- Daan Verhoeven gives his top 5 tips in freediving photography
- Charyse Reinfelder discusses white-balance and freediving among whales
- Carlos Negrete gives us his pro-TIPS about marine wildlife photography
- Alex St-Jean shows us how it’s done during competition photography
- Matthieu Duvault sheds light on the darkness of Cenotes photography
Reading Time: 20 minutes
Before we get started: safety talk
Without a doubt the most important piece of advice in freediving photography is this: learn to freedive safely. Remember, that as a freediving photographer, your diving profile is a “U-shaped” profile and not a “V-shaped” profile. As with spearfishing, you’ll be at depth longer and focused on the shot. As a result, it is easy to over-extend yourself. Please take a course, educate yourself and put in the time for training.
A few wise words by Daan Verhoeven
Daan is a freediving photographer that needs very little introduction. He has photographed almost all AIDA world championships since 2012. Daan was kind enough to give us his top tips for the following topics on freediving photography.
1. Shutter Speed and Fast Moving Objects
- If you want everything to be crisp, the slowest shutter speed you can use is 1/320th.
- You can get away with 1/250th but in the no fins categories, the tips of the fingers will have motion blur.
- I like to do slow shutter speeds like 1/15th or 1/10th on fast moving freedivers and follow them, so you can blur the background and convey a sense of speed.
2. Aperture, Depth of Field and Split Shots
- It depends on what you’d like to achieve and on your lens/camera set up; if you want everything to be in focus, both above and below the surface, you have to go with f8 or higher.
- I tell the camera to focus above the surface, as it focuses too close by underneath the surface for things above to be in focus.
- Use plenty of spit on your dome, then dip it just before taking the shot, in order to minimize drops on your dome.
3. Exposure, ISO and low light conditions
- For colour correction and dynamic range, you’re best off with as low an ISO as you can get away with.
- If you’re in the blue, your camera will often get a bit confused and over-expose, so I tend to under-expose by a third to compensate.
- But: people like bright photos in general.
4. Buoyancy and range from subject
- I like to weigh myself so that I’m neutral in the range I’m working in most, so at 2 meters in a pool, and maybe at 10 meters deep in the ocean.
- It gets very tiresome and is quite dangerous to be negative on an exhale on the surface, so avoid that.
- Range depends entirely on circumstances, but environment is a major factor in freediving photography, so I try to position myself so that I get a good balance between the freediver and the environment.
5. Editing and the loss of the reds
- I tend to edit for skin-tones first, and then try to get the blues to where I remember them being, or to where I think they are the prettiest for the picture.
- That often means cranking the temperature and the tint of a photo all the way up.
- You also have to think about it not just in terms of a loss of red, but an additional layer of blue, as well, so you’re not just boosting reds, you also have to remove some blue from the other colours.
- In order to be able to do that, I shoot raw, uncompressed files, to maintain as much colour and light information as the sensor can record.
A note on white-balance by Charyse Reinfelder
Charyse Reinfelder is a Maui-based freediving photographer and freediver. We’re huge fans of the epic shots she takes while diving among humpback whales. We asked her to share some thoughts:
White balance can be tricky especially underwater. The closer to the surface the more colours you have to work with. Weather also plays a large factor. Most of the time your eyes do a great job at balancing the whites underwater instantly.
The camera always has trouble, typically creating a very blue photo when looking at the RAW image. In post-production, I try to bring back some of the colours that my eyes naturally adjusted to. Yellows, reds, and so on. It also helps to be in a good position.
Clear water can also be a huge benefit when underwater as well, particles are harder to adjust for color balance. Ultimately, practice makes you better whether just with taking photos or editing.
Carlos Negrete on marine wildlife
When it comes to interacting with marine wildlife, Carlos is one of the best freediving photographers in the business. How he manages to captures some of these shots simply blows our minds. When shooting wildlife it’s so important to get information before going on the trip.
Speed of the Animal
Many times people can’t catch up with marine animals. Good examples are whale sharks and dugongs. Their movements seem to be calm, which they are, but their gliding and power is massive so they actually swim very fast. In freediving photography you get tired and when it’s time to dive the breath-hold is quite short because of all the swimming on the surface.
The freediving photographer needs to understand or observe the animal’s pattern movement before. Never chase them. Place yourself in the right time and depth using what you have learned. ALSO, make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the animal’s movement. Many times they are much faster and sudden movements may result in blurred photos. Even slightly blurred, results in useless photos at times.
Depth of the Animal
Some animals socialize at different depths. Dugongs are located in shallow waters, which means there is light. In this case the subject and the playground are perfect for freediving photography. In some other cases, reef sharks can be quite shy and they can tend to swim away as soon as they feel you’re getting closer. Japanese sea snakes will immediately follow your fins in the shallows.
Understand their depths to help you prepare the camera setting faster. Since we are diving on a breath-hold, we don’t have the same time as scuba divers to change camera settings.
While underwater, my recommendation is to use profiles or “presets” on the camera. Most pro-DSLR and mirror-less cameras will have that option. Fixing the setting to the preferred requirements; maybe higher ISO, white balance adjustment or slower shutter. Whatever we need depending on the depth we are located. Switch to your other preset or profile for the desired depth and it will save you a lot of valuable underwater time.
Alex St-Jean and competition photography
Alex has years of experience photographing professional freedivers in their most important moments. Competition photography is also very stressful on its own regard. You have to consider timing, distance, expectations from paying customers, your own safety, etc. That’s not even mentioning your camera yet!
Alex states the importance of the there are three ways to control the exposure of your photograph:
- Shutter Speed
The idea is to balance these three variables to achieve “proper” exposure. When one goes down, another must go up. Getting a properly exposed photo is important for freediving photography, because there is much less light underwater which means there is much less information that goes to your camera’s sensor. To be able to make the best of the information we have, the exposure has to be on-point.
You know there is less light underwater, but why? First, a part of the incoming light is reflected from the surface of the water. But more importantly, water absorbs a lot of light as well. That is why the water quickly becomes darker as you dive deeper.
Shutter Speed and Exposure
Shutter speed is the speed at which the shutter (curtain) open and closes to let light through to the camera’s sensor. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is let into the camera, resulting in a brighter image. Shutter speeds can range from slow (30 seconds) to fast (1/8000s). Fast shutter speeds freeze motion and give a sharp image. Perfect for shooting your buddy coming up from a CWT dive. Slow shutter speeds tend to blur motion unless you put your camera on a tripod or have a steady hand like Donald Trump. Good if you wanna get artsy in freediving photography, but it takes some practice.
For underwater photography we want to use faster shutter speed. I would recommend faster than 1/125s. It’s also worth noting that your camera’s exposure meter usually overexposes underwater, so try to underexpose your images by 2/3 to 4/3 of a stop. Even if it is too underexposed, it’s easier to bring back shadow in post-production than it is to bring back highlights.
Aperture and Depth of Field (DOF)
Aperture refers to the size of the opening of the aperture of the camera. Depth of Field (DOF) refers to the area of the image that is in focus. When you focus on your subject, the main focal point is on wherever you set it. However, there is a distance behind and in front of the subject that will also be in focus. This distance depends on the size of the aperture.”
“Aperture sizes range from larger (f/2.8) to small (f/22) – the letter f refers to the focal length of your lens. The larger the opening (f/2.8), the more light comes in the camera, the less DOF you have, i.e. less of your image is in focus. The smaller the opening (f/22), the less light comes in camera, the more DOF you have, i.e. the more of your image is in focus.”
The sweet spot in most lenses is somewhere in between, such as f/8 or f/11, but it’s up to you to play with your aperture to achieve the vision you want.
ISO and Low Light
“Your camera’s sensor has an adjustable light sensitivity. This is the equivalent to Film Speed in the days of analog. Like in analog there is a price to pay for greater light sensitivity. Noise appears when you boost your ISO to higher values. Your ISO can range from 100 (sometimes even less) to 128,000 (sometimes more) depending on your camera. A low ISO (100) is not very light sensitive, however gives a very clean photo.”
A high ISO (128,000) is very light sensitive yet produces a lot of noise and ugly artifacts. You want to keep your ISO down as much as possible, however certain circumstances such as shooting in Cenotes or caves will force you to boost your ISO. It’s better to have a noisy but sharp photo than a noise-less but blurry or dark photo.
Buoyancy Control and Split-Shots
Having proper buoyancy control is essential in freediving photography. You will be more comfortable while taking your photos.You will be less likely to damage the environment by kicking corals, sand or rock formations.You will have steadier shots. Proper buoyancy is essential for split-shots. Split-shots are where part of your photo is underwater, and part is above water.
You have to be well-placed at the surface and neither be sinking nor floating too much. Because of the refraction of light through water, it is difficult to get both under and over parts of the photo in focus. To the best results, I recommend using the highest aperture possible in the lighting conditions that you are in. i.e. f/22 or similar.
White Balance and Loss of Colors
White balance refers to the proper rendition of color in your photo. Light is emitted and diffused at different Color Temperatures. Color Temperature is measured in Kelvin(K), and ranges from warm (2000 K) to cold (9000 K). Your camera can be adjusted manually to virtually any color temperature.”
I recommend using the Auto White Balance feature if you are shooting in RAW format. Your camera does a good job at analyzing the environment and when shooting in RAW you can change your colors in post-production with virtually no degradation in image quality. The reason I recommend shooting in Auto White Balance and in RAW format is because water ABSORBS light! And it does so color by color, starting from red all the way to blue-violet.
“Almost all red is absorbed in the first ± 5m. Oranges are absorbed by ±10m. The yellows, then greens until you are just left with blue/black. This means that at every depth and every angle you point your camera in, you are shooting a different color temperature. To adjust manually would be extremely inefficient and inconvenient and you would end up missing your shots. Auto White Balance and RAW underwater!!
Matthieu in the darkness of the Cenotes
Matthieu is a freediving photographer that spends most of the time in the Cenotes near Tulum, in the Yucatan Peninsula. There’s even one ‘named’ after him, that’s how much time we’re talking about. Based on his environment, he works with f/2.8 to capture as much light as possible.
He loves to shoot the classic in Free Immersion (FIM) coming up on the line. Shot close to the hands, with rays of light in the Cenote, this focuses on the face. Thus, the face is sharp and the hands blurry (or vice-versa) because of f/2.8 aperture. However, the lower the f/number (higher aperture) the more distortion on your image, especially around the edges in wide-angle shots, this depends also on the curvature of the lens you have.
According to him, “the goal is to keep ISO as low as possible, focus on aperture and shutter speed first, and then adjust ISO where it has to be (ideally lowest as possible).” Don’t be tempted to simply boost ISO in general (250 is good), otherwise it will make the picture noisy.
In very low light (i.e. Cenotes), or when contrast is very high, there’s one source of light that’s very strong with darkness all around. So try to make ISO work with the highest source of light in picture, then boost in post-production.
Keep the camera slightly buoyant, so in case it’s dropped it floats up. Work on being a good freediver and developing good buoyancy skills. Matthieu weighs himself a little more during freediving photography, in order to be stable in the “photo zone”. In the Cenotes you have something above you most of the time, so you have to adjust buoyancy perfectly and consider the density of water (i.e. salt vs. fresh).
Matthieu’s suggestion for split shots is to look in the viewfinder and not the screen. Decide if you want both above and below to be in focus or one blurry and the other in focus. If you want both both to be focused, you’ll need a high f-number (so lower aperture), so you compromise on the light coming into the sensor.
Another consideration is the water on the dome. Drops of water will affect the focus, you want to decrease the surface tension so water doesn’t stay on the dome. Try water-repellents or simply spit on the dome just before the shot!
Lastly, Matthieu also suggests to work with RAW files. Consider your aquatic environment, visibility, natural light; do you need strobe lights or video lights?
A big thank you to our photographers
For this article we reached out to some of the best freediving photographers in the world. They’ve kindly offered their personal pro-tips that have allowed them to take the stunning pictures we admire so much. Each has their own unique style and they have collectively spent thousands of hours in the water, thousands of dollars on equipment and have flown thousands of miles. All of this to perfect their skills as aquatic artists and display our amazing sport.
If you want to learn their techniques hands-on, reach out to them directly. They always have freediving photography expeditions, workshops, and courses going on in some of the best places to freedive. At the end of this article are direct links to their websites and social media.
Please support their work by following them on social media, purchasing their magnificent prints or even visiting to one of their workshops or courses.
Check out the links below to get in contact with them directly: