Dec 2018

10 Tips for Underwater Photography Etiquette

By Mike Waddington

Underwater photography is becoming more and more popular among divers and snorkellers.

What was once considered a pastime that only the wealthy and very experienced divers could take part in, is fast becoming available to everybody as camera systems get better and cheaper, and divers are becoming more adventurous and travelling to more exotic diving destinations.

There are certain stigmas around underwater photographers, and rightly so, due to the attitude and behavior of some photographers. Here we have put together a list of rules, or general etiquette that you should follow to become a good role model in the underwater photography community.

1) Do your own research.

So you have booked your dream dive holiday, and when you turn up, nothing is how you expected it. There is no camera room, no space to keep your equipment on the boat, and you were dreaming of whale sharks and manta rays and all you see is nudibranchs and frogfish.

Some dive operators mainly focus on teaching courses, while others focus on dealing with experienced divers and photographers. Rarely do they focus on both. If you are a photographer looking to get some amazing pictures, you should book with the latter, but be aware, they will probably cost more. You will however, go the best dive sites, have better dive guides, and your buddies will be better divers than at the dive schools.

You should also research exactly what animals live in an area before you book. In Indonesia, manta rays are rare around Sulawesi, however they are common in Komodo. If you are planning a trip for wide angle photography, make sure there are wide angle subjects before you book, and vice versa for macro.

If you turn up somewhere and the marine life is completely different to what you had expected, you only have yourself to blame.

2) Be organised.

Boat space is a sacred thing. It doesn’t matter how large the dive boat, there never seems to be enough room.

One of the most annoying traits of some underwater photographers is they think they have the right to as much space as they want. I have seen people taking over half the seating area so they can change batteries and lenses, and some people feel their camera has the right to a nice cushioned seat while everybody else has to stand.

For dive companies that cater to photographers, there will usually be designated space on the boat where they can work on their camera equipment, but you might need to wait for your turn to get that spot. They will also usually have a couple of dedicated buckets to keep the cameras in between dives. You should keep your equipment in the designated areas, and if you ignore this recommendation and decide to leave stuff lying around the deck and on all the seats, don’t get upset if someone knocks it off and breaks something expensive!

3) Consider everyone’s needs.

Great you have an expensive camera system. That doesn’t give you more of a right to dictate what everybody will be doing on their dives.

Most photographers will set up their equipment in advance for a dive. They will usually ask at the dive centre beforehand if the sites are better suited to macro, wide-angle, or both. Unfortunately, plans often have to change because the ocean can be an unpredictable place. Big waves, stronger than usual currents and low visibility are the normal reasons, but it could also be that too many boats are already there, or there is a tonne of plastic floating in the water. You may be an experienced diver and have no problems dealing with an unpredictable down current, but those newly certified open water divers might not be so up for it.

You can still explain what it is that you want to the dive guides and crew on the boat and they can try to pick a site that suits everyone’s needs. Remember, safety is the number one priority of any decent dive operation.

4) Keep your shots to a minimum.

Marine life is fragile.

When you think about how little light breaks the oceans surface and makes it past the first few metres, you will understand that most aquatic creatures lives in perpetual twilight, and one of the most stressful things for a critter will be having constant strobes or flashes blinding them.

Take seahorses for instance. They are good photography subjects as they are interesting to look at, everybody loves them, and they don’t really move. The reason they don’t move much is because they rely on camouflage for survival, so if they do get so stressed that they swim off, their cover is blown and there is a real possibility that they will be eaten. They also lack eyelids, so constant flashes from powerful strobes can cause temporarily blindness, or even permanently damage their vision.

A good rule to follow is never take more than five images of the same critter. If you think you might need to take more to get the camera settings right for the shot you want, then you should pre-prepare the settings by shooting a coral or a rock close to the subject. That way the settings should be good to go, and you wont need to take as many shots.

You should also wait for the subject to be in a good position before you start shooting. There is no point in taking multiple shots of a fish that is facing the wrong direction. Either wait for it to be in a better position, or try to move yourself so you can clearly see the focal point you want (eyes, mouth etc). Generally marine life will be wary of you to begin with, and face away from you. However, if you wait a while and don’t stress the animal out, it will resume its normal behaviour allowing you to get the shot that you want.

5) Never touch anything.

Underwater photographers are often villianised as careless people who touch everything and move things into the position they want them to be.

Unfortunately, there is some truth in this, however, these photographers only make up a fraction of the underwater photographers out there. As an underwater photographer who follows good practices, you should never touch anything, and tell off or report anyone who does.

If you do think you are above everyone else and that you have a right to do whatever you want because you are paying for the dive, you should be aware that you will probably get banned from diving with that operation, and everybody on the boat will hate you.

6) Wait for your turn.

It might seem tempting to join another photographer and start taking pictures of the same critter, but it is extremely annoying for the everyone else in the group.

More people crowding a critter is more likely to scare it off, making it impossible for anyone else to get a look or take a photo. Dive guides will normally show their guests the smaller critters in turn, and you should follow this.

It is especially annoying if somebody comes next to you when you are taking a wide angle shot, as fisheye lenses have a very wide field of vision, and the lens will be able to see anyone and their bubbles next to it. A good rule to follow is: If you can see the glass of the wide-angle dome, the camera can see you.

7) Maintain awareness of your surroundings.

Another reason underwater photographers are often villianised is because some photographers are simply bad divers who completely disrespect the environment they are in.

Before you even consider getting a camera, you should be able to hold perfect neutral buoyancy and keep in trim. The reef is a delicate place, and it doesn’t need divers kicking the corals and smashing it to pieces.

Make sure to keep your fins up at all times, and have a way to back out of a corner without having to touch anything. If you cannot do so, then move on to an easier subject. Pointers are extremely useful for this, as you can stabilise yourself on a rock or on the sand while you take the shot. If you do use a pointer, make sure you are using it properly by not touching anything that is alive. Pointers are NOT to be used for poking things or moving them.

8) Hire a private guide.

If you think you want to spend a lot of time waiting for the perfect opportunity to get the perfect shot, then you might want to consider hiring a private dive guide.

Most dive resorts and operators that cater to underwater photographers will offer this service, and it is often the best way to completely personalise your dive experience. You can discuss with your guide exactly what you want to get out of each dive, and you can spend as long as you want setting up shots without upsetting anyone else in the group.

Many dive resorts will save their best dive guides to be used as a private guide, and often these guides have had some experience with underwater photography themselves so they know exactly what to look for and how to act around photographers (keeping a distance when you are busy and keeping behind the camera when taking wide angle photos).

Unfortunately, private dive guides come at a cost, and it can often be more expensive than the dives themselves. If you don’t want to splash out, ask to be in a group with other photographers so you will not burden non-photographers who might not want to spend half the dive waiting for you.

9) Keep a good attitude.

The ocean can be an unpredictable place. Try not to get upset if a dive doesn’t go your way. One day, a dive site might be amazing with critters everywhere, and the next day it might be rubbish.

Dive guides are people too, and just like everybody else, they can have good days and bad days. If after a dive, everyone else on the boat is talking about all of the amazing critters they saw, and your group didn’t see much, don’t take it out on the guide.

Of course, if this keeps happening over a few days, you have every right to request a new guide from management. You are paying to dive, and if you feel you are being given a second rate service, you should discuss this. Before it gets to this point, you should discuss with the dive guide exactly what you want as they may not fully understand what kind of service you want. Some divers like to be shown everything, while others prefer to look themselves. Your first step should always be talk to the guide, and if service doesn’t improve, then you should escalate to management.

10) Be willing to share your experiences.

So you have just come from an amazing dive and saw ghost pipefish, seahorses, frogfish, and nudibranch galore, and better yet, you took good photographs of them all!

Other divers on the boat – especially those who are new to diving or don’t have cameras – will probably approach you and ask to look at the pictures. This is normal among divers, and you should show them. They may be interested in getting a camera and want to see how your pictures turn out, or maybe they want to learn about all the amazing marine life in the area.

If you don’t want to waste you batteries, politely decline but explain why you cannot show them the pictures right now. Most of the time, the divers will understand, and might ask you to show them off at the bar later. You can use this to your advantage and get a couple of free beers while showing off your artwork!

If other photographers are looking at your pictures, they may have questions about how you got them to look so good. Remember, underwater photography has a steep learning curve, and everyone has to start somewhere. It is very common for other divers to ask for tips and recommendations when it comes to choosing what equipment to buy and how to take nice pictures. You should keep the cycle going and help them out.

“Act as you want others to act!”

At the end of the day, the best way to act as an underwater photographer is to do so as you want others to act around you.

Do you want to be constantly crowded underwater? Probably not, so don’t do it to someone else. Do you like it when you can’t sit down because other peoples stuff is covering all the seats? No, so don’t do it yourself.

Good underwater etiquette is nothing more than not thinking of yourself as special, and treating everyone and everything with respect. Are you an underwater photographer and want to add anything to this list? Or do you have your own horror stories of photographers acting badly? If so, we would love to hear from you. Drop us a comment in the box below and we will be sure to get back to you.

’10 Tips for Underwater Photography Etiquette’ was written by Mike

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Mike Waddington

I first discovered diving in 2008 after going snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. After trying diving at a flooded quarry in England I decided to head out to warmer more interesting waters in Thailand where I ended on the Island of Koh Tao completing my Open Water course. Instantly addicted with money to spend and plenty of time on my hands I decided to continue until I became a Divemaster so I could live what seemed as the perfect life.

After that I headed to the Caribbean to an island called Utila to complete my instructor course, I spent several months out there completing the MSDT internship, teaching students and leading dives. This is also where I discovered my interest in the technical side of diving, taking part in equipment repair courses and learning about blending gasses and running compressors.

With all my new qualifications it was time to head back to where it had all started, Back to Koh Tao where I intended on living the dream. Once I arrived I quickly found a job and started teaching straight away. During my time on Koh Tao I took part in all many technical diving courses, learning how to dive with re-breathers, in caves and even going down to 90m/300ft!


PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer
PADI/DSAT Tech Deep Instructor
PADI/DSAT Gas Trimix Gas Blender
PADI/DSAT Trimix Diver
TDI Intro to Cave Diver
TDI Advanced Wreck Diver
TDI Inspiration rebreather Decompression Procedures
PADI Professional Videographer
BSAC Compressor Operator
TDI Equipment Service Technician

Dream Dive Locations:

Silfra, Iceland
Cenotes, Mexico
Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia
Ice Diving in Russia