Photographing people on the reef: something I never wanted to do

by | Oct 17, 2021 | Photography | 0 comments

For a long, long time I really disliked having people in my images.  I wanted to keep my images free of my fellow human, full of fish and coral, with nothing in the way of lumbering neoprene-clad mammals.  Over the years, however, I have changed my mind.

Take these two images of my good friend and dive buddy Colette.  I’m always grateful to her for putting up with me on a dive and helping out with a bit of modelling.  In these images I needed to illustrate that we were looking for life in these deep dwelling (approx. 40m – that’s deep for open circuit scuba) gorgonians.  There’s no better way of showing that search than getting an image like these.  Now that sounds obvious of course, but for years I resisted, until it dawned on me that I needed to show the activity rather than the result.  As a working photographer, I needed to show people something they ‘could’ do rather than what I ‘did’.  Perhaps I should have realized that from the start, but having an interest primarily in biology, was I biased to image the critters first?

Since then I have enjoyed making a nuisance of myself by persuading dive guides and buddies to pose alongside corals or with wrecks.  Editors seem to prefer it too.  I assume it allows the reader to consider ‘this could be me’?

I’ve tried several times, in Photoshop, to straighten my friends leg in the assumption it will be a more pleasing image. It never does, so his bent knee will always trouble me. However, I’d love to be on that reef right now.

I suppose the inclusion of people in an image also puts a shot in context.  In the image above, the divers at the surface are waiting to be picked up after a dive on a shipwreck.  Not only does the image demonstrate the clarity of the water, but without those silhouettes it would have been a very dull shot indeed.  I’m not saying it’s great even now, but it can be used to illustrate a narrative.

This videographer always had his lights burning.

One trick UW photographers use is to ask our subjects to carry torches.  Very often, even in tropical waters, a torch is useful to help find critters and reveal colors, though most divers will only use them on a night in these conditions.  Personally, I like the inclusion of a bright light source in a darker area of an image, it adds to the ‘looking for things’ narrative, but I can understand that some viewers might find it contrived.  I shall explore this more fully, in my next post.


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