I love the first light of day when I’m surrounded by nothing but water in every direction. There is a magic to it - a deep feeling of peace which I find energising. It’s the same when I’m in the water - when the first beams of light waken the reef, bringing forth its myriad colours. Trying to capture these moments with a camera has become one of my favourite pursuits. Boats are my office - I work as a cruise director on small vessels, sailing to some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the Indonesian archipelago. And more than anywhere else, the Bird’s Head Seascape in West Papua - the global epicentre of marine biodiversity. But while I’m a dive master, I prefer to shoot underwater on breath hold only.
I makes sure my camera is always set up because you never know what you might encounter. Because I prefer photographing on a single breath, I can just slip in the water - no gearing up. To me, skin diving is true freedom. And shooting breath hold adds a whole new level of focus to the activity.
These short moments - when I take a breath and descend to seek out images - are the same as sitting in meditation for me. Drawing awareness inwards, to my breath and my heartbeat, I try to keep my gaze wide and soft, as if my eyes were still closed, before I slip into the water.
You need to finding neutral buoyancy pretty fast and then keep the camera very steady. Your bottom time is obviously far more limited than with scuba diving, so you need to make quick decisions, move decisively and focus on accuracy. It’s a challenge I love every time, whatever the outcome. And the photography has been one of my greatest teachers in terms of free diving too.
Once I’ve picked my subject, I begin by positioning my body and angling the strobes on the camera, adjusting the settings and white balance according to the depth. Meters and minutes become secondary as I concentrate on these tasks. Of course one of the biggest advantages of breathhold photography is that you don’t make any noise.
Gliding silently through these shifting shades of blue allows me to get close to my aquatic friends. And of course there are no bubbles. I shoot most of my images with a fisheye lens (15mm), so I have to get really close. Especially with sharks and rays, this extra challenge can be a real thrill as you mindfully approach the animal and connect with it.
When we freedive, an ancient biological process kicks in. It’s called the mammalian dive reflex and it is the legacy of our aquatic ancestors. When we submerge even just our faces in cold water, or go to greater depths, our heart rate immediately begins to slow and through peripheral vasoconstriction (the narrowing of blood vessels) our blood shifts from our extremities into the life support system of lungs, heart and brain.
This allows us, to be more efficient with our oxygen consumption under water. Also, it activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming one. We slow down.
Meeting sea creatures and exploring the underwater environment with a camera distracts you from the ever present voice in your head. It helps bring you into the present. it’s difficult to express just how vital and immediate these encounters on breath hold actually feel. There isn’t a comparable habitat where you can get so close to animals - witnessing predators and prey in action, getting drawn into the macro world, zooming in to observe tiny coral polyps feeding on plankton.
Breath hold photography loosens the hold of the strong protection mechanisms of the body. That can be dangerous too of course and you need to develop judgement, knowing when it is time to head to the surface. Free diving requires training and should never be done alone.
After years of shooting on breathhold and attempting deeper dives regularly out on the reefs, I wanted to learn more about the sport and improve my technique. So I decided, to follow the educational system of the Apneista dive school (apneista.com) in Amed, northeast Bali, up to instructor level.
It was only by doing the programme that I realised how dangerous this sport can be, and how little I actually knew! I highly recommend all ocean lovers – whether surfers, spear fishers, scuba divers or snorkelers - to join at least a basic freediving course with professionals in order to be safer and have more confidence in the water. And then pick up a camera and really go deep!
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