Underwater Photography Ethics and Code of Conduct
Most underwater photographers are passionate about conservation and protecting the marine environment. By exploring the world beneath the waves, you naturally want to protect it.
Questions regarding the ethics of underwater photography are often raised following controversial images being published online, in the media, or in competitions.
The underwater photography community are a generous bunch, and are always willing to share their knowledge, so here are a few points to remember when taking photographs or recording video underwater.
Read more: Ethics in wildlife photography
1. Concentrate on buoyancy skills
Refining your movement underwater should always be a priority, especially when scuba diving, to ensure both yourself and the marine life around you stays safe. As a diver, you should be confident with your buoyancy and fundamental diving skills before adding a camera into the equation.
Be aware of fragile marine life, such as branching corals and anemones. Try not to accidentally swim into them or hit them with your fins, as this could cause damage.
Also, be aware of what is underneath you. When close to the seabed, you don’t want to land on top of any unsuspecting critters. I have seen many divers empty their BCD in order to lie on the seabed and try to stabilise themselves.
This isn’t how you should act underwater: if you need a stable shot, then consider adding an underwater tripod to your camera. You must be careful and aware of your surroundings to help preserve the oceans. It’s easy to enjoy underwater photography without leaving any damage behind.
2. Don’t chase subjects
A subject that is trying to get away from you is clearly distressed, so the worst thing you could do in that situation is to swim after it. We don’t want to cause unnecessary stress to marine life, as they already have a lot of factors to deal with. When fish turn their back on you it means they are becoming stressed, and it is time to leave them alone.
For subjects that are easily startled, approach slowly, take a test shot at a distance, and tweak your settings. Then, slowly move closer to the subject until in a better position. Remember to bring your strobes closer to the camera as you approach the subject.
By approaching slowly from a low angle, the subject is more likely to remain in place. Quickly swimming towards them is never going to be a good option. It is quite common to see divers excitedly chasing subjects with their new camera, but we must be role models for the community.
Luckily, most divers aren’t intentionally trying to cause damage, and just need a reminder of what not to do.
3. Don’t touch subjects
As inviting or appealing as it may seem to pet or stroke a marine creature, don’t do it. You don’t know how the animal will react, and you may injure it by touching it, or it may even bite or sting you. From a photographer’s point of view, there is absolutely no benefit in touching or trying to touch your subject. It will probably swim away rather quickly.
Lots of marine creatures rely on camouflage, so they may move slowly and be unable to run away. We have to allow all marine life space, and avoid causing them stress. Uncomfortable subjects do not make for good photographs.
If you find yourself in an awkward position, and are worried about getting close to a reef without damaging corals, try to find a safe place on the rock, and use a finger to push yourself away from the reef.
Maybe consider spending time learning how to back fin. By being able to swim backwards, it will improve your manoeuvrability, and hopefully you won’t need to push yourself away from a reef again.
4. Don’t force the photograph
Remember that underwater photography should reflect what you are seeing. There is always room for creativity, but you don’t want to create a false image of reality. Never alter the scene or move marine life, or try to make the subject move or react.
This is both unfair to the animal and heavily frowned upon by the underwater photography community. Also, avoid introducing litter or bait to create a ‘shocking’ image. It both promotes the act and creates a false impression of the underwater world.
Fake or staged images are ineligible for many competitions, and will most likely leave the photographer with a bad reputation amongst the underwater photography community. This isn’t just an issue with underwater photography, it also happens on land.
Capturing the perfect photograph should never come before the safety and wellbeing of both the photographer and the wildlife.
5. Be cautious with lighting
Some species, like seahorses, are incredibly light sensitive. Here in the UK, it is illegal to use flash if you encounter a seahorse, and you cannot search for them without a license. It’s important to be sparing with your flashes: if a subject is visibly uncomfortable, then move on and leave the subject alone.
Many marine species are not used to bright light, as their eyes have adapted to the low light conditions beneath the waves. Be aware of how quickly you fire the flash: taking lots of photos in quick succession should be avoided as it can daze your subjects.
Five shots per subject, and taking test shots away from the subject, can help minimise any stress.
Read more: Does flash photography harm wildlife
Underwater photographers are nature lovers who, for the most part, would never dream of harming or causing stress to marine life. However, excitement can get the better of us at times.
Some good tips to always follow include making sure you approach slowly, taking tests shots before photographing your chosen subject, and never trying to force the photograph.
Be patient and respectful of the marine environment. By allowing the animals time to get used to your presence, they will realise you are not a threat. By approaching slowly, they are less likely to be startled and will be significantly less stressed.
If you do see other photographers being disrespectful to marine life, don’t ignore it. Speak to them, as they may not have realised what they were doing was wrong. We have the power and responsibility to stop unethical behaviour if we all work together.