Travail d'équipe dans les profondeurs

When a meaningful photo opportunity presents itself, such as this green sea turtle off Dumaguete in the Philippines, ethical photo collaboration suggests that photographers should cooperate on access. If each photographer takes a moment to pose for another, all the better. © JETT AND KATHRYN BRITNELL

Imagine yourself aboard a dive skiff on a tropical blue sea, getting ready to dive with legendary underwater photo pros Marty Snyderman and Michael Aw and extremely talented masters of the genre Tanya Griffin Houppermans and Vijay Raman. At some point and for one reason or another, most photographers have experienced the pressure to get the shot. You might expect we’d feel that pressure and a palpable undercurrent of competition as we geared up among such impressive company. During the time we spent with this amazing group, however, it just wasn’t so.

As underwater photographers increasingly share their watery realms with other equally passionate photographers, it’s understandable that some people might think underwater photo professionals are more determined to monopolize the best photo opportunities. But the reality is that any underwater photo pro worth their f-stops has learned to embrace the value of teamwork in the depths. That teamwork involves observing some guidelines we’ve experienced as the underwater photo etiquette that these pros demonstrate every time they are in the water. 

Collaboration Versus Competition

“Marine photography is just another form of photography, and if one learns more from what has been done before, on land or by the great artists, one can bring this underwater and create better images.”— Amos Nachoum

From the moment we arrived in the Philippines, it seemed clear that everyone checked their egos on the airplane. A spirit of goodwill and connection prevailed among this contingent of underwater photo pros that endured throughout the trip. We helped each other find and share photo ops, socialized, and waxed poetic about underwater photo gear and techniques.

Abundance or Scarcity

“You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”— Zig Ziglar

If you have a scarcity mindset, you will believe there are a limited number of photo ops. When you turn around that thinking to embrace an abundance mindset, however, you soon discover there are always plenty of photo ops and marine life encounters to go around. 

Striped eel catfish (Plotosus lineatus)
Striped eel catfish (Plotosus lineatus) are not unusual on a Philippines reef, but too many divers crowding the scene will disrupt the school’s natural symmetry. Allowing a photographer to approach at their own pace to gauge the marine life behavior is good form. © JETT AND KATHRYN BRITNELL

Share Photo Ops

“Our goal is to capture seldom-seen behavior on film. And the trick to that is to simply spend huge amounts of time underwater.”— Howard and Michelle Hall

Limit yourself to five or six exposures if you or the dive guide locates a photogenic critter. If other photographers are waiting to take some photos of the same subject, slowly move away, position yourself down current, and be mindful not to silt up the scene as you depart. Take up a position and wait patiently for your next turn. If you want to capture a specific behavior, you shouldn’t let that desire make you rush your fellow photographers while they get their images. 

Respect and Protect Marine Life

“You must be a fish among fishes to study their surroundings and their life.”— Hans and Lotte Hass

Most photographers understand that harassing or manipulating marine life for image creation is unacceptable. Instead, they search for subjects that are in an appealing position, ideally with good negative space. Remember that your presence could put unnecessary stress on your subject. Photographers should consider limiting the number of pictures they take of any subject to protect them from multiple strobe bursts. Get the shots you’re after, and then move on.

Ghost pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus)
Ghost pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) can camouflage themselves very well. To coax them away from their sanctuary in the arms of the crinoid, photographers need to go slowly and not present a threat. © JETT AND KATHRYN BRITNELL
The wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus)
The wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus) is a cryptic yet iconic photo subject. If other photographers are nearby, limit your time to a few shots. © JETT AND KATHRYN BRITNELL

Marine Life Approach Strategies

“Get close safely. I call it predictive previsualization. See in your mind’s eye how the shot should look, set all your camera and strobe controls for when the creature gets close enough, and have the presence of mind to trip the shutter once you cohabitate the shot zone.”— Stephen Frink

When shooting marine life, adjust your camera as you think about how you will approach the subject. Move in slowly, preferably at an angle rather than head-on, and try to avoid triggering your subject’s fight-or-flight response. Casting a shadow or causing a pressure wave from your movement may startle a marine animal. If the reef terrain is relatively open, divers can spread out to cover more area and possibly find reef creatures that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Maintain Situational Awareness 

“Building situational awareness is not done overnight, and it isn’t taught in any special course. Rather, it is something the individual diver must develop on their own. In many ways, it is the main difference between the good diver and the great diver.”— Thomas Grønfeldt Senger

When photographing a subject, be sure to routinely check what’s going on around you. Maintain situational awareness of your surroundings and whether any other photographers in the vicinity are setting up for a shot or shooting in your direction. 

Endeavor to avoid swimming into another photographer’s field of view. Stay parallel or behind their camera when observing marine life or waiting for your turn to take images. Try to swim behind your fellow photographers instead of below them, so your exhalations don’t create unwanted bubbles in their scene. 

A marine life pointing stick is a great underwater tool as long as you don’t allow yours to sneak its way into someone’s shot. 

Some underwater photographers use gentle frog kicks instead of flutter kicks to avoid stirring up any sediment. 

a clownfish
Even a common subject such as a clownfish will present an optimal perspective regarding eye contact and its position within the anemone. Photographers can usually take their time with this kind of subject, because others are likely nearby for other photographers, and they will remain in the host anemone after the photographer abandons the scene. © JETT AND KATHRYN BRITNELL

Stick to the Dive Plan

“Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life forever.”— Amy Poehler

It seemingly happens all the time: You’re near the end of your dive, and you discover a primo subject minutes before the dive plan calls for everyone to surface. It’s incumbent upon everyone to end their dive at the agreed-upon time. It’s disrespectful to be late and keep others waiting topside. After all, they may have places to be, lunch may be waiting, or they may need some additional surface interval time to troubleshoot a camera system malfunction. 

Show some respect by sticking to the dive plan, so you don’t affect others in your group. If you can’t respect others by adhering to the agreed-upon dive plan, consider hiring a private dive guide and boat.

Sympathy for the Dive Guides

“Yes, I get by with a little help from my friends.”— The Beatles

Nobody works harder or feels more pressure to help underwater photographers get the shot than dive guides. Don’t monopolize them; they should be free to share their unique talents among your fellow underwater photographers. Be kind, courteous, and respectful, and let them work their magic. They will help you capture images of rare or elusive marine life. If you’re happy with their services, show your appreciation by leaving a generous gratuity, giving them a shout-out in a review, telling their boss, and recommending them to your photographer friends.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”— Phil Jackson

People are more likely to be successful working as a team than competing as individuals. Whenever you have a group of peers with high levels of trust coupled with a desire for respectful relationships, you’ll truly understand how teamwork makes the dream work. Embracing this thinking makes it possible to be a good ocean citizen during your pursuits to get the shot. 

© Alert Diver - Q1 2023