Photographers love to shop for new gear, but when that gear is for safety during your underwater photography session, shopping become essential. I wanted to write this article to discuss the safety standards (or lack thereof) in the underwater photography community. I LOVE that myself and other water photographers are inspiring others, but I also want people to think before they jump in. We’ve all seen that heart-stopping video of the bride jumping out of the boat. Her gown balloons over her head and she barely made it out.
Say it with me, “No pictures are ever worth a life!” So what are my qualifications to harp on this? I spent over 10 years as a lifeguard and swim instructor, I’ve been a certified master scuba diver and have been diving for over 18 years, and I’m an RN-BSN (Register Nurse with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing). Underwater photography safety is constantly something that my team and I are trying to improve on why keeping fresh with skills, purchasing new safety gear, and finding tips and tricks to make your experience as safe as possible and still thoroughly enjoyable. Here are some of my best underwater photography gear and tips to consider before you jump in the water with a client:
1. Ask about water comfort and swimming proficiency beforehand, but know people will lie. It’s not malicious; they’re excited and want to do the session so they’re invested in telling you what you want to hear. Make sure that you let them know that you have the right (as do they) to call off the shoot for any reason, at any time, without penalty.
2. Plan their wardrobe in advance. No ballgowns, heavy dresses, easily tangled/snagged items. I like to start my clients in a swimsuit and add on as I see fit, based on their ability.
3. Do a safety briefing before getting in the water. Tell them pertinent information about the body of water you are entering (for example: water temperature, current direction, rock features, etc.). Go through a plan for the shoot; include teaching them a signal for distress (but do not be surprised if they forget to use it), the right way to fall, how you will provide support to them, what to do if you encounter dangerous wildlife, etc.
4. Ensure you have cell reception and access to a first aid kit and flotation device. I will say this several times, but do NOT attempt to rescue someone unless you have training to do so! Throw them a floatation device but do not become a second victim. Know where the closest AED is. Always include gloves and a CPR mask in your kit.
5. Watch closely as they enter the water. It is dangerous getting in so make sure they are supported; for pregnant moms, I like to have someone on either side of her, supporting her under her armpits. Gauge their comfort level in the water and work them in slowly to make sure that they are proficient swimmers. This is more pertinent to non-pool bodies of water.
6. Take mandatory breaks. This is another great thing to prepare them for in the safety briefing. “Just a heads up, every X amount of minutes, we will take a breather.” This lets them know that it’s not a failing on their end, but a policy that you have in place.
7. Know how to identify a swimmer in distress! Visit https://www.redcross.org/ for more information and trainings near you. Do NOT attempt a rescue from the front, they can latch on and you can become a victim too.
8. Never have more clients than you have safety swimmers. Don’t do it. It’s far easier- and safer- to create composites in Photoshop then wrangle a family of five in the water. We only allow a maximum of two clients in the water at a time.
9. A safety swimmer should have lifeguarding experience and be CPR/First aid certified. Pay for your team to be current on their certifications and host monthly or bi-monthly safety drill days. Run through worst case scenarios so that you know you can act cohesively as a team.
10. While clients are in vulnerable positions, NEVER take your eyes off them. No changing camera settings, looking through images NADA until their feet are firmly planted and safety is ensured.
11. Another studio policy is that either myself or my safety swimmer is the first in the water, and the last out. This ensures that no client is ever left unattended in the water. We also always place the clients between ourselves and the land/dock/exit. This way, they are always in a safer position, and, should it become necessary, easier to rescue.
12. Lastly, conduct a post-shoot safety briefing with your team. What went well, what could have gone better, what were some challenges you faced? By analyzing your shoot, you will start thinking critically about safety hazards and it will help keep you and your team diligent. It doesn’t have to be onerous- my SS and I have a ritual of doing it over macarons! We love the time we get to relax after the shoot, warm up with cocoa and treats, and discuss it while it’s fresh in our minds.
Underwater photography is amazing, fun, exhilarating, and so much more! There is nothing else like it, and I love when photographers want to learn more about it. However, it only takes a split second for an accident to happen. Please,- if you can’t- or won’t- budget for safety training and gear, know that you cannot afford to take a client in the water.
TLDR; No picture is worth a life.
Check out our blog posts for some of our incredible underwater photography sessions!