Guides & Tutorials

Top 10 Rules of Photographer Etiquette – How Not to be a Jerk Underwater

When diving underwater with a camera there are a few extra things to consider regarding the environment, other divers and photographers.

Here are 10 rules of etiquette while photographing underwater as well as ways not to be a jerk and be hated by other divers 🙂

1. Taking turns – Limiting your time

Photographer Narcosis Nick and I taking turns like gentlemen. Looks like the whale shark is eating Nick 🙂

FINALLY! The blue ringed octopus you’ve been waiting for or a giant whale shark. I know you are excited… everyone is and everyone might also have been waiting countless years and taken countless trips to see the same thing. It’s easy to forget this in the midst of the chaos and excitement but try and be thoughtful of others. Limit yourself to a couple shots and move out of the way. If the other divers have manners they will do the same. After they get a few shots they too will then move to let you return and continue.

I’ve seen and experienced both sides: as the diver who is waiting while someone else spends 2+ min with a subject (a long time underwater) while I am watching the creature get stressed also watching my NDLs go down, or the other side of the coin as the diver approaching a subject and having another photographer bump me out of the way or simply put their camera in front of me. Not a good experience either way and can actually lead to divers getting aggressive with one another. Relax and give everyone a chance to enjoy. It’s not …always a competition.

2. Learn to back fin

You shouldn’t need an instructor or dive guide to help you with your buoyancy or to back up.

There are a few diving skills that will definitely help your experience as an underwater photographer but one of the most important aside from good buoyancy is the ability to back fin. This will give you total control, not only when positioning yourself to get the shot but also in getting out of the way once you do. Nothing worse than a photographer needing to push himself away using the coral or an awkward turnaround only to silt up the area disturbing the sand or worse kick whatever they were shooting. As the diver waiting patiently to get a shot only to have the other diver in front of me ruin it typically gets a body language: “Really?…” thrown at them.

The other side of the coin is to give a little room behind other divers taking photos to let them have space to back fin… without kicking you in the face.

3. Disturb the Marine life as little as possible

Whale shark or manta hysteria is normal and you know exactly what I am talking about if you have ever been underwater when one of these beautiful creatures randomly shows up. Also happens with turtles, octopus and other exciting finds. Divers’ logic, training, safety and manners go completely out of the window as they kick full steam ahead to pointlessly try and catch-up to the animal (and use up a ton of air in the process). Please remember that we are just visitors in their world and most likely strange if not scary. There is debate on whether or not strobes should be used on larger marine life like whale sharks due to stress and possibly disturbing its natural behavior but one thing is certain… nothing likes being blasted in the eyes repeatedly by a powerful light source, especially if you are deeper where their eyes are more sensitive to the drastic change. Just switch places for a moment and imagine an alien on land chasing you with bright flashing lights. Now imagine 20 of them… I think you would be stressed, to say the least and would probably think twice before returning to that location.

4. Turn your video and dive lights off – My biggest pet peeve

Shooting video? You should be ready for anything, right? This happens to be one of my biggest pet peeves. A group of divers not shooting anything but keeping their 5,000,000,000 lumen lights on. It is blinding, can ruin other people’s photos and brings this additional unnatural, distracting element underwater. For the love of god please just switch your lights off when you are not shooting anything, it will also help you save battery life.

5. Point out interesting subjects

Look!!! A manta!

Here is one that falls into the realm of good karma. You get done shooting a cool subject go to leave and encounter another group of divers. Do you A: signal and point out what you saw? B: Just wave and throw them an OK sign?

This will depend on a few factors. Are you a selfish jerk? If so then definitely B every time. Do you want other people to share in the excitement of seeing something interesting underwater? Then Option A. Many times I have gotten amazing shots of something I would have never found had someone not pointed it out.

There are some variables… if you feel like the subject was stressed or maybe you took more photos then you think the subject was comfortable with then there is no problem giving it a rest from other divers. There is a reason that it might retreat into a hole or (like turtles do) hide its head under coral or a rock. It has had enough and is feeling threatened or stressed. By all means let it be, our first priority should always be to protect the marine life and underwater environment. Much more important than getting a good shot

6. Do NOT use a selfie stick

Anyone who has worked with me knows my tolerance for GoPro’s in the hands of inexperienced divers is very low but there is a place for them and the divers that use them should be treated with respect… I’m told 😉 –  The one thing I do not agree with is the use of selfie sticks underwater while on SCUBA. Have a buddy hold the GoPro if you absolutely need to have a vanity moment of yourself SCUBA diving, that way you also have 2 hands free for peace signs and little finger hearts.

The big problem is when selfie stickers encounter marine life (particularly hiding marine life) and can’t resist the urge to extend their poles and proceed to jam the camera into holes and crevices trying to get as close as possible. This combined with poor buoyancy is a recipe for disaster. The footage will not be good… I promise. You are just stressing out the animal and ruining the experience for others.

The other issue is putting the selfie stick in front of other divers who have waited patiently to get a shot. Sometime very patiently inching closer and closer as to not scare the subject and bang! Here comes a selfie stick over their shoulder. The selfie stick should not be used as a crutch for poor skill and the inability to get close to a subject.

7. Allow divers without cameras time to observe

What? You didn’t see Nemo… It was right there.

As photographers one of our main goals when diving is to spot photo subjects whether they be human, plant or animal and pull off a great looking photo. This leads us to sometimes rush towards a subject and selfishly keep it all to ourselves. It’s important to remember that there are other divers (sometimes in your group and sometimes not) who do not have this same goal and only wish to be underwater and observe. Make sure you are aware of who is around you and allow those people to also enjoy and appreciate the underwater world without the distraction of strobes, cameras and video lights in their face. If you see other divers around you take a break and back away from whatever you are shooting and give them an opportunity to enjoy the sight themselves.

We are all in this community together and when you can share these moments it makes for a better experience for everyone and a much happier boat. Plus you get to look cool for spotting and pointing out cool stuff that they might not otherwise have seen.

8. Be considerate of the entire group’s time

One more photo… Wait, where did my group go?

There are many times when you will be in a mixed group of those with cameras and those without. Keep in mind that the dive guide must be mindful of everyone’s time and make sure all the divers enjoy themselves. Typically the guide will have a set route or if it is a drift dive the guide will want to make sure to get to as close to the pick up point as possible. Watch your own air consumption and try not to hold up the entire group while you try and get the perfect shot or the never ending “Just one more” photo.

If the other divers do not have cameras they will not want to waste their time waiting for you while you work on your lighting and focus for a killer, instagram worthy nudi shot. If you prefer to take your time around one area searching for macro it’s best to let the shop know beforehand and request a private guide or a group of divers with the same interest. Macro shooters can spend the entire dive searching for critters on one coral mound, the other divers will not appreciate that.

9. Be conscious and cautious of the environment. Don’t lay on coral, watch your fins!

This shouldn’t even need to be addressed but I see it all of the time. A diver taking photographs and literally laying on sensitive coral or other marine life. If you cannot get in a neutral position and hover without needing to rest your fins or body on something then you need to work on your buoyancy before you bring a camera down. As divers and especially photographers we have a responsibility to respect and protect the underwater environment. It’s not worth destroying coral decades old just to get a photo. We are ambassadors of the underwater world and should act accordingly.

This guy is unfortunately breaking almost all the rules at the same time

I have no problem politely pointing out to another photographer their position in the water if they are potentially damaging something. I hope someone would make me aware if I were doing the same. It’s understandable that when focusing on getting a shot you may lose your buoyancy or not realize that you are kicking something without knowing it. It’s not a crime punishable by death but it is something that we need to help each other avoid.

10. Be nice and helpful to beginners

With the accessibility and price of underwater cameras becoming more affordable and easier to acquire there has been a drastic increase in photographers. Keep in mind that you were once a beginner yourself and we are a community sharing our common love for the world beneath the surface. A helpful tip or a word of encouragement goes a long way in strengthening this community. At the end of the day the majority of us want nothing more than to share the amazing sights we see down below and raise awareness for the protection and conservation of this world we love so much.

Trade instagram accounts, review each others photos, praise, critique (when asked) advise and stay in contact. The world is much more interesting when you leave your ego on shore and open yourself up for new and lifelong buddies. The world of diving is a small one with opportunities to see incredible things, with the enjoyment of photography and video we are all super lucky to have the ability to share it with others.

All in all I know the obsession and desire to take photos underwater, especially in this day and age of social media and smartphones where people are used to taking photos of everything that happens in their life. “No photo, then it didn’t happen” but please improve your diving skills before you decide to take a camera underwater and please remember some of these rules of etiquette.

Here are just my top 10. I’m sure everyone has their own rules. Please let us know in the comments if you have any to add or interesting stories you would like to share.

Happy bubbles and please remember to limit your single use plastics.

Adam Leaders
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  1. Tauchmagazin June 25, 2019

    You hit the nail on the head! I am underwater photographer and editor for more than 15 years and I have to admit that even if diving always cautiously and a great respect for our environment sometimes shit happes. It happened to me that I broke a little peace of coral with the underwaterhousing of my camera. Lot of photographers do act differently and act like they got payed millions for a non-pro image. Wildlife is harrassed and there is no respect for other divers which did even pay the same price for the dive. That’s disgraceful

  2. Sandra Remson June 25, 2019

    Very good article. Never hurts to have reminders.

  3. Justin June 26, 2019

    Really helpful advice for a new photographer!
    Just got my setup for my rx100v!!

  4. richard June 26, 2019

    Just a word to say that your etiquette tips are well addressed and quite relevant. And a nice reminder of what diving is all about. Thanks.

  5. Paul June 28, 2019

    very nicely put 😁

  6. Randall Spangler July 12, 2019

    All of that, yes! I’d also add:

    11. Still photographers before videographers.

    Considerate still photographers can take a couple of shots in a few seconds and move on. But you’re going to need more than a few seconds of video. A crab will sit still for a dozen flashes as the photographers all take their turns, but one videographer with 10 seconds of bright, critter-scaring lights and it’s gone. Same with basket stars; you’ve got great video of it curling into a ball, and everybody else gets a photo of… a ball.

    GoPros are the worst in this respect. Super wide angle lenses, so they have to be right on top of the critter – which maximizes the scare effect of their bright video lights.

  7. Ran Mor
    Ran Mor July 24, 2019

    Great addition!
    So true…

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