Introduction To Underwater Photography - 2

Written by Mihajlo Filipovic |

Introduction To Underwater Photography – How to Use Your Equipment

(part 2 of 3)


I hope you have read the first part of this intro, which deals with choosing the basic snorkeling gear that makes it possible to visit the hypnotic beauties of the submerged parts of our World.

Let's continue with a statement that you should practice handling and using of your snorkeling equipment until it becomes routine. The donning, clearing and removing the mask and snorkel should be achieved in simple movements and without fuss. It saves energy, and saving your energy in water is an extremely important thing. Practice this in kneeling or sitting water depth until you can do it quickly and safely.


Putting on the diving mask

Connect the snorkel to the outside of the mask headstrap on the left side. It is not that I am assuming you are right-handed; it is also better, should you ever extend your snorkeling to SCUBA* diving.

NOTE: Newly bought masks sometimes retain a thin film of silicone conservant or similar production residuals. They will tend to fog over stubbornly for some time, since your de-fogging procedure is not actually reaching the mask surface. If that is the case, you might just this once use some detergent to pre-wash it thoroughly. Be warned to read the manufacturer's instructions prior to that, since some materials can't stand the contact with certain types of detergent. Many among the forbidden kind are those which contain alcohol and a range of other solvents - so take care!

The best way is to use very little, maybe two drops of dishwashing detergent gel with half a liter of warm water, and rub the inner side of the mask thoroughly with the solution, followed by generous washing with pure, warm water. Let dry at room temperature. That should be enough to remove the grease, and normal de-fogging procedures should become effective.

When using the mask for a first time, apply some de-fogging liquid to spread over the inside of the mask glass while it's still dry. Or rub the glass inside with just about any kind of algae that you can find around you. In time, you will find it easiest to simply spit into the mask the way 99% of all divers do, but maybe you don't feel like it at the beginning. The revelation comes with time, though! Algae, spit, or de-fogging liquid simply achieve the same: making the fog droplets spread into an even, transparent water layer, and ensuring the clear view.

Rub the liquid around with your finger, then wash it out by dipping the mask once or twice. Done.

This will prevent the fogging of your mask, caused by the temperature difference between nose-exhaled air, your face, and the outside water.

Wet your face, and in the same time get the hair up and out of the area where the mask seal will sit. If your hair remains under the mask seal, that's where the water will leak in. Best dunk your head shortly underwater and wipe the hair away.

Holding the mask with your right hand around the right side of the window frame, take the mask strap in your left. Put the mask strap behind your head at about the eyebrow height and hold it there with the palm of your left hand.

Holding the mask strap in that position, pull the mask by its window frame forward and over the eyes and nose. Before you release the mask to touch your face, form a slight frown. Among divers this is known as "making a mask face". Now let the mask connect with your face. You will feel the seal lightly pulling your skin aside, spreading your frown back to normal – and that was its purpose.

If you have a moustache, consider shaving the upper five milimeters under the nose and maybe the cheeks, to create the smooth skin surface for the mask sealing, like many bearded divers do.

Check for the strands of hair under the mask seal again, and ensure everything fits comfortably. Remember that it's the proper positioning of (the proper type and size of) your mask that keeps the water out, and not the stretching power of the headstrap. It merely keeps the mask in place. Actually, trained divers can use their masks even without the headstrap, simply by maintaining a slight under-pressure in the mask. So don't ever over-tighten the mask strap. If you must do it to keep the mask from leaking, it means that:

  • your mask is wrong size and/or form (for your facial features), or
  • your mask is deformed (material deterioration?), or
  • your mask is not properly centered (horizontally and vertically), or
  • your face is not relaxed (maybe from cold water, or a toothache? Get out and postpone!)

Put the snorkel mouthpiece in your mouth, adjusting its position along the mask strap so that it points backwards at an angle (usually touching your left ear). The mouthpiece rim goes between the gums and the lips, and the teeth should lightly press the bits to the both sides of the airhole. Don't bite – just make sure it fits securely. This is also a part of the "mask face making". The mouthpiece should not draw at your mouth, and its position should not affect the mask-to-face sealing. Rotate the link between snorkel and mouthpiece, also the height and position of its strap catch, and adapt all the angles to your personal comfortable use.

Lie onto the surface face-down and relax. Visually check for leaks. If there are any, make an effort to relax your face again, and determine where the leaking comes from. If the mask leaks from the upper rim, re-check for hair strands. If there are none, move the head strap a bit up or down the back of your head. This tightens the lower or upper mask rim against the face some more. If the mask leaks beside your nose, lower the strap downwards, for it may be that the head strap is set a bit too high... or the moustache hair breaks the seal... or maybe you are making an unconscious grimace (relax!)... or, least likely, that that particular mask model does not seal well over your specific face form.

Sometimes we are not aware that the first contact with cold water causes us to make "wrong mask face", or we simply bite into the snorkel mouthpiece too strongly. This can temporarily disfigure the face and it may cause the mask to leak. So it is good to repeatedly remind yourself to relax!

Sometimes a bit of nose-added air to the mask stops the water trying to get in. Blow into the mask through your nose, and watch where the bubbles escape. It is the point around the mask rim which offers the least resistance to pressure, so that's most likely where the water seeps in. See which among those slight adjustments described above helps. You may even try tightening the head strap just a bit more; maybe it was too loosely adjusted. Usually you'll find what's wrong inside the first five minutes.

If you are swimming and your mask foggs over, or even if you forgot to de-fogg, gently pull at the lower part of the mask seal and let some water in. Move your head around some, face-down, to wash the fog away.

To empty the water from the mask, raise your head so that the sealing on the cheeks and under the nose becomes the lowest part of the mask. Using thumb and forefinger, lightly press and hold the upper rim of the faceplate against your forehead, and gently blow through your nose into the mask. The air forces the water out of the mask at its lower side. Practice this. If your mask floods in any diving situation, mask clearing is one of the basic maneuvers, among the first ones taught in SCUBA classes. That's how it is done.


Using the fins

If you happen to be at the beach where you can easily get into the water, walk until chest-deep, and put on the fins, trying not to get too much sand and shingle in there. If the access is not so easy, sit by the water and wet the fins and feet. Putting wet fins on wet feet is easier. Then stand up and waddle, or better, walk backwards into the chest-deep water where you can put on the mask and proceed by swimming. In all cases avoid the walk with fins on, as it ruins the material.

Coming back, swim right into the shallows, sit up, and remove the fins before walking out of water.

If you are using half-enclosed shoe type of fins with the sneakers, diving boots or socks, walk right in to where you can proceed by swimming, and pull on the fins. Make sure the strap runs across the heel bone, and that the fit is comfortable. De-fog and don your mask. Perform the above mentioned checks and proceed to swim.

Coming back to the shore, remove the fins in chest-deep water and walk out in your sneakers or boots.


Swimming with mask and fins

Lying face-down in the water with your snorkel high and dry, you will feel more relaxed than during the normal swimming, with your head held up for breathing. The body assumes its natural prone position and many muscles will relax, since the whole body is supported by the water. Note this body position, and try to mantain it throughout the snorkeling. Relaxing saves energy. Saved energy helps you fight thermal losses in water.

Normally, your faceplate will be roughly at an angle of 40° to 60° and the snorkel more or less vertical.

Breathe as you would at any other time, and move your fins just under the surface to propel yourself forward. You should swim from the hips, not bending the knees much. Do not use great force. Remember that, in water, doubling the energy input gets you just 25% more effect. Find your optimum, save energy, and soon you will know which rhytm and pressure gives the best propulsion. Anyway, you are after underwater images, and not seeking speed nor distance records. So think of the swim as an easy stroll, looking around for motives.

To lessen the water resistance, keep your arms either alongside your body or straight forward. Swimming with fins and arms is less efficient than using the fins only. If you carry your camera, shield the optics in the palm of your hand beside your body, and do not forget to keep the safety strap around your wrist. Try keeping the hands behind your back too, it might happen that you'll like that position, as it also helps to keep your lower body (and fins) just a bit deeper in the water, making your propulsion splashless and more efficient.

If you are a complete snorkeling beginner, do leave your camera out of those first hours or days of practicing. It is easier to concentrate on the basics of snorkeling without added distractions. Using the camera will be discussed later on.


Snorkeling safety

Keep your awareness sharpened on your surroundings at all times! Since our vision is more than occupied with the natural wonders of the underwater scenery, it has to be repeated over and over that our attention needs to be paid to all things hapenning around us. And contrary to the common thinking, underwater World is anything but silent. The sounds help a lot in keeping us safe there.

You will register many interesting sounds, although you won't be able to determine neither the directions these come from, nor what is causing them. The sound in water travels at a speed of nearly 1500 meters per second, arriving at both our eardrums almost simultaneously, which effectively hides the direction of its source to the human listener, used to 330 m/sec speed of sound in the air.

Should you hear a drilling-like sound of a motor boat propeller, you are seriously advised to raise your head and try to locate it. Making yourself visible to boaters is not easy, but if it is coming at you, you should try it anyway. Generally, avoid swimming wherever there is a lot of traffic. In time, you will be able to connect many sounds to their sources, but whatever the experience, the state of alertness should never lessen.

Use the wide angle of vision your mask offers to notice every single detail in your surroundings. Do not ever go snorkeling in unknown waters in times of low visibility or in the night. Even when you are quite familiar with the waters you frequently visit, night swimming has its own range of problems, extended set of rules and caveats, and should not be undertaken at a whim.

For the first several hours, swim only in depths where you can stand on the bottom with your head clear out of the water. If there is anything out of ordinary, you should be able to determine and correct the problem in safe circumstances. Later on, you will be able to do such corrections mid-swimming, but be patient with this suggestion in the first practicing hours. You'll be a lot safer doing it this way.

Such an approach will also make you more familiar with the underwater space, new forms of life, and especially the way the light behaves in water. Try to familiarize yourself with special circumstances of your ambient, and learn as much as you can about the waters you are entering. Use internet, books and also take advice of serious, dedicated divers in your area. Knowlege is both wealth and health, even more so when you enter a World which is very different from our everyday surroundings.


Diving knife?

Diving knife belongs to the most popular tools. It bears repeating: a knife is a tool, not a weapon. It may be used for cutting, digging, prying, levering, and sometimes as a probe. At times, it can replace a tripod, it can easily be previously adapted to serve that purpose. Do-it-yourself  is always an useful source, so use your imagination!

Commercially available diving knives come in all sorts of shapes and dimensions, but essentially, knives should be (kept) sharp-edged, free of corrosion, and sturdy. The rounded-off or chisel-type points are more useful than sharp points. The blade length should be roughly equal to the length of the handle. Stilettos are naively and romantically craved for imagined defense situations, like cutting open some Hollywood-rubber Great White in one slash, but realistically, such blades will be the most likely to snap. 

A knife should be kept within the solid sheath, and for the snorkeler, the best position for it will be along the outer side of the passive (left?) lower arm, handle top near the wrist. This keeps it in the visual area for safe removal an returning to the sheath.

For SCUBA divers, the best position for the knife is at the inner side of the (right?) lower leg, handle top just below the knee. This position shields it from getting tangled up with any swimming obstacles, and makes it within easy reach of either hand (as opposed to being worn on the outside of the leg).

The purpose of the knife is to have yourself untangled, or to remove from water something that doesn't belong there (like torn-off parts of fishing nets, or maybe some lost fishing hooks...), but you shouldn't count much on using the knife for some romantic, movielike self-defense against sharks or other dangerous marine life. The chances of getting severely hurt in the process are much greater than actually killing the fish. The best defense in such cases is removing oneself from the area muy pronto. Remember that, body weight compared, the fish are immensely stronger than dry-land animals, and those are comparably also stronger than humans.

In the slippery environment, the surface and size of the knife handle is more important than the blade size. The handle should be anatomically correct to your grip and textured, so it does not slip. Alternatively, the skeletal type handles of so-called "survival" knives are excellent when wrapped with cord, katana-style.

The length of the blade should not exceed 10 or 12 centimeters, but its thickness should be around 4 milimeters. The tang should extend throughout the handle, so as to be strong enough to hold your weight without bending or breaking off. That way it could also be safely used for leveraging.

An interesting ancient alternative mentioned above is a so-called "probe". The "probe" is simply a half meter length of broom-handle wood with a wrist loop on one end. This is / was used to touch or prod something you're not sure you'd like to touch with your hand. It was once used by shell, crustacean, or coral collectors. But since the gathering of underwater life has mainly become illegal, its use is disappearing. Unless you can adapt it into a sort of DIY camera support, it won't do you much good. Its role of "probing" has been replaced by a modern chain-mail diving glove (look it up!), worn on the hand not holding the camera.

Even so, many diving / snorkeling commercial operators will inform you that they do not allow any kind of physical contact with anything living, including the coral reefs. It makes sense: they try to make sure that the fragile organisms remain there for tomorrow's visitors, and one should take care not to destroy anything, however small or abundant. Our World is being badly wounded already as it is.


In the third part we'll discuss the apnea (breath-held) diving, and the basics of underwater camera use.


  • SCUBA is acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, describing any among several kinds of devices which let you carry your breathing air (or other gas mixtures) with you. Such a device usually connects to the diver from the right side, and that's why the snorkel is worn on the left, to be out of the way.