Buying your own equipment that meets your needs as an underwater photographer is one of the big steps of becoming a better, more comfortable shooter. Let’s look at the essential gear that will have the most impact in improving your abilities and make your experience much more enjoyable.
Already read through the Part 1 of this guide ? Click for Part 2: Mask, Fins and Computers.
In this article I will explain the best BCD style to choose and why.
Disclaimer: I have not been endorsed nor do I receive any commission from the sales of any products mentioned in this article. This guide is simply based on my experience as a full time underwater photographer.
The piece of equipment that will most influence your underwater photography (other than your photography equipment) will be your BCD. BCD’s come in a rainbow of colors and features but the main 2 categories are jacket style and back inflate/wing/donut. Almost 99% of the time a dive shop’s rental gear will be the jacket style. It’s probably what you learned to dive in (unfortunately). This style of BCD inflates along the back, shoulders and around your sides, like a big bear hug when fully inflated. Great for feeling fully wrapped up and protected and keeping you bobbing upright on the surface while learning how to disconnect your LPI. NOT ideal for actual diving in a proper trim position
What is trim you might ask…
Here is a very brief definition for those of you who might not know the term and concept:
Diving trim is best described as your body’s position and posture underwater.
Bad trim: the overweighted DSD diver being carried along by his tank valve, completely vertical in the water with legs running in place like the road runner… meep meep…
Good trim: The cool looking tech diver with arms outstretched, relaxed, completely horizontal with legs and fins up.
Which one do you think is more comfortable in the water, uses less air and gets better photographs? 😉
Jacket style BCDs are inefficient for 2 main reasons.
1. When it inflates the air goes to odd places and gets stuck there, like the shoulders. They aren’t made to keep your body horizontal. They are better suited for the surface and kneeling in the sand to do skills (another practice that should be stopped).
2. Typically you will use a weight belt and this will reenforce that vertical position by bringing your hips down. Hips down, shoulders up… vertical, road runner kicking coral and stirring up sand pissing off all of the other divers (especially photographers) around you.
To the contrary, a back inflated BCD will only inflate an independent bladder on your back, automatically kicking you in to that cool, horizontal position that looks perfect for taking photos… doesn’t it? 🙂 Another added benefit is it will make you more relaxed and in control allowing you to conserve your air and to enjoy the dive more, not to mention keep you from accidentally damaging any of the coral or marine life below you. Weights are reduced because of less buoyant material and you can add “trim weights” to counter what might be on your hips. It might take a little getting use to after only using a jacket, but it will be well worth it.
On top of that, back inflate BCDs are typically lighter and smaller having much less material. This will save you on baggage fees and leave extra room in your luggage for more camera gear and souvenirs!!! Yay!
PRO TIP: Learn to deflate your BCD using your rear dump valve. When in trim it’s easier to exhaust air by rolling your butt sidewise a bit and using the dump valve then having to position yourself vertical and use your inflator hose. When diving I personally never use the inflator hose to deflate. I actually have it connected to my BCD shoulder strap to keep it more streamlined and away from the reef when I am getting close for a shot. We will cover more about streamlining soon 😉
Different types of back inflate BCDs
Back inflate BCD’s come in a few different styles that come down to usage and preference. There is the fixed, one piece design, ready out of the box solution that most of the big names like Scuba Pro, Aqua Lung and Mares offer, or there is the customizable backplate and wing (BPW) design that you will see most tech divers using. There is an advantage and disadvantage to both but both are good options if you only plan on doing recreational diving. If you plan to move into the tech world or just want to impress everyone on the boat with your mysterious, cool looking gear then go with the BPW.
A back plate and wing is extremely simple in design. It should be called: Backplate, wing and harness because essentially that is all it is. Fully customizable, you can choose the size of the bladder you need for the amount of lift required, completely adjust the sizing, add D-rings and pockets to clip all of your accessories to etc. Perfect for the gear nerds or those of us who enjoy to maxing out our credit cards an all sorts of cool dive toys.
Most of the major brands now feature back inflate BCDs in their line up. Here are a few of my recommendations along with BPW options from various manufactures.
The big 3 Scuba Pro, Aqualung and Mares all seem to be adding more back inflate BCDs to their line up. Minimalist and lightweight is now becoming the more popular option. One advantage with the big brands is if you ever have any problems with your BCD there will most likely be a dealer or service technician in the area. Here are some travel friendly options available:
Scuba Pro Hydros
The Hydros definitely wins points for looks. Resembles a techie, transformer type design with customizable colors (bright shiny colors on equipment are a photographer’s nightmare!) and different options for customizing. Sporting a patented injection molded Monprene® Gel Harness and minimal fabric it should dry quickly and be ready to pack the following day after diving. You can also take off the integrated weight pockets on the sides for a more minimal, streamlined harness feel. This does come at a price being the most expensive option on the list but there must be something to it, I know a lot of professionals (Dive Masters and Instructors) who have picked one of these up and seem to like them. Plus it comes with this custom backpack for easy packing.
Released last year, the Outlaw definitely peaked my interest coming in weighing only 1.8kg. Made of mostly fabric including the “D-rings” it is probably the most minimal you can get with the big name brands. All aspects of this BCD are customizable and come in 2 sizes of lift. I also like that each section of the BCD is removable and replaceable. I would love to test out the durability and comfort of the design as well as to see how it holds up during travel… wink wink Aqualung. 😉
At 2.1 kg this lightweight travel BCD focuses on comfort and has a nice option to take the integrated weight pockets and place them on the tank strap for better weight distribution. This will help you stay in trim better. It is also the most affordable model on this list.
Dive Rite TRAVEL-PAC
Another great mention since they were the designers of the first ever commercially available BPW on the market. Dive Rite is an American company founded by cave divers in Florida, since then they have revolutionized almost every aspect of the cave/tech diving equipment industry. Dive Rite has a great option for a lightweight recreational diver offering the simplicity of an out of the box solution with the quality and durability of a well manufactured tech rig.
Backplate and Wing
Mares has also stepped into the BPW market with their extended range series. I haven’t found much information about the set-up but seems like a typical BPW with an aluminum backplate making it ideal for travel. From the photos it looks like it may have 2 rear dump valves which is handy. Also comes in funky bright colors… I personally am not a fan of the company’s branding all over the BCD and straps. Makes me feel like a billboard but the design looks standard and you can switch donut if you need more lift for stage tanks or twin set.
Apex WTX and WTX-D
Apeks is a well trusted company in the tech world (now owned by Aqualung) with industry leading regulators. They also have a nice line of modular BPW BCDs branded WTX along with a lightweight, soft travel version the WTX-D. Totally customizable for your needs you choose which backplate: Aluminum or soft and the size of the donut. For the traveler the soft backplate is super lightweight and flexible, a dream to fit into your luggage.
My personal favorite on the list due to their super cool look, light weight and attention to details. Xdeep is the favorite of a lot of tech divers and for good reason. They are a specialized company (from Poland) who’s main focus is innovation within the tech diving industry. Plus they have an amazing photographer on their team Irena Stangierska who just makes everything look cool 🙂 This BCD comes in 2 models: The deluxe with clips and adjustable shoulder straps (good if you are diving with different exposure wet/dry suits) and one without. If you plan on getting into tech diving there is the NX model that will allow you to change bladders.
This was just a brief summary of a few different options and by no means a complete list of everything available. There are many to choose from and new BCDs are being released all the time. Your best bet is to speak with your local equipment dealer or jump on some popular message boards and ask questions from people who are already using the products you are interested in.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like me to try out some gear 🙂
In the next post I will give you the best options for Fins, Regs, Mask and a few other key accessories. Until then… Happy Bubbles!!
- What is the Best and Fastest Way to Learn Underwater Photography – September 8, 2020
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- Rebreathers for Photographers and Video Makers – Is CCR Worth It? – May 12, 2020