While diving with a photographer you need to communicate everything, above the water and below. Nothing makes a photographer buddy crazier than that look on your face that says, “Huh? What do you want me to do.?”
Before you get in the water, make sure you discuss what your plan is. You may not know how to take a picture, but you should have a general idea of the equipment and how it works. First and foremost, is your buddy going to shoot macro or wide-angle? Is he (my buddy is a he, yours may be a she) using one or two strobes? Let’s take one thing at a time.
When taking macro—up close—photos you need to stay close to the photographer and help him look for subjects. Stay off the reef (a good thing normally anyway,) you don’t want to scare away little critters. Find out ahead of time if your photographer wants diver interaction.
Divers can be part of a macro photo if you plan ahead and can communicate underwater. Have you found a brightly colored nudibranch on a blade of kelp? Move in slowly and get right up next to the kelp blade. Don’t look at the nudibranch with both eyes, it will come across on film as being cross-eyed. Focus with the eye directly in front of the subject and the camera lens.
If your buddy wants you out of the macros, stay away. Do not scare the critters and keep your eyes open. While he is taking the pictures you can scan the reef for the next subject.
Overall, I recommend that your buddy saves the macro photos for when you are also carrying a camera or the visibility is not very good. A macro-photo session for the non-photographer can be boring and, if in the middle of winter, can get quite cold.
If wide-angle is the lens of the dive, this is the best photographer/buddy scenario and the most important to be communicated ahead of time. What kind of subjects are you looking for? Do you want to concentrate on kelp photos, marine life interactions, or are you open to whatever comes along?
Remember your certification class that stressed breathing regularly? It is even more important when taking photographs. If you are in the photo, you breathe normally and the photographer will know exactly when to expect the exhale of bubbles and will be able to take the picture at just the right time.
Hand gestures in communication are extremely important. One gesture can be two different things. Let me give you two examples.
On a dive with my buddy we came across several giant black seabass. He looked at me and motioned with a sweep of his arm toward and around the seabass, which told me he wanted me in the picture and to move around the seabass so that I was pictured behind them. On another dive my buddy was with another photographer. The other photographer did the same gesture—motioning with a sweep of his arm toward and around the seabass. My buddy, thinking as I do, positioned himself behind the seabass. He was then shot the dirtiest look by the other photographer. On the boat the other photographer said he was only asking if there were any other seabass—”Is that all there are?”
Now I cannot fault the other photographer—except for his attitude—this shows the importance of communications. Not everyone dives with the same buddy for years. So, if you find yourself on a dive with a new person and you plan to take photos, take the extra few minutes on the surface to discuss a few gestures. How to tell the other to move into the photo, move out of the photo. Move up or down in the water column. Move closer or farther away from the lens.
Buoyancy is important—obviously, but for the photographer buddy it can help you from becoming fatigued. When I first started diving with my photographer, I found myself swimming back and forth and up and down reefs. I soon learned that with the proper buoyancy I only have to move slightly back and forth into position. When you fine tune your buoyancy you can use small hand flutters to position yourself in the photo and not kick up scatter.
My buddy loves to take pictures of divers swimming past stands of gorgonia (I don’t know why…) When we come across the gorgonia, I know to swim behind and position myself. Usually the photographer will shoot up at the subject, so I get into position above the gorgonia, looking down at the gorgonia and even farther down to the camera lens. With good buoyancy I can position myself to look like I am swimming past this random stand of gorgonia. Pay careful attention to your leg and arm positions. You want to look as if you are actually swimming.
I must admit that being the photographer’s buddy is demanding. You get cold, you have to read their mind, and you don’t get any credit. But nothing is more fun than reliving that dive and actually seeing yourself interacting with the marine life. To have a permanent record of you and that black sea bass. Nothing beats the look on my grandmother’s face when she tells her friends that the photo is of her granddaughter.