it just adds another task for you to think about.

Loading yourself with too many tasks can lead to problems or panic if something goes wrong.

2. Get good buoyancy

Some divers are more aware of their buoyancy than others, and as you gain more experience as a diver, you’ll start to have a greater awareness of your position in the water and how your breathing affects your position.

Good buoyancy practice is essential for any diver’s safety and the safety of the surrounding fragile marine environment. For underwater photographers, this technical skill is even more important.

Photographers need to be still when capturing photos or video (nobody wants blurry photos or shaky video footage) which is why it’s so important to spend time mastering your buoyancy and being able to hover completely still in the water.

underwater photography diving

Can you approach a subject without kicking up silt or disturbing the reef around you? If the answer is no, then you need to spend some time focusing on your buoyancy skills and maybe even consider a designated course to help you master ‘the hover.’

The last thing we want to do as underwater photographers is approach a subject too quickly, scare it away, and then hit the reef or floor. This is bad practice and is damaging to the environment. And it certainly won’t help you get an underwater photo!

We need to prioritise our dive skills and the environment before deciding if we can get a photo.

If you’re ever unsure if you have the skills to approach a subject or space (for example, a narrow cavern in a shipwreck), then you should move on and try to find a subject in a better position – or one which is a bit more spacious and easier to approach!

Top Tip: Buoyancy control is all about relaxation. Don’t use any fancy breathing techniques—just try to breathe as normally as you can and not think about it too much. You shouldn’t be holding your breath to stay still.

I personally find I take most of my photos during my exhale, as I can anticipate moving down slightly as I breathe out and frame my subject perfectly.

Read more: 8 Essential Skills and Techniques for Underwater Photographers

3. Utilize finning techniques

There are two fin kicks that I find incredibly useful for photography: the frog-kick and the back-fin. These two kick styles allow you to micro-adjust your position while you hover.

You can move forward, backward, or spin 360 degrees with just your fin movement—skills that are great to have in underwater photography.

I often find myself constantly making small adjustments with my fins as I frame my subject and try to get into the perfect position, and these fin techniques came from learning skills in cave diving, where manoeuvring inside small spaces without disturbing sediment around you is essential.

underwater photography skills

With control of your fins, you can approach a subject slowly without disturbing any reef or sediment around you, and then, once you have finished photographing the subject, you can back away without leaving a trace.

And that’s exactly what we should be doing: taking photos with minimal impact on the underwater environment. These skills do take time and practice; it’s not something you’ll learn overnight, but it’s worth the effort.

Top Tip: You’ll need a slightly more rigid “Tech” style fin to make these fin techniques easier. If it’s something you want to learn or need more information on, then please visit your local dive centre, and they will be able to advise further.

4. Using the right equipment

It’s always worth investing in the right kit for underwater photography. I know many of us are restricted by budget, but we want to make sure we buy the right equipment the first time and save ourselves some money in the long term. There are a few essentials I recommend:

  • A camera lanyard or leash is my first piece of essential kit, one of the bungee or retractor-style lanyards with one side attached to you and the other to your camera. This will give you peace of mind that if you ever have a problem, you can drop the camera and know that it is still attached to you. This frees up your hands to problem-solve, and then once you’re ready, you can just pull the camera back with the lanyard.
  • Make sure your kit is tidy. Don’t have lots of hoses and accessories dangling from your BCD; they are tangle hazards and will most likely be touching the reef or rocks that you are trying to hover above. Invest in some hose retainers or pockets to stow all of your equipment away neatly. If you don’t have pockets on your drysuit or wetsuit, you can look at tech shorts that have pockets or add some pockets to your BCD if you can.

Read more: What Equipment Do You Need for Underwater Photography?

5. Learn your limits

Always remember: Dive skills come first, and your camera comes second.

We need to be sensible when diving at all times, but especially with the added distraction and excitement of underwater photography. Diving is classed as an extreme sport for a reason, and so we must always prioritize our diving skills before our camera or need to get a photo.

underwater photography tips

No matter how tempting the opportunity may be, make sure that you are diving within your limits and don’t push yourself to do anything you aren’t qualified to do. Do not let anyone who is more experienced convince you to do something that you aren’t ready for.

If you are diving within your limits, you will be much more comfortable, and being comfortable means that you have the capacity to think about your photography and spend time getting the perfect shot. You’ll be able to get the best out of the camera if you’re diving safely and sensibly.

Read more: 6 Mistakes to Avoid When Taking Underwater Photos

6. Choose the right buddy

It is important to dive with someone you trust and with whom you have agreed on a plan for the dive. You may find other divers sigh at the thought of diving with a photographer, as we have a reputation for being slow-moving and not getting very far along the dive sites!

And I have to admit—if I’m using a macro lens, then I’ll be lucky to go more than 20-30m along the dive site! But other underwater photographers should jump at the chance to slowly swim around a site looking for critters.

Diving with someone who understands the purpose of your dive means you’ll have plenty of time to get the perfect photo and won’t be worrying about where your buddy has swum away to.

underwater photography skills

If you lose your buddy, that’s the end of your dive, so making sure you’re not constantly looking for them or chasing them along the dive site is important. You won’t get any photos if you’re distracted by a quick-swimming buddy.

Make sure you and your buddy agree on a plan, and mention max dive time, general direction, and any subjects you’d like to see. Then you’ll both be on the same page and have a successful photography dive!

Top Tip: It can be easy to get sucked into concentrating solely on your underwater photography. Remember to regularly look up from your lens to make sure your buddy is within range and doing OK.

In conclusion

When it comes to diving and underwater photography skills, the most important thing is to make sure you are comfortable and within your limits.

There are courses out there to help you gain essential skills such as finning techniques or buoyancy skills, and this is well worth pursuing.

Diving with or spending time with other underwater photographers, who will be able to offer tips and helpful information more specific to underwater photography than regular divers may be able to, is also a great thing to do.

Like all hobbies, mastering these skills takes time, but remember to enjoy the process and try not to get too frustrated if things don’t work out the first time. The more you persist, the more confident you’ll become, and your photography will start to improve too!

Visit Shannon's website

Shannon Moran is an award winning underwater photographer based in Cornwall, UK. She has always had a love of the natural world and began scuba diving and photography in 2017, and has been following this passion ever since. Shannon hopes her photography can be used to highlight the importance of healthy seas and protect marine life in the UK.

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