If you’ve tried your hand at taking photos underwater before, then you’d know that it’s a whole different ball game down below the surface than it is above. Colour loss, visibility, ocean conditions and subjects that have the ability to swim away from your lens are all thrown into the mix, and even a simple point and shoot camera can become a challenge to use. While these elements are all ones that we learn to deal with as our underwater photography skills develop, there is one crucial skill that if you master early on will make a world of difference to your underwater photographs.
Achieving neutral buoyancy can make composing and taking a beautiful underwater photos far easier. Achieving neutral buoyancy underwater not only makes your whole dive experience more enjoyable and far safer, but can also lead to a better-executed photo. We’ve all been there before in the early stages of our diving, limbs flailing and fins kicking the sandy floor up whilst we try and hover in front of a vibrantly patterned Nudibranch to take a happy snap, inflating our BCD and then deflating when we feel ourselves slowly starting to head towards the surface, all the while juggling a camera. If you have control of your buoyancy, then you will have far better control of your camera, and this equals images that you can proudly show off to all your work mates when you’re back to the daily grind once your dive trip is over.
When I first learned to dive, I was working as a hostess on a diving liveaboard in the picturesque Great Barrier Reef. I was diving every chance I had, as soon as I’d prepared the evening meal I was in the water with the rest of the guests. Diving every day, you’d think I would have got my open water certification in a matter of weeks, if not days. My instructor, who was also working on the live aboard, drilled into me from day one how important achieving neutral buoyancy and streamlined trim was if you wanted to be a safe diver. He had me perform every skill in the open water course at neutral buoyancy, rather than on my knees, before he would sign me off as a competent diver. At the time, it made me want to pull his mask off underwater and slap him but now I realize just how beneficial that training was, particularly when I’m trying to sneak up on a sleepy unsuspecting turtle to take a photo.
Neutral buoyancy starts above the water
If you’re struggling with your buoyancy underwater, or you’re crashing into coral with your camera on a dive take some time to purely practice and play around with your buoyancy. Good buoyancy underwater starts at the surface. Plenty jump in for a diver overweighted, lugging around more lead than they actually need on a dive which makes it harder to achieve neutral buoyancy at depth. Ensuring you are correctly weighting yourself prior to beginning a dive will make perfecting your neutral buoyancy techniques at depth less of a battle.
Leaving the surface is the hardest part
Most divers think that they need to wear more weight than they actually do because getting below the surface can be a struggle, but trust me this is the hardest part. Once you’re down below the 3-5 metre mark you’ll realize that you really didn’t need that extra three pounds of weight. When you’re about to descend for a dive make sure you’re relaxed, and if you are finding it a challenge to make you’re way down don’t beat yourself up over it. Empty your lungs with a nice deep exhale, and put your inflator hose up high and straight so air doesn’t get trapped inside it. If you’re still struggling to sink beneath the surface, try flipping over on to your face and using the weight of your body and some big strong kicks to head down.
Be Aware of your depth
When we dive, our bodies are under a lot of pressure and this affects our wetsuit, our dive gear and even the air spaces in our bodies, so you need to be very aware of your depth when it comes to achieving buoyancy. Once you’ve levelled out at a certain depth, see how your neutral buoyancy is coming along. Good neutral buoyancy means that you don’t need to move or kick to stay in position. It makes you feel like you are flying, lying weightless in the water, not floating and not sinking. If you feel like you’re starting to sink a little, try and take a full breath of air in and you should feel yourself rise. Likewise, you can exhale your breath to sink down. Your body position in the water is also closely intertwined with your buoyancy, and good trim equals good buoyancy. Many divers are bottom heavy, with their weight belt around their waist and fins weighing them down so they slant upwards in the water. Every time you kick in a position like this, you’ll end up going up rather than forward. To improve your trim add some weight to the upper half of your body, or even around the top of your tank, and you’ll see that you’re far more streamlined on your dive.
Do a weight check at the end of the dive
At the end of your dive, check your weight to know for next time exactly how much you need. Ideally, with an empty tank at around 50 bar, your lungs half full and an empty BCD you should be floating with the water at eye level.
Once you’re achieving neutral buoyancy and your trim is streamlined, next time you’re off on a well deserved dive holiday to the Maldives, Costa Rica or another incredible underwater destination you will be rewarded with beautiful images that were far easier to achieve, and didn’t end with you running into a fragile underwater ecosystem!