Freediving photography – two words that make my heart sing! We’ve had so much fantastic information from underwater photographers that we decided to turn the spotlight on them for a change and learn about their experiences from behind the lens. We continue our Underwater Photographer series with Danny Spitz to find out more about what led him to freediving photography and what advice he would give to any aspiring underwater photographers.
Emma: So, Danny, I understand you have a bit of a life long relationship with photography. Is that right?
Danny: Yes, absolutely. I grew up with a Dad who was into photography, taking photos of the family holidays on slide film and subjecting friends and family to slide shows in the living room on our return. And as chairman for his local
camera club and a keen competition enter-er, I’ve been critiquing photos from a young age.
I got my 1st camera aged 8 or 9 and have always been looking for “composition” in all my pictures.
Emma: So how did this progress to becoming an underwater photographer?
Danny: I learnt to scuba dive when travelling around Australia and immediately fell in love with the underwater world however it was a while before I started to want to take photos there and my first attempts were with disposable cameras the results of which were mostly disposed of. Since then I’ve spent a number of years gaining experience scuba diving and eventually qualifying as an open water scuba instructor.
After a number of years using a small compact camera and housing with strobe and wet lenses on my travels and not getting the results I wanted I decide to take myself off on a series of underwater photographic workshops where I learned an immense amount about lighting, composition, interacting with wildlife for better pictures which I’ve been putting to use ever since. I’m now achieving shots that I’m happy with however there are still new techniques to be learnt and always improved shots to get.
Emma: So this really did become a passion then!
Danny: Absolutely! As part of my quest to be a better underwater photographer I decided to learn how to freedive properly (the scuba diving qualifications touch on this a little but not to any great degree) as this would give some important advantages over scuba in certain situations.
I’m a bit lazy when it comes to making it to weekly classes, so I thought the best way was an intensive course to condense the learning experience and why not do that in a hot country, floating around on a boat for a week? Having been on loads of scuba diving liveaboards I found a free diving liveaboard to be a much different beast!
Emma: Ah, the lure of our liveaboard holidays!
Danny: Yes! The nature of scuba diving means you’re in the water for a max of 60 mins (usually) and you can be in and out the water over the course of the day to get your 4 or 5 dives in, so pretty intense. Add into that swapping camera set ups and editing photos it can get pretty busy.
In contrast, the freediving trip was a much more relaxed affair, necessarily so, as one is trying to achieve the most relaxed but self-controlled state possible to help reach that personal limit that’s the next step, be it reaching 5m or 25m on a dive or reaching a personal best for breath hold. The chance to spend so much more time in the water, both learning new skills and putting them to use on free swims made for a very fulfilling weeks trip and after a few fits and starts I’m proud to say I actually got my shit together and passed all my skills and qualified as a WSF Advanced Freediver!
Emma: Yes, you did! You nailed it! So, as an underwater photographer what do you think are the additional advantages of having freediving skills?
Danny: In photographic terms, whilst you can achieve great shots on scuba for both macro and wide angle, freediving is made for Close Focus Wide Angle (CFWA) Photography, being in the water with large animals near the surface that you need the freedom of movement, speed and agility to be able to get the shot (getting in and out of ribs is not quick with a scuba tank!). You also aren’t producing noisy bubbles and are a more natural part of the environment.
We put this into practice on the liveaboard at Sataya Reef in the Red Sea. And as you can see we had an amazing time interacting we this large pod of Spinner Dolphins for a few hours.
Emma: They are gorgeous photos! What camera or cameras do you use?
Danny: I had started out using a Sony Cybershot T5 with housing before moving on to a Canon IXUS 980 with housing, single strobe and wet lenses. This allowed a leap forward as the Canon had an essential tool for any underwater camera, custom white balance setting.
When choosing a camera for underwater photography it’s a key function to have as it allows you to adjust for the “blueing”(not a technical term!) of the image as you go deeper, due to the red wavelengths being absorbed first. I generally do this by taking a reading using my hand as a (near) white object to readjust the white balance and bring the colours back to a normal balance.
I’m currently using the Olympus EPL-5, a Micro 4/3 camera, in the Olympus housing for my underwater photography and an Olympus OMD EM1 mk2 for my land based stuff. I hope to put that in a housing soon and get it wet to take advantage of the massive increase in performance that will hopefully allow my photography to grow further. I also use 2 Inon Z240 strobes and a variety of ports for the interchangeable lenses the Micro4/3 system give you. For freediving I generally go just the camera in its housing with a 8mm Fisheye lens and dome port as one is generally doing large animal/reef shots when freediving, at least I’m not yet able to breath hold long enough to set up a decent macro shot on one breath!
Emma: Haha! Do you have a favourite place to take photos?
Danny: I’ve been diving all over the world in some amazing places but as an underwater photographer my favourite places for photography have been the Red Sea and Lembeh Strait in Sulawesi, Indonesia. I’ve done photo workshops in both places which have help move my photography on in great leaps. Being on a dedicated photography trip with talented teachers and guests is a great way to learn/improve technique and also the artistic side. The Red Sea workshops have been general photography, mixing wrecks, reefs, schooling fish and macro and a shark specific itinerary. Lembeh is pure macro and has amazing tiny creatures to get great shots of!
Emma: Sounds amazing! Do you think being an underwater photographer is dangerous?
Danny: Being an underwater photographer can add to the potential danger of diving just by taking additional equipment down with you and using it. You can also end up on your own even with someone by your side. What I mean by that is that you can become very focused on your shot and be oblivious to those around you so a buddy in trouble may not be noticed!
There’s also the dangers from interacting with any wild animal, particularly sharks, however being aware of your surroundings and always keeping an eye out can lead to some great encounters. One particular shot reminds me of what the surprise of having a tiger shark pop up from 40m right next to you can cause! This tiger shark was hunting on the reef, popping up from depth to take a snap at a school of fish above me. It was over in seconds and I managed to get a couple of frames off but wasn’t set up correctly and this was the best I could do. It certainly got the blood pumping!
Looking at the vast amount of talent producing amazing photos is both inspiring and daunting. The annual http://www.underwaterphotographeroftheyear.com/ is a great way to see the best work from UW photographers from around the world and to get inspiration. I’ve tried my luck once so far but the standards are so high I know that I need to improve to make an impression on the judges!
Emma: That’s awesome! What is the best piece of advice you can give to someone wanting to become an underwater photographer?
Danny: There’s loads of great resources out there if you are just starting out as an underwater photographer or have been at it for a while:
and if you’re in the UK then http://www.bsoup.org/ is well worth a look at and has regular monthly meetings
For learning about techniques for types of shooting then Underwater Photography Masterclassis a must, written by one of the best in the business, Alex Mustard. Its an absolute trove of information that every underwater photographer should have for reference.
My top five tips for taking great underwater photos are buoyance, buoyancy, mastering manual white balance, learning about the behaviours of the subjects, and buoyancy!
Emma: I know you like shooting in RAW. So what are the benefits?
Danny: Shooting in RAW gives you more data in the photo to play with and by using some great processing tools that are out there some photos that aren’t great can be brought back to life!
This shot of the stern of a wreck with diver and shark has spots in it, a fish that I didn’t like and is a bit dark.
By working on it in Lightroom, I’ve adjusted contrast, exposure, highlights, shadow, removed the fish using the spot clone feature and turned it into a black and white.
I’ve also created a version using the Silver EFex Pro plugin that has lots of pre-sets for black & whites so I’ve pick one I like the feel of and edited out the fish. They’re subtly different, which do you prefer?
Emma: Ooo, I think I prefer the second version. So, what is your next project?
Danny: Whilst I’m planning some trips in the near future I’m currently working on designing some (hopefully) improved bits of kit that fix some of the issues I experience with my current set up. I’m currently in the process of having prototypes made and will then see where we go from there! Having worked in aerospace for quite a while I’m trying to bring the design experience I gained there to the underwater photographer product market.
Emma: Where can people find you/buy your gorgeous work?
Emma: Thanks Danny! Lovely to catch up! Hope to see you on another of our liveaboards, soon!
Learn to freedive with Go Freediving
If you want to start underwater photography and freediving, Go Freediving is the longest established, most experienced and friendliest freediving course provider in the UK, led by world class freediving instructor trainer Emma Farrell, and her team of personally trained instructors. No other course provider has such a good instructor to student ratio, safety record and personal touch.
Whether you’re a beginner dipping your toes into the world of freediving, a seasoned pro looking to turn professional, or simply a freediver of any level who wants the best freediving holiday in the world, we’re here for you!