The Ideal Photo Dive
Mario Vitalini explains the difference between what makes a great dive site or destination and the perfect photo location, and how to get the best out of where you are.
Months of waiting have passed, your kit and camera are set and the alarm goes off. Briefing done. In you go. This is the dive you have been waiting for. All your diver chums love it here and the pictures will be amazing… won’t they?
So why do you feel disappointed? Why doesn’t an amazing dive destination inevitably lead to amazing photography? I’ve pondered these questions many times. And my simple conclusion is that the same sites don’t always excite divers and underwater photographers equally. Photographers’ ideal dives are very different – and with good reason.
Easy, shallow dives, no current, lots of light, lots to photograph. Sounds easy to find… right?
Wrong! If you are serious about taking better photos, there’s more to planning your next holiday than just booking somewhere hot and exotic-sounding! There are key elements I look for when planning a photo trip, which concern me well before I worry about the ‘nice to have’ facilities. Tasty food and plenty of it? Critical. Spa, WiFi, a camera room? I can probably manage without. But without the right elements in play underwater, photography can feel unrewarding in even the most mind-blowing location.
The Curse Of Bucket And Wish Lists
Ask yourself, are you picking the destination because it really offers great photos opportunities underwater, or because you feel it is somewhere you ‘ought’ to have dived? I’ve been lucky enough to dive much of my bucket list, and been very happy with the shots at the time. Yet, looking back at my Lightroom catalogue, I have come to realise that some of my best pics, and most successful images, were shot closer to home. The Red Sea is a workhorse of a photo destination, and the reefs arguably as good as places that take a lot longer to get to.
Wish lists are usually focused around particular sightings. Now, it’s good to have a clear goal from a trip, but Mother Nature can be capricious. It’s exciting to never quite know what you will find underwater, but as a photographer, you need a plan for the ‘no show’ eventuality.
Can you still be productive if your desired beastie is nowhere to be found? Successful photographers can take this in their stride and make something out of the subjects that are in front of their lens, rather than obsess about what they wished was there. Prepare to be flexible in your expectations. The ideal photo dive may be with a very commonplace animal indeed. It’s about what you can do with the it, not simply how rare or hard it is to find.
Timing is Everything
Years ago, I was excited to shoot blue-ring octopus on my first holiday to Manado. Sadly, when we got there, there was not a single tantalising tentacle in sight. I was reminded that – bar anthias – most marine life has seasons. A year later in Dumaguete, and I was falling over blue-rings and flamboyant cuttlefish. Timing really matters. Luckily in Manado, there was plenty else to photograph. Time with a humble goby more than made up for my initial disappointment, and I’m careful now to adjust my expectations to the season, as well as the destination.
I often hear photographers saying they have ‘done’ the Red Sea/Philippines/Bali, etc. And yes, there are plenty of other tempting locations out there. But these destinations endure with photographers because they are reliable, with an undeniable variety all year around. The subjects change with the seasons, but you never come home empty-handed. Consider the Red Sea. During May in the South, plankton blooms increase the chances of encountering mantas, and the calm sea conditions are perfect for the shallow and luxurious reefs of Fury Shoals.
The end of June brings the best of the northern reefs, with big schools of fish gathering around the Ras Mohammed area to spawn. The winter brings face-to-face, shallow water shark encounters on the offshore reefs. I plan my photo workshops in the Red Sea to the right areas at the right time of the year. Understanding the seasonality of sightings also really helps with lens selection and packing!
The sea is a living and dynamic environment and the conditions can change dramatically during a year. Variation in water temperature can affect the visibility, as well as the creatures you can encounter.
Different moon phase can affect the currents. Some of the very conditions we crave, and that make photography easier, will inherently limit the subjects you find. This is especially true of some sharks and schooling fish. I’m not a big fan of dragging a camera round a reef in a howling current – it can make your life underwater difficult and severely limit your photo opportunities.
On a trip to Socorro, I was blessed with non-existent currents and blue water. The reefs sharks and manta were easy to shoot. Hammerheads, though, were entirely absent. These guys have a tendency to hang where the current is strong and were far, far out into the blue. We have to understand the habits of the marine life we are shooting and respect that, for particular encounters, certain conditions are necessary… whether we like them or not!
For many photographers, a great destination is determined by how good their pictures are and not actually the diving itself. There are some fantastic destinations out there and every day we are tempted by new and alluring-sounding places. However, I have to remind myself that, as amazing as those places can be to dive, they may be difficult from the photographic point of view.
For this reason, I always try to go back to familiar sites at least once a year. We are lucky to have a passion that takes us to some of the most-incredible places on this globe. Not every location will offer the ideal photo dive. Understanding this will help you to choose where and when to dive with your camera, or if it is time to just relax and enjoy the show underwater.
Photographs by Mario Vitalini