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Underwater Photography for Freedivers and Snorkellers

A freediver - at one with a camera

Having been privileged to win awards in competitive freediving over the years, I have realised that much of the equipment and many of the techniques lend themselves well for the benefit of underwater photographers when not using scuba. I also realised that these benefits could be exploited at all levels, from the fledgling snorkeller to heavily equipped specialist freedivers. Knowing that the popularity of underwater photography while freediving is increasing rapidly, and as an underwater photographer myself, it struck me that there were horizons to be expanded for all.

Although I use the term ‘freediving’ I was initially hesitant to do this. Many people equate freediving with the competitive side of the activity, where young athletes with seemingly superhuman breath-holding abilities, challenge each other to reach depths well beyond those of recreational scuba divers. Entering this domain would be difficult for many to envisage; feeling restricted by age, breath-hold ability, and the rationale to take up an extreme sport in the first place. While much of my book draws heavily on the equipment and techniques used by competitive freedivers, there is no intent to guide the reader in that direction. Neither is it the expectation that the reader has a background in competitive freediving.

Snorkellers photography
The techniques I discuss can benefit snorkelling underwater photographers too

Equally I considered using the term ‘breath-hold diver’, however this would then appear exclusive of those who are content to remain at the surface. For the purposes of this discussion, anyone who takes to the water with a pair of fins and a mask (but not scuba) has been termed a freediver.

Competitive freedivers use some fairly complex and demanding techniques to enable them to reach their depth objectives, but the ones needed for underwater photography are some of the more fundamental and easy-to-grasp concepts. The emphasis should be on performance, efficiency and safety, rather than strategies that aim to get someone as deep as possible for as long as possible. The consideration needs to be that photography is the primary objective and that freediving insights are a tool to help you achieve better results within this realm.

Transferable Skills

Many snorkellers choose to remain at the surface. This can be due to personal preference, safety concerns, a medical condition or a physiological limitation such as blocked sinuses. For this group, some information (such as that about achieving neutral buoyancy while freediving) may be of academic interest only. The majority of the advice I can give will still be relevant though, and even that about hydrodynamics will be insightful.

Freediver using a GoPro video camera
Freediver using a GoPro video camera – again the techniques are relevant

Similarly, advice and guidance for freedivers that refers to stills photography applies by and large to videography. In fact, observing videographers underwater helped mould the initial concept of Glass and Water. When watching the ‘making of’ tail sections of underwater documentaries, I sometimes observed camera operators filming while freediving. Their duration underwater was less than optimal, and poor technique and/or the wrong equipment was a significant contributing factor. Also, I am acutely aware that the emergence of extremely compact sized videographic equipment (for example GoPro) with the ability to record in very high definition, is rapidly increasing in popularity. In addition, most modern digital cameras now have the ability to record video content. As with the snorkelling photographer, there is much common ground in the lessons to be learned.

The Freediving Actualisation Triangle

A simple model I refer to as ‘The Freediving Actualisation Triangle’ is constructed from three fundamental elements. These are equipment, technique and training. The application of these three create the chance to transform oneself from a swimmer into a competent freediver. Should this in fact be a tetrahedron with a fourth element of ability added? My view is that it shouldn’t. Ability is by and large a product of training and technique. Of course some people do adapt better than others, but the significant gains that are there to be made emanate from the three aforementioned principles.

The Freediving Actualisation Triangle
The Freediving Actualisation Triangle

I encourage training – it is fundamental to success. Technique can be broken down into the various components. In my book there is a single chapter devoted to freediving equipment, another to photographic equipment and one which covers basic underwater photography techniques.

There are also those that have specialist interests. One of my previous students enrolled for a course on underwater freediving photography, for the purpose of improving her ability to tag whale sharks. With a little tailoring, I was able to modify the course for her, and she was more than happy with the end result. Likewise, the information presented in the book can be read in context to the relevant activity. The only exclusions I can think of, are those that perform underwater imaging using pole systems, or from remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). These would require an entirely different set of skills.

Technique Ahead of Toys

One of my philosophies in life is to maximise the longevity of the tools I use. If I throw something away, then it really has stopped working. My main underwater camera is a Panasonic Micro Four Thirds system, one of the early models and several years old now. I bought it because it delivered the quality of image I was looking for, in a size that was appropriate for my freediving needs. Technology has since moved on and it would make my life so much easier if I upgraded. But where would be the fun in that? When I can sit back and honestly tell myself that I am producing the best images possible with my camera, perhaps then I will upgrade.

If you look through Glass and Water at my images you will see the result of this philosophy. They also serve to show what is possible with freediving underwater photography. It is my hope that you will feel able to achieve the same or better with the appropriate training, equipment and experience.

There is one final point I would like to make. By far the most common reason I encounter from scuba divers who discount the possibility of learning to freedive is that they feel they lack breath-hold ability. There are two enlightening aspects here that will help overcome any doubt:

  • Firstly, it is easy to improve breath-holding fairly quickly. I have previously worked in the fast-paced television and film industry, where actors and presenters have needed to learn breath-hold techniques and learn them rapidly. Obtaining improvements of one hundred percent or more over a couple of hours was frequently possible. One BBC presenter achieved a breath-hold of over four minutes with a little coaching, and the world of competitive freediving would have been open to her had she chosen it.
  • The second aspect to this is that breath-hold technique is just one blade within a substantial freediving Swiss army knife. To open some of the others, please read Glass and Water. To open all and sharpen them, please consider a freediving course.

Mark HarrisMark Harris is the author of Glass and Water: The Essential Guide to Freediving for Underwater Photography. He is a former UK champion ­freediver, record-holder and instructor who has also coached and judged at freediving competitions. He has consulted on and taught students how to freedive for roles in both television and film. For almost a decade, he ran London’s main club, London Freediving. Mark is a member of the British Society of Underwater Photographers. You can see more of his work on his website

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