Dive Site Research and Planning for Underwater Photography
Preparing for an underwater photo dive
By Scott Gietler
In my experience, doing research and planning for an underwater dive or trip will often determine how successful the adventure will be. Afterall, you've invested a lot of time and money in your equipment and getting to the dive site, so why not make the dive as productive as possible?
Before the dive
- Thoroughly investigate your marine subjects and dive sites. Find out what people have been finding, and where.
- Research their underwater behavior, habits, time of day they are out.
- Give thought to the perspective, lighting, and composition you might use.
- View the photographs of underwater photographers you admire, especially professionals, taken from the same area. Do some google searches, and use this to help you get ideas.
- Check tides; large tidal swings can cause strong currents in some places; try to avoid weekends with large tide swings (e.g. full moon).
- Check the swell report; long-period swells go down deeper and create surge. Short period swells make the surface rough, but do not go down deep.
- Check weather: sunny periods of the day can be better for wide-angle photography, cloudy/rainy periods can be better for macro underwater photography.
Understand the direction of currents. Going with the currents will be easier on your air supply and can be advantageous for wide-angle photography. Going against the current can be better for macro, as any silt you kick up will not float towards the subject.
Will the weather be sunny, or cloudy and rainy? Sunny weather can be good for wide-angle photography. When it's rainy, shoot macro. Keep in mind that in can be very dark under water when it's raining; bring a dive light or strong focus light.
Plankton blooms: some regions of the world experience plankton blooms during predictable times of the year. Research when these happen, as this can impede wide-angle photography. For example, in California plankton blooms are common in May and June, bringing visibility down to 5ft. Below the bloom, at 70ft depth, water can be crystal clear, but it will be dark as night.
Time of day for underwater photography
The time of day of your dive can be very important. Arriving very early at sunrise is great for sharks, schools of fish, bumpheads, rays and lots of other marine life. And it is also important for avoiding other dive boats.
Night dives are essential for many species that only come out at night. Make sure your dive trip includes many night dive.
Some species are only active at dusk, dawn or late afternoon. Mimic and wonderpus octopus are out in the afternoon, and mantis shrimp are most active right after dawn. Do your research!
Do your research
You'll be amazed at what people don't tell you. A certain dive spot may have huge groupers at 60ft., or a certain muck dive site might be full of bobbit worms. Often, to find marine life photo subjects, you have to ask. In preparation for a local or destination dive, I will email other people who have been there recently, asking them what they've seen. I'll look for on-line dive reports. And I'll try to bring up other people's photos for photo ideas. Then, at the dive site, I'll always ask local guides and boat captains what is at the site. People often have a wealth of information, but only if you ask. Everyone knows Anilao is famous for nudibranchs, but only through research did I found out that they also have Bobbit worms and Comet fish. On one dive boat at the Channel Islands, only my dive buddy and I knew there were Black Sea Bass below the boat in 50ft of water, because we asked the captain. All the other divers swam in 40ft or shallower, and never saw the fish.
Using a good dive guide
Using a good dive guide can be essential in finding underwater macro subjects and photographing behavior. Don't count solely on a guide, research the subjects and dive sites yourself. Combine that with the knowledge of your guide, and then formulate a plan. Create a written list of species and behavior shots you want, and review the list each morning with your guide. Find out the diver-to-guide ratio. Anything more than 3-to-1 is less than ideal with underwater photographers.
Underwater - during the dive
- Find the subjects (read more below).
- Evaluate the backgrounds.
- Look for complimentary colors.
- Choose your depth of field and ambient light levels.
- Shoot, evaluate histogram, and re-adjust .
- Be ready to shoot as soon as you descend in the water. Good subjects have a habit of appearing as soon as you reach the bottom.
Underwater - where to shoot
Finding subjects: Macro photography
A great guide can find lots of critters for macro underwater photography, but there's no better feeling than finding small critters yourself. Here are some ideas where to look in tropical waters:
- In the crinoids: excellent spot for crinoid shrimps, crinoid crabs, ghost pipefish, and crinoid fish. Crabs/shrimp live at the base of crinoids.
- On barrel sponges - various crabs, shrimps, and fish.
- On wire coral: gobies, crabs, and shrimps live on wire coral.
- On soft coral: look for small crabs, shrimps, gobies.
- Sandy slopes: sandy slopes near reefs are often homes for jawfish, mantis shrimp, gobies, ribbon eels, and garden eels, especially at 35-70ft depth.
- Under piers - great place for macro life.
- Shallow eelgrass in harbors - good place for pipefish & seahorses.
- Always examine anemones for crabs & shrimps.
- Gobies often live with commensual shrimp in their hole.
Look for the food source
Many hard to find nudibranchs can be located by locating their food source. If you see the food source, and see that some of it is eaten, that's even a better sign! Our guide found the famous Xenia mimic nudibranch by finding Xenia polyps that were partially eaten.
Harlequin shrimp can be found by looking for partially eaten blue starfish. Anilao, Phillipines. D300, 60mm lens, F25, 1/250th, ISO 250
Under ledges and in recesses
When I'm on a wall dive, I love to swim to the middle or bottom of the wall and look for ledges. Under these ledges, there are often uncommon fish species, shrimps, crabs, small sharks, or other sundry photo subjects waiting to be discovered. Always have a dive light or a strong focus light to help you explore these areas. You may even find the elusive comet fish. Underneath wrecks is also a great place to look.
Where the reef meets the sand
This is one of my favorite places to look for photo subjects. Warning - this area can sometimes be quite deep! For some reason, the boundary between the end of the reef (found when swimming down a slope into deeper water) and the sand sometimes has a bounty of photo subjects. Look for nudibranchs and interesting invertebrates on the edge of the reef, and ambush predators in the sand near the reef. Where a wreck meets the sand is also a good place for interesting marine life.
Tops and bottoms of walls
Examine the tops and bottoms of walls for marine life, different species enjoy these areas. Subjects at the top of a wall are often great choices for shooting up, and getting interesting backgrounds. The bottom of walls often have small caves and crevices with interesting life.
Shallow patches of sand surrounded by reef
Patches of sand in shallow water (10-20ft deep), surrounded by reef, are perfect hangouts for pipefish, mantis shrimp, ribbon eels, and other interesting photo subjects. Happy hunting!
Off the point
When a boat brings me to a new dive site, I often look to see if there is a point along the shore. If so, I swim towards it. Points mean there is usually more structure underwater, in the same direction as the point. Also, there is more current, resulting in more invertebrate life and more pelagics. Be aware of your limitations, especially if a current is bringing you around a point, you may not be able to swim back.
Approaching your subject for underwater photos
Stalking - for shy subjects, you want to stay low, and approach slowly, often at an indirect angle. Try to avoid eye contact. Fish and some inverts can tell when you are looking at them! Don't fiddle with your camera or strobes while approaching the subject. Take shots every time you move closer, you never know when the subject will disappear.
"The rush" - large garden eels can sometimes be "rushed", it takes them a few seconds to get down in their hole, you might get a shot off
"Rushing" the garden eels in Bali produced this shot with the 60mm lens. With the 105mm and a stronger strobe I could have got a better shot.
Rebreathers - some professionals use rebreathers to approach fish and shy subjects a little closer. The subjects usually know you are there, but there are no exhale sounds to scare away the subjects.
Spending quality time - good photographers will spend quality time with a subject to watch their behavior, and get shots at the most interesting moment. This is one of the most important ways to get better photos. Twenty, thirty minutes or more with a subject is not unheard of. Of course, this must be balanced with dive etiquette. Some photographers will let all other people shoot before them, so they can spend the longest with a potentially good subject.
Approach at their level - get low, don't make sudden movements, don't approach fish from above, since that's where predators come from. Try to be one with the fish.
Finding hidden subjects
Sometimes subjects are well hidden or camouflaged. One technique for finding subjects is to lay low on the ground. Control your breathing for a minute, and watch the area. Creatures are usually scared of the sounds of a diver exhaling. After a minute, watch the area for movement. When you can't slow your breath any longer breathe out, again watching for movement. Remember, only approach subjects from low on the ground.
- List of marine life subjects for underwater macro photography
- How to photograph marine life behavior
- Best underwater photography destinations and locations
- Best scuba equipment for underwater photographers
- Critter list for underwater photography
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