Cave Diving Photography Challenges and Tips to Overcome Them

Capturing the magnificence of the underwater world is exciting. It is more exciting when the photography session involves underwater caves. All that is needed is a durable waterproof camera. You can probably get away with your typical digital camera with a waterproof casing, though these are known to be unreliable and may end up leaking at the depths you may be diving. These caves are full of mysteries and lure so many photographers into exploring these depths to discover and capture captivating images of the murky environment.

However, cave-diving photography is one of the most challenging niches in the world of photography, which could try a diver’s patience and challenge a photographer’s creativity. It is so different from underwater photography and yet so similar. Below are the challenges you might experience and the tips to overcome these challenges so you could capture the most stunning photos in underwater caves:

The darkness becomes your enemy

Taking splendid photos is using natural light to capture the beauty of your foreground, but with underwater cave photography, this natural light is a scarce commodity. As you dive deeper into the depths and approach the underwater caves, the water blocks natural light. What you see is the never-ending darkness and the lightings you can rely upon are those that you bring during the diving expedition.cave diving darkness is a problem for taking pictures

To solve this dilemma, bring a lot of strobes to light the surrounding area and your foreground. Strobe lights vary from a manual to automatic type and from an on-camera to off-camera.

On-camera lights are easier to bring than off-camera lights because these lights are attached to the camera itself. However, these types do not produce great images as compared to the output of off-camera lights. More often, these lights make your subject over or under exposed. On-camera lights limit creativity since you rely on proximity to take a picture.

Remember, water bends or blocks light (this is called refraction). When using on-camera lights, you should be near enough to the subject to take a good shot. The result is an over exposed subject. On the other hand, a foreground that is far from the source of light makes it harder for you to illuminate it. As a result, you get an under exposed foreground and may end up capturing the wrong angle.

Off-camera lights, most of the time, are impractical to bring but offer a lot more choices especially if you want to produce dynamic images. Manual strobes are easier to use since you can switch them on or off whenever you need them. On the other hand, automatic strobes are the kinds that light when a flash from the camera triggers the sensors. Most of the time, these types of strobes are sensitive from slight flashes, especially with the sunlight reflecting on the waters. The sensors might mistake these reflected light as flashes and trigger the strobes. However, when you and your team swim deeper in the cave, the flashes lessen and may become an advantage on your part if you bring automatic strobes.

Lightings are not working

You prepared everything, and brought the proper lights (and extra ones). Suddenly, the strobes do not flash as you want them to, or flash too often, ruining your shots. These problems are frustrating but you can solve these by knowing the location of the strobes’ sensors.cave diving photography strobe lights

Some have sensors at the back of the strobes. To use these sensor-enabled strobes, make sure you have positioned them strategically, triggering the other strobes when necessary. Another alternative is investing on strobes with omnidirectional sensors or those that allow you to use a remote sensor with accessory cord.

Although more light is advantageous, bringing too many may not be helpful. Remember, cave diving is difficult. As you dive deeper, the physical pressure increases because of the gravitational pull. With all the diving equipment that your team is holding, bringing too many strobes is strenuous. Thus, to avoid additional stress, plan your cave-diving photography session. Although planning is hard if you are diving into unknown terrain, this diving plan helps you decide the number and the type of strobes to bring.

Bring at least one manual strobe so that when the automatic ones fail, you have a spare one to use. A spare may not be enough but is useful when you do not have enough light to capture the foreground. Alternatively, let your team members hold at least one primary light. These lights can provide additional lightings.

Technical diving ineptitude hinders the photo session

Cave-diving photography is a challenging task and ineptitude on technical diving adds to the difficulty. The pressure of taking great photos increases when you and your team are not skilled in technical diving. Thus, before diving, ensure that you learn the fundamentals.

The first dive is difficult for a novice, which is okay. However, as your cave-diving photography becomes frequent, learn the practical details of cave-diving so that you could avoid any accidents. If you have the time and budget, enroll in a cave-diving course. This course is costly, but it is a good addition to your photography skills. Moreover, you are saving your own and someone else’s life during a dangerous dive to take pictures meters beneath the sea level.

Sometimes, technical ineptitude is also apparent on your models. The only solution to this problem is never bring someone who does not know how to cave-dive. Hiring and training professional divers to become your models is better than making a professional model become a professional diver. It would be less stressful and less worrisome. Besides, it would take years of diving experience to become comfortable in exploring caverns and caves.

The subject lacks depth and color

Every photographer knows that artificial lightings make the final images look garish and flat. Even with so many strobes, the foreground may still look blue and green. The answer to this underwater photography dilemma is proper light exposure. Too close means over-exposure of the subject. Too far may under-expose the subject to the lightings. Over exposure may create a flat image, diminishing the colors that are unique to underwater caves. Under exposure may produce too many shadows, hiding your subject.

Captivating underwater cave photo shows colors and dimensions. It is recreating images with just the right amount of shadows. You can either place strobes light behind rocks, let your model hold a light or place a light above your subject. Alternatively, attach a backlight to your model. Doing this brightens the cave (or background) and allows you to take photos without readjusting the lights accordingly. Moreover, with this position, your camera triggers the sensors immediately, which provides enough natural light.

Installing a backlight on your model is easy. Here is how:

Use a cord and attach the flash or lights to the air tanks of your model/diver. Configure the right cords and connectors so that the flash works perfectly. The flash should face the diver’s fins after attachment. Place a wedge for easy positioning of the flash on the diver’s tank. A manual controller is applicable for this purpose because it allows you to manipulate and change the strobe’s power remotely. You do not need to swim back to your diver for any light adjustments.

When taking pictures, let your model face you and with the flash behind your model’s tanks, your lights illuminating the area. When the camera flashes, the sensor triggers the backlight. The important thing is to provide enough lighting to the background. If your diver/model is near enough to the cave wall, you only need a lesser power to light the strobes. This technique lends your image a natural look and adds three-dimensional depth to your photos. You can make your images show more details. You can also apply this technique in taking pictures of artifacts, if there are any inside the cave.

Unknown diving terrain is dangerous

For a photographer, innovativeness is looking for ways to feature new subjects in an environment that no one has ever seen. Capturing foregrounds from unknown underwater terrain can be a breakthrough. It is exciting but is dangerous. Even if you have the professional skills of a cave diver and a license to support it, accidents in underwater caves are a common occurrence.cave diving can be dangerous

Thus, always bring a diver who knows to navigate an unknown terrain. Assign this person in your team to be the one who monitors the oxygen levels and looks out for any irregularities during the expedition. Moreover, you can also request this person to hold some lighting for you. If possible, perform researches on the fauna and the possible terrain courses of the underwater cave. The last thing you would want are surprises such as dangerous animals lurking on the shadows or a burst of underwater pressures that may jeopardize your team’s safety.

Alternatively, navigate the area first. The navigation could be more than once or fifty times even. When you are certain that the area is safe and you are comfortable with diving to the cave, proceed with a cave-diving photography expedition and capture the surroundings with models to make them more real.

Get a team to help you. Never dive alone, even if your objective is to capture the environment and fauna found inside the cave.

You can also group the team in pairs. One monitors the diving equipment and the other one could be your model. Doing this enables you to concentrate on taking excellent pictures.

Safety is compromised

To capture stunning underwater cave-diving photos, it is important that your models are comfortable with their surroundings. Comfort is only possible if they are technically proficient in cave diving. Explore the cave carefully by letting a designated person to navigate the area before the team proceeds. If safety is compromised, abandon the expedition and reschedule. The safety of your team is more important than taking pictures.

Additionally, before the diving commences, orientation is an important safety protocol. Reiterate everything about safety precautions, even if your team might tease you for being too cautious. When safety is jeopardized during the expedition, remember to be calm or at least bring someone who is relaxed during emergencies.

For future photography sessions, enroll in a course that tackles how to manage risks and emergencies on cave dives. Although this topic is a part of diving lessons, trainers usually discuss this in passing. To ensure that you remember what to do during these times, refresh your knowledge on handling emergencies.

Sometimes, weather conditions may hinder your photo sessions. When the weather seems bad and you know that a storm is coming, postpone the photo shoot to avoid undue incidents. The sea is turbulent during these times. It is even more turbulent undersea.

You might even encounter undercurrents that may make the dive more difficult than during normal sea conditions, especially if your divers are all amateurs. Although even if you and your team are all expert divers, pushing through an underwater cave photo session with a storm brewing in the horizon is a dangerous task.

Cave-diving photography is challenging, but make sure your team is safe during the photography session. Treat your team to a little celebration after diving whether the expedition is a success or not. When you develop the pictures, give them a copy as a token of appreciation.

The success of your cave-diving photography is not just taking great pictures. It is also about building good relationships with people who are willing to help you with your passion or career for that matter. Making your team feel appreciated after grueling minutes or even hours of cave-diving is also part of the photography session. Consider them your friends and they will reward you. Friendship is not tangible, but the relationship you build with your diving team sometimes shows in the photos you take.

PADI Course Director

What is a PADI Course Director?

Course Directors are a step up from the typical PADI Master Instructor. The Course Director is responsible for teaching the PADI IDC (Instructor Development Courses), along with other more advanced, instructor-level dive training. The PADI Course Director is highly skilled, and can be considered an expert in the field of scuba diving. In fact, this is the highest rating that can be held with regards to recreational scuba diving.

Should You Apply?

If you are passionate about diving and are eager to make money helping others, I encourage you to apply for a seat in a CDTC (Course Director Training Course). Space is limited, and as such the application process is moderately competitive. If you have at least 250 successful logged dives, are a certified EFR Instructor Trainer, and meet the other eligibility requirements, you have a decent shot. If you have teaching experience, or have assisted a Course Director in Instructor Development Courses, be sure to put that on your resume, as this is highly desired.

PADI Continuing Education Flow-Chart

CCR Cave Diving

ccr cave diving - totally possible

I would consider myself an enthusiastic rebreather diver. I also love caves. If someone can come up with a better way to combine both of these obsessions in one activity, please enlighten me. Until then, closed circuit rebreather (CCR) cave diving will continue to keep me occupied.

There are plenty of people that will tell you Florida is not the ideal locale for CCR cave diving – whether they argue it as being too shallow, or the tunnels too narrow, I can personally tell you that this is simply not true. As I’ve preached before, when it comes to cave diving, or scuba diving in general, maintaining awareness of your surroundings is crucial. With a bit of forethought, some skill, and a love for the sport, the utilization of your diving machines can be incorporated into many cave diving scenarios.

Whenever someone uses the “its too shallow” argument, I always bring up the fact that with a low set point, and adequate bail out planning leading up to the dive, you can spend the entire time floating around underwater. With proper technique, you can experience the entire cave in only one dive. Keep in mind this depends on the size and complexity of the caves and tunnels. Florida has a wide range of caves that are well suited for rebreathers.

Sure, I’ll acknowledge that the majority of dives can be accomplished with OC alone, though you have to admit that CCR is well ahead of the pack with regards to gas logistics and cave diving of extended durations. Long story short, if you already cave dive, and you are experienced with CCR diving, combine the two of them together. Have no idea where to start when it comes to rebreathers? Have a look at this. Enjoy!


New to Scuba? Don’t Consider Cave Diving Just Yet

A cave diver myself, I’ve always been interested in the abilities and overall mindset of other seasoned cave divers. Whenever I help instruct cave diving courses (or any scuba diving course for that matter), I look implement my first-hand experience if at all possible and relevant to the task at hand. In many instances, we practice after hours in around 20 feet of water in an Olympic sized pool at a local university. When you’re under the water and the sun is no longer providing you with light, that pool does surprisingly well as replicating any cave diving experience.

scuba diving in 20 ft pool

You may become disoriented; you may have trouble seeing directly in front of you, etc. Navigational mistakes are probably one of the most common to occur, and when it comes to cave diving, can be dangerous or even deadly. Maintaining your composure during these situations is of paramount importance. Mistakes happen not only to beginners but seasoned cave divers as well. Maintaining composure is easier said than done when you’re trapped underwater, possibly hundreds of feet below the surface and the only way out is back the way you came in.

When I say beginner, it is important to note that ‘beginners’ should be experienced scuba divers before the thought of cave diving even crosses their mind. The diver should have mastered their skillset in various ways, including situational awareness underwater, communication skills with other divers, equalization techniques, and understanding pressure change and air consumption levels. Once you feel you have learned pretty much all there is to know when it comes to diving, only then should you consider cave diving.