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Leave the Camera, Bring the Canoli

Nelly always tells me I should take more pictures. And I half-heartedly mean to. But I rarely do so.

Many years ago I played around with the idea of photography and videography, long before I started diving, and realized fairly quickly that I have no particular talent for it. Sure I can frame and capture images… but beyond a very, very amateurish technical capability to compose, there’s nothing particularly exciting about my pictures.

I also discovered that I hate having to carry a camera around. This was compounded as a diver where, on the occasions I do bring a camera tray with big lights I frequently lose interest in the fucking thing and leave it clipped to the line to be retrieved later.

I’m just not a photographer. I’m glad there are people who are. There are some outstanding underwater photographers working today who can bring places to people who may otherwise never see them. But I’m not one of them.

I don’t really think visually. I think descriptively. Words. That’s my thing. I’d rather use the thousand words than paint a picture.

Unfortunately that translates to a little more engagement on the “user” end. Having to commit to the 5-10 minutes to slog through a mire of my random, tangential, analogous imagery than simply glance at an actual image and say, “Oooo, pretty,” before moving on.

However, generally, I’d make the argument that it makes me a safer diver.

When I’m acting as an instructor (rather than as a guide) I do always have a camera in my pocket to capture a snippet here and a snippet there of the dive for video debrief later. However: this GoPro does not have a viewfinder on the back. It’s an old 3 that behaves like a pointable, wide-angle brick.

Sometimes that means I hold the damn thing in just the wrong direction and miss what I wanted to talk about later. But it’s worth it.

One day I was guiding a diver who had specifically requested a bit of video of themselves. So here I was, carrying my nicer GoPro 7 with the big lights and the nice touchscreen back and whatnot for the entirety of the dive.

When, through the viewfinder, I watch my buddy turn to me and give me a thumb.

And I keep watching. And filming.

Without acknowledging the command sign to end the dive I’d just received.

It was… I dunno… only maybe 5 seconds before some little voice screaming, “You just received critical information!!!” broke the surface of my consciousness. But it’s a 5 second gap in my awareness of which I am still embarrassed.

I once got out of the water with an experienced, brilliant, long-time underwater photographer who embarrassedly admitted that in their efforts to dart around the cave and capture everyone, they had severely passed their turn pressure.

I’ve worked with professional shoots where a safety diver is assigned to photographers or videographers simply to monitor their pressure. And then drag them kicking and screaming to the surface when they hit critical gas, but still want to get “just one more” shot in.

And this is to say nothing of the dive accidents where a camera, for divers who may be newer, or unfamiliar with a certain site, or are using new gear, or simply out of practice and could use a few shakedown days or a little more practice just diving unencumbered… when these are the sorts of people who just HAVE to have a camera to be able to enjoy a dive… but it turns out to be enough of a kerfuffle that it distracts a diver or divers from noticing the start of a deadly chain of events.

Missed navigation, over-usage of gas, over-exertion, going too deep, straying into areas that aren’t super-friendly, destroying visibility…

Any one of these or combination can be the first domino in a sequence that ends with a body recovery. And something which may have otherwise been avoided if the team’s full attention was on the dive instead of a camera.

This is not to suggest that underwater photographers are all recklessly irresponsible fools. Most of the photographers I’ve worked with over the years have their own little safety tricks, paying absolute respect to the fact that they are a diver first and a photographer second. Many of those tricks were learned after close calls of their own.

But that level of awareness and competence can only come with time and experience.

A few weeks ago I bumped into a photography-dabbling friend who had just finished a Full Cave class the day before. As we chatted about our day’s dive plans he explained he was bringing his experienced underwater photographer students for a cave photography workshop for a day or two.

“They are going to bring their cameras into the cave starting immediately,” he sighed, “There is nothing I can do to stop that. But what I can do is show them the extra challenges and considerations and how to do it as safely as possible.”

So, aspiring photographers:

Do you exactly where you are? Where the rest of your team is? How much gas you currently have and/or exactly your PO2 right this very moment?

What’s your depth? Where is the safe direction home?

If any of those or a dozen other questions can only be answered with a shrug… maybe leave the camera at home for a few more dives.

Try writing about your dive later instead. Writing is fun.

Leagues and leagues more fun than editing pictures.

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