It was about 12 years ago that I first decided I wanted to try scuba diving. I was lucky enough to arrive during low season and I was getting a private one-on-one course with my excellent instructor Michelle. She was my first inspiration in a long line of dive buddies & teachers that ended me where I am today, working as an underwater cameraman on a beautiful tropical island. And while my buoyancy is fairly on point now I can recall what it was like back then, basically just doing whatever I could not to hit the rocks or corals. So in this article I will lay out all the tips or steps if you will on how I managed to get from that clumsy open water diver to where I am today!
Underwater buoyancy is one of the hardest dive skills to master for most scuba divers and camera shooters. It’s simply one of those things that takes a lot of time and understanding to get right, and not to mention patience. And while it’s unfair to compare the buoyancy skills needed in a wetsuit in the tropics to a drysuit in the arctic, well, I’m going to try anyway. And we’re also going to take a look at how to balance your underwater camera rig for optimal performance suited to your needs.
It makes sense to start this article with diver buoyancy, as having your camera rig trimmed well means next to nothing if you are still struggling to stay where you want to in the water column.
Having good buoyancy really comes down to having the right skills, techniques and equipment; and let’s not forget, a lot of practice!
Before we can head down below the surface with our scuba gear on, we need some weights. That is, most of us do. There are some slim individuals out there that seem to never eat any cheese and can make do without weights. But let’s just assume that you need some weights like the rest of us mortals.
Just how many weights you need depends on a few factors and the biggest one is the water temperature you are diving in, or rather, which dive gear you are using.
The difference in buoyancy between different thickness wetsuits is huge. So you might get away with a couple of kgs in the tropics, but in temperate waters, that will surely increase.
Many instructors use a good system for measuring how many weights you should be diving with. At the end of the dive when the tank is getting low on air, your instructor will ask you to hold your breath on the surface and empty your BCD. If you are floating near the surface, great. If you sink, you’re over weighted. Getting the right amount of weights is really crucial to making buoyancy easier to master, and this is a great way of getting it just right.
And once you’ve figured out how many weights is right for you, write it down together with what thickness and type of wetsuit you were wearing. Your future dive guides will thank you!
When it comes to weights and camera rigs, there’s another important factor to consider and that’s trim. There are many different places you can position your weights on your body or gear, such as on a weight belt around your waist or integrated BCD weight pockets.
For some divers with particularly bulky or heavy camera rigs, ankle weights can also be used to help with trim in situations where you want to stretch your rig out from your body. Regardless of how you choose to place your weights, just make sure it works well for you and your trim.
The BCD or Buoyancy Control Device is the one piece of kit that ties everything else together. It helps us get an accurate buoyancy compensation at various depths by inflating or deflating the air pocket built into the device.
But many divers are not using this tool the way it is intended, so let’s look at the best ways of using your BCD for maximum effect.
First off, and this is truly essential, the BCD is not a means of going up or down. And what I mean by that is, I see a lot of divers inflating their BCD to swim over obstacles or deflate it to go down.
The reason why this is such a bad idea is that it completely ignores the most important buoyancy control we have, which is our lungs (more on them beauties later). But it also creates this idea that the BCD is a means to constantly change our position in the water column and this is not at all how it’s meant to be used.
For example, if we start our dive at the deepest point, say 20 meters, we then want to use our BCD to get ourselves neutrally buoyant.
This might take you a bit of time, but the basics are this: add small amounts of air and then take a few breaths and see the effect.
So instead of adding too much air and having to deflate, just add small amounts and wait to see how it feels. Once you’ve achieved neutral buoyancy at 20 meters or so, ideally, you don’t want to inflate your BCD again until you’ve reached the surface.
As we keep diving and breathing the air in our tanks, it will get lighter.
And as we start to shallow up throughout our dive, we become more buoyant near the surface. So, in other words, we should be slowly deflating our BCD as we feel ourselves becoming too buoyant and thus maintain good control throughout the dive.
Another essential part of good buoyancy control that can take a bit longer to learn is breathing technique.
Our lungs are the most important buoyancy control device we have, as this is the instrument we constantly use to adjust our position throughout the dive.
Or, in other words, if you can control your lungs and your breathing, you will find all of this a lot easier.
So let’s start with breathing.
As you are reading this, take a moment and think about how you are breathing. And I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re not running a marathon right now. You will probably feel yourself breathing slow, shallow breaths. This is how we naturally breath when we are in a relaxed state.
Being relaxed is key to all of this. I always explain scuba diving like this: it’s far closer to meditation than it is to a sport.
If you treat it like a sport where getting from A to B is the goal, you will lose out on a lot of the experience of scuba diving. Staying calm and letting yourself move slowly will greatly help you with your buoyancy in the long term.
So by staying calm, you are also breathing slowly.
This means that your lungs will fill up far under capacity and not make you float up or sink down much as you are diving. But if you are taking big, full breaths then you will be lifted up and crash back down again on your exhales.
So, unless you truly need to use more air, like in a scenario with strong currents, I highly recommend trying to stay as calm and relaxed as possible throughout your entire dive. It also does wonders for your air consumption!
Finally we get to the most important part of achieving great buoyancy control, which is to continuously practice.
Buoyancy isn’t a skill you’ll learn once and then master, but rather a constant challenge that needs to be faced every time you go beneath the waves.
And while we practice simply by diving, there are some specific things you can do to help further your buoyancy control.
Something that I did a lot especially when I started out was to swim close to the ocean floor and only use my lungs to navigate obstacles.
Now when I say close, this should be based on your current skill level. Because the last thing we want to do is to touch the ocean floor, corals or marine life. So if you are staying 2-3 meters above the ocean floor to begin with, that’s great.
When we get to an obstacle, perhaps a rock, all I do is take a slightly deeper breath than normal, allowing my body to start floating up.
It’s important to remember your safety skills here and never hold your breath or ascend too quickly, as this can cause lung over-expansion injuries or DCS.
Once I’ve cleared the obstacle, I’ll start to breath out again, returning to my previous depth. This is a great way to continuously practice buoyancy control even when just swimming along.
When it comes to your camera rig, we first need to talk about preferences.
Some divers like their rigs to be slightly negative (typically underwater videographers) while others prefer a more neutral or slightly positive feel. So the tips below won’t be to achieve a specific type of goal, but rather how to get there.
Let’s start with just the camera rig.
Most mirrorless & DSLR housings today are already quite neutrally buoyant and have a good trim, meaning they don’t tip forwards or backwards. Different manufacturers have different ways of achieving this, either by attaching external weight systems or weighted dome ports.
Regardless, you could take your housing out for an ambient light shoot and it would probably feel pretty well trimmed, although some compact housings are more negatively buoyant because there’s less airspace inside of the housing.
However, most of us like to attach accessories to our housings, such as strobes, video lights or monitors.
This is where we need to start working on our trim. These accessories are usually quite negatively buoyant – big lights can add up to a kilo or more of negative weight underwater! Hence, we need to use floats of various types to compensate.
Float arms come in different sizes and shapes with different amounts of lift.
They are like an arm that allows you to attach your lights to your housing, but also double as a lift device.
Nauticam makes some great integrated float arms, in different lengths and lift capacities. They give these measurements in mm, width x length; for example, the Nauticam 50mm x 250mm carbon fiber arm is a good choice if you want longer reach, but don’t need as much lift.
If you need more lift, but less lift (or, if you want to attach a short float arm horizontally on top of your rig just for buoyancy), there are other configurations like the Nauticam 90mm x 170mm carbon fiber arm.
Most manufacturers include charts that indicate how much lift their products provide – meaning that you can get quite specific when putting your setup together.
If your camera is neutral but your two lights add 1 kg of negative lift, all you need is to find a combination of float arms that will offset that weight an
d return your rig to neutral buoyancy.
As opposed to float arms, which are integrated arms that provide lift, another popular choice is non-compressible foam floats that are added to your standard arms. These floats, as indicated by their name, don’t compress even at depth and provide positive buoyancy in smaller increments.
By far the most popular option for this are the Styx Jumbo Floats.
There are a couple of advantages to floats such as these – for one, they are considerably cheaper than integrated float arms. They’re also more adjustable and configurable; they can be added and subtracted as needed to find the perfect balance for your rig. They can even be cut in half with a hacksaw for extra fine-tuning.
Many people opt for some combination of float arms and non-compressible floats to achieve perfect buoyancy.
A note about different housing components and buoyancy
One critical component of housing buoyancy, as briefly mentioned already, is the specific components and how much inherent buoyancy they have. The three most variable rig components in this regard are dome ports, macro ports, and monitor housings.
In other words, these three things are most likely to come on and off your rig – changing between macro and wide angle dives, adding or removing a monitor.
Most people don’t remove their strobes or video lights all that often, although, for surface or ambient shooting, lights may come on and off as well.
Whenever something is added or removed, buoyancy must be configured appropriately, and this is often a source of frustration for new shooters.
For example, if you perfectly balance out your dome port, and then swap on your macro port as-is, you may find that you are sinking like a stone!
It’s important to remember to test all of your configurations and have an idea of how to change your float system around for different setups.
Trim refers to the pitch forwards or backwards of your camera rig – this differs from buoyancy, which is how negatively or positively weighted your rig is in the water column.
With heavy lights extended on arms, dome ports protruding forwards, and other accessories, your rig can become unbalanced forwards or backwards (or in some rarer cases, side to side).
There are two ways to address this – with floats and weights, and with technique.
Floats and weights for trim
There are some more niche products that can specifically help trim your camera rig, and some situations more commonly require this type of fine-tuning.
The most common scenarios are adding floats to a heavy macro port to prevent your camera from pulling down on you, and adding weights to a positively-buoyant dome port to prevent your camera from constantly pulling up on you.
Some people opt for a more DIY approach to this – for example, a Styx Jumbo float carefully zip-tied to the underside of your macro port can do a great job.
Another solution is a float collar, which is specifically made for attaching to your front port and providing lift.
Conversely, adding a weight system to a large dome achieves the opposite. For a DIY approach, stick-on weights, like those used in the automotive industry, have been successfully employed by resourceful underwater photographers and videographers for some time. Or, other products like this from Ikelite do the job for you.
Technique for Trim
Technique can play a major role in achieving proper trim. For example, keeping your lights in a neutral position on the sides of your housing, not too far forward and not too far back, can help trim your rig while swimming around. Remembering this position, and returning to it throughout your dive as a starting place, can save your wrists from constant exertion with a heavy rig.
However, if you do need to move your lights significantly forwards or backwards to shoot, then you’ll need to keep a strong grip on your housing to stop it from tilting.
I should say that for most wide angle shooters the lights do stay pretty much where they are, in a nice neutral position. So you probably don’t need to worry too much about light positioning most of the time.
Again, remember that rig buoyancy and trim changes with lens, dome and port selection, and of course what types of accessories you choose to attach. Knowing your rig and exactly how each setup choice affects your rig buoyancy is key to maintaining your desired trim setup.
I hope you liked this article and that you find the tips within helpful to achieve your best possible buoyancy.
Getting your buoyancy working perfectly really is one of the greatest joys of scuba diving as it opens up so many doors, and I would argue that it also has a massive impact for underwater shooters, perhaps especially underwater videographers. Thank you for reading and happy diving!
- Top Buoyancy Tips for Underwater Shooters (Diver and Rig Buoyancy) – December 8, 2021
- The Ultimate Guide to Shooting Underwater Video – November 8, 2021
- Mozaik’s Guide to Perfect Colors for Underwater Video – September 7, 2021