As underwater photographers, we spend a lot of time discussing camera equipment, shooting techniques, and dive destinations, but rarely do we get into discussions about proper etiquette. Whether you are a new photographer or a seasoned pro, it’s an important aspect of photography that we should be talking about a lot more.
While etiquette in underwater photography is common sense to some extent, a good part of it comes from experience. As our skills progress, we hopefully learn the things that annoy us about other photographers and try to steer clear of that behavior. That being said, I am sure we all know an experienced photographer or two that could brush up on their etiquette.
But let’s be honest. We have all been guilty of poor underwater photography etiquette at some point or another. We may not have realized it at the time, and it probably wasn’t even intentional, but throughout our photographic pursuits, we have likely irritated someone along the way. It’s bound to happen.
As photographers, we strive to capture fleeting moments. We travel great lengths to create these images and as our time underwater is quite limited, it can feel like we are up against the clock to get results. Each of us has our reasons for doing what we do—whether it’s for assignments, competitions, or personal growth—but when poor etiquette becomes more of a habit than a one off, it really ought to be addressed.
So, if you are just starting out, or know someone who needs a reminder, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Practice good buoyancy — No one wants to damage coral or stir up a sandy bottom, but these things are bound to happen if you don’t have your buoyancy under control. This mostly applies to new divers and is probably one of the biggest complaints made about underwater photographers, yet it is so easy to avoid. Few new divers get the buoyancy thing right off the bat, while most need more practice. Spend time working on your buoyancy in a location devoid of distractions. Once you feel comfortable, practice with your camera system. Getting your buoyancy under control beforeyou begin shooting is critically important for the protection of underwater environments—and the sanity of other divers.
- Let everyone have their turn — It can be really frustrating when a photographer decides to hog a subject all to themselves. Try to be cognizant of your surroundings and any other photographers waiting patiently behind you. Make a few images, look up to see if anyone is waiting, and back away to give others a turn. Take some time to review your images and if you aren’t satisfied, wait your turn to resume shooting. While you are waiting, make any necessary changes to your camera settings and think through your next shots. This will help optimize your time shooting.
- Don’t disappear from your dive group — It’s one thing if you made prior arrangements to go off and do your own thing, but if you suddenly take off in the opposite direction to your group, you are certainly on someone’s naughty list. Show some respect to your fellow divers and your guide. Your absence delays the group from moving along and may even result in them surfacing to look for you. We all know how frustrating it can be to play follow the leader when you want to spend some time shooting a specific subject. If you find this to be the case more often than not, try joining a trip or workshop that is dedicated to improving your photography skills. That way, everyone, including the guide, will be on the same page. Another option is to hire a private guide.
- Don’t harass the wildlife — Photographers and divers alike can get a bit overzealous when encountering something they haven’t seen or photographed before, but please be mindful of harassing the very wildlife you are in awe of. Whether it’s a playful sea lion or a pygmy seahorse, take some shots and then give the animal some space. If possible, try to let the animal come to you—doing so generally makes for more natural images.
- Approach marine life slowly — We have all seen it happen. A new diver or photographer spots an animal and makes a beeline for the creature as fast as they can. The animal gets spooked and takes off, and the opportunity is lost for everyone. Slowly approaching wildlife from an angle is the safest bet and will keep fellow photographers from shooting daggers your way.
- Never touch or move wildlife — It goes without saying, but let’s just say it again all the same, that manipulating an animal’s position for a more appealing composition is not only unethical and deceitful, it is also potentially harmful to the animal.
- Don’t be pushy — Pushing or elbowing someone underwater is a big no-no. Sadly, it happens all too often, and you’ve probably heard stories of even worse behavior. Such an assault doesn’t fly topside and is equally reprehensible underwater. In short, keep your hands to yourself. If you experience it or see it happening, address it immediately. Getting pushy underwater can have all sorts of repercussions.
- Try to be original — Sure, watching others is a great way to learn, but do try to be original in the compositions that you create. While copying others may be flattering to some, it can also be downright annoying to others. It can’t hurt to be mindful of that, although, depending on the situation, implementing that can be a legitimate challenge.
- Avoid obstructing someone’s shot — If you’ve been shooting for a while, you have no doubt had a camera on a pole, a diver’s limb, or bubbles from below make their way into a shot you are taking. If you have a GoPro, you will be familiar with the wide angle of view of action cams. Many photographers shoot with fisheye lenses too. These lenses have an angle of view much wider than that of the human eye. Keep behind or parallel with someone’s camera housing. Be aware of your surroundings and try to avoid swimming or reaching your camera into someone else’s shot. Rising bubbles are another frustration that can be caused by fellow divers and photographers. If you see someone working, try not to drop below them.
- Don’t always be the last diver in or out of the water — If you are consistently the last diver in or out of the water, you may want to take a step back and reflect. Are you waiting for one last shot or are you hoping to get the closest seat to the re-entry point? It’s really not cool, and it does not go unnoticed. Selfishness will not make you any friends. Perhaps you aren’t looking for new friends, but a bad reputation will surely follow you. The same thing goes for being the first one in the water. Whether you are swimming after humpbacks or orcas, or simply want a dive site all to yourself for a few extra minutes, be aware of how often you are doing this and try to respect opportunities for others.
Implementing proper etiquette is something all underwater photographers should strive for. Surely, there are photographers that will argue you have to be aggressive to get award-winning shots, but I really don’t buy that. Photographers with that mentality are not the type of photographers you want to emulate, regardless of how “successful” they may seem. There is no place for such a lack of consideration underwater.
About the Author: Joanna Lentini is an award-winning photographer and writer based in New York. Joanna produces stories related to conservation, outdoor adventure and wildlife photography. She has been awarded in several international photography competitions and was one of only a few women awarded in the 52nd Wildlife Photographer of the Year photography competition. Joanna is a Nauticam ambassador and COO of the non-profit organization Oceans in Focus, which delivers ocean educational outreach programs to children. To find out more about Joanna and see more of her work, you can visit her Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages.