There’s a varying range of opinions on the compatibility of underwater photography and diving closed circuit. I know photographers who say they’d never dive a rebreather because the camera takes all of their attention. And I know rebreather divers where the last thing they want is another complicated device they have to swim around with. For me I average about 100 dives a year and in the four years since I’ve had my camera rig less than 5% of those dives have involved leaving the camera behind. So the question isn’t whether it’s going to work, it’s more about how I can make it work.
The cave diving I do already demands a split focus. Caves require situational awareness, and are a very unforgiving environment to become distracted in. The only way to find out whether this would translate to rebreather/camera dives was to test the theory – preferably with someone watching. To this end, and with my instructor on board with the idea, I took the camera on most of my course dives. There were dives where very few photos got taken because I spent the whole time dealing with surprises. For the rest I was already reconciled to the idea that the photos weren’t likely to be award winning.
For the shallow, confined water dives where we were just up off the sand my response to drills was easy. When Marc signalled the failure (see BOOM above), I dropped the camera and dealt with it. This revealed that I really need to float my macro rig to neutral. The dome port I use for wideangle shooting has enough air inside that the rig is only a little bit negative, just enough to sit on the bottom. With the macro port on the whole thing sinks like a stone. Since I mostly do macro in the shallows and almost never in the caves it hasn’t bothered me that much. On the course when the macro rig hit the sand, I correspondingly shot up – not helpful for dealing with emergencies, simulated or otherwise. I will be investing in some Stix floats.
With a couple of shallow dives under our belt we headed out for deeper water over the reef. The last thing I wanted to do was smash up the coral and scratch the dropped camera on every drill, so this required a different approach. I did consider tethering the camera to myself which I know some photographers favour. I’m not keen on having accessories I can’t drop. I’m emotionally attached to my camera but I can certainly envision scenarios where I’d drop it without a second thought. Should they ever happen, I don’t want to have to pull out the knife to get rid of it.
So letting go of it wasn’t an option, but I needed both hands free. For the less urgent emergencies the folded camera could be clipped off in 5 seconds or so (and faster once I have my D ring clip order sorted out for breather diving). On the other hand with the strobe arms unfolded and port cover unattached, I don’t really want the rig hanging freely from a chest D-ring. So for the more urgent drills I developed a very yogic pose where I could quickly grab the camera between my knees with the strobes sticking out front and back. Of course this reduces all ability to swim or manouvre and if you’re trying to get somewhere at the same time as dealing with gas loss it’s not going to work. But when I just needed two spare hands and someone safe to stow the camera rig for a minute, it works. Emergency momentarily dealt with, I could grab it, fold it up and clip it away, and move on.
My approach may not work for everyone, but if you’re thinking of doing a technical diving course and picking up your camera immediately afterwards, consider taking the camera on the course itself. If you can handle all the course drills with camera in hand, you’re a lot better prepared for the real life emergencies that will eventually come along. I just hope I don’t have to test my preparedness too soon.