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Underwater photography and diving safety

by Benny Sutton

Reproduced from in focus 21 (Apr. 1987)

A well known Dive boat Skipper once observed about underwater photographers that, although they my enter the water in pairs, it was rare for them to leave that way, and not entirely unknown for them to return with different Buddies. 'The only thing that you can guarantee with photographers', he quipped, 'is that you don't get more of then coming out than you put in!'

Dave Shaw, the BSACs Incidents Adviser, assures me that there is no evidence to suggest that Underwater Photographers are more likely to have accidents than any other specialist activity group within the sport. This is reassuring but it does not explain why the diving fraternity in general still regard us photographers as a liability to dive with.

Whether you were trained by the BSAC, PADI or any other leading organisation you will have been mde aware of safe diving proceedures. There's very little advice on that subject that hasn't been said before but it is worth remembering that diving with a camera requires extra consideration and adjustment of diving technique.

As the UK diving season draws near we should riot only be giving our equipment a dusting down but also thinking about what improvements we could make to our own diving technique. This article hopes to remind you of a few of the potential problem areas and give same pointers towards safer diving with your camera.


Lets face it, a lot of Photographers care more about their f-stops than decompression stops. Plan your dive and dive your plan is always the best advice yet still too many photographers think that finishing off their film is a good enough reason to make an unplanned decompression stop! It has long been recognised that the nature of many diving incidents involves an * Incident Pit * situation with more than one cause. A forced decompression stop could lead to running out of air or losing your surface cover.


It is easy, when you're composing that prizewinning shot, to forget where you are. The underwater world is a harsh and unforgiving environment where mistakes can be fatal. Develop a routine, regularly checking on your buddy's position and your own gauges, until it becomes as much a part of your photographic technique as framing a shot.


Photographers are odd creatures tending to want to stay in places that most divers find boring, such as less than 10 metres where the light is more plentiful. Safe enough you might think at first but we all remember from our training (don't we?) that the greatest pressure/ volume changes occur between 10 metres and the surface, Imagine then, the scenario where you are holding your breath (so as to not scare the fishes), in mid water and so having no reference point as to depth (such as the bottom), you're not paying attention to your buoyancy, you make an unintentional buoyant ascent and the next thing you know you've done a 'Polaris Missile' to the surface. A perfect recipe for a Burst Lung.


The ideal partner is definately a non-photographer. As well as being prepared to spend the whole of their dive watching you, a good buddy should also pose as directed, point your slave strobe, carry your lenses and buy the drinks when it's his round. There's a fiver in it for the first person to furnish me with this mythical creature's address!. In reality you can end up diving with anyone, especially on club dives where Dive Marshals like to lump photographers together unimaginatively. Another common mistake on club dives is to pair a photographer with a Novice. Whatever you do (for their sake more than yours) forget the camera if forced to dive with a complete Novice. The best thing to do in the long term, is to try to develop a relationship with another diver who has a complimentary interest, the Marine Biologist is a good example, they might even be persuaded to find a subject or two for you!


All divers should ensure that no item of their equipment hinders the operation of another. A wrist lanyard on your camera might seen like a useful piece of kit but, like any piece of line underwater, it could be an accident waiting to happen. For instance, in an emergency when seconds count, would it prevent you reaching your direct feed? No-one likes to imagine a situation where they have to ditch their treasured likonos but, If it's insured, It's replacable and you are not.


Dress for the job. In tropical waters wear a T-shirt to protect against sunburn when snorkelling and a full suit when diving to protect against abrasion etc. In cold water wear adequate thermal protection, don't risk hypothermia for one more shot!


Adverse conditions can aggrevate a minor problem into a major one and encourage the slide into the 'Incident Pit'. Be honest, what photographic results are likely in low vis or strong tidal streams anyway?


Don't Just jump in the water with the intention to 'go down to where it's pretty'. Deep Diving requires careful planning and even stricter discipline than usual, It follows then that deep diving with a camera can only increase the risks.


After a layoff you'll appreciate the ability to stay a fins length in front of everyone else if you want to get to the shot first!

Whether, as Underwater Photographers we do deserve the 'Liability' image that other divers afford us, I personally doubt. Certainly two things are true though, we've got the reputation and it's in our hands to change it. The job isn't made easier though, when the antics of a delinquent minority amongst our ranks can spoil it for the rest of us

I believe that part of the problem must stem from ignorance (other divers, not ours!). We must educate them to appreciate our needs, diving with a photographer requires them to adjust their technique too.

We've had a look then at some of the more common mistakes, I hope that this article has stimulated some thought because the message is very clearly that it's up to you to examine your own technique and improve on it.

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