THROUGH THE LENS
Words and Photos by Ryan McInnis
Part 7: Getting the $hot - A Guide Working with an Underwater Cameraman
Since you’ve picked up Spearing Magazine and are browsing this article then it’s probably safe to assume that you at least have some interest in outdoor print publications and possibly are a full-blown spearfishing enthusiast. Most folks don’t open a fresh magazine and immediately start reading, it’s the photos that first draw your attention. Hopefully their quality and composition keeps you occupied long enough to see a few ads and maybe actually read a few of the great articles that accompany them. The incredible images that drive top shelf mags like this one don’t happen by accident, it takes not only a skilled cameraman (or woman) but a cooperative and conscientious subject. This installment of TTL reviews how to optimize your opportunity to get that photo/video “money shot”... as a team.
Nothing is more frustrating as a cameraman than turning around and seeing splashes and bubbles where your buddy once was. What results is a scramble trying to catch up to the action then either scaring the fish in your haste, missing the magic moment or shooting rushed content from the hip that lacks stability and composition. A simple conversation before dive activities begin can greatly improve your chances of capturing the action as it happens.
Start by reviewing the dive environment. Discuss the target depth and terrain features, tactics for available visibility and any current, and what species you’re after and their behavior. Being on the same game plan and understanding the hunter’s intended tactics allows the cameraman to pre-plan their positioning for optimal composition and minimal adjustment effort. Also, knowing where the target species lives and how they act helps reduce the chance of “bumping” the fish by “over-diving” your buddy.
Then you will need to come up with and agree upon what non-verbal means of communication you’ll be using. When freediving I like my buddy to make eye contact with me at the surface and signal when they are close to beginning a dive. A show of fingers representing how many breaths works, but I prefer just an OK sign to indicate a pre-determined five breaths away. This way I can spend the last moments before a dive worrying about my own breathe-up rather than hastily taking a big gulp and playing catch-up.
Once underwater, body language takes over. It’s important for the cameraman to get a feel for what the hunter is thinking by observing how they act. It is impossible to focus both on a diver and game fish while filming, so use your subject to tell you what is happening. Scanning back and forth indicates that no “shooters” are in sight whereas tensing up and making stalking movements tell me that something good is about to go down. A subtle point or nod from the hunter never hurts either, but don’t look at the camera!
In film there is a concept called the “4th wall” which, in the effort of realism, is something never to be broken. You’ll notice that in movies and television, even in interviews, the actor never looks directly into the camera. This creates a passive voyeurism for the viewer that results in authentic viewing experience... in other words, act like the camera isn’t there! When diving this can be a challenge, but you don’t want to end up with a bunch of pics and vid of someone’s backside or goofy bug eyes drawing attention from the sacred activity that we enjoy.
An experienced team will just assume that their filmer is right over their shoulder, but in my travels I dive with many different people so it helps to establish some technique. Physical contact is a very effective method of alerting your buddy to your location, but this must be done carefully. A light hand on the shoulder or leg says “I’m here, pull the trigger” unless they weren’t expecting it or it’s more grab than touch. If you spook your buddy then the fish will bolt for certain. Another useful skill is the ability to “grouper call” underwater. It’s like a grunt and swallow sound that resonates a low frequency from your vocal chords through the dense liquid medium of saltwater to your buddy’s ears. This can mean “hey, I’m here” or “look over here/I see something”.
The hunter can also use sideways glances to gain a glimpse of the cameraman. Performed without turning your head, the camera will not pick up this action because of the mask shadow concealing your eyes. When you know the camera’s location, you can cheat your movements towards the lens. Of course, you can’t control where the fish will swim (if we could then spearfishing wouldn’t be nearly as much fun!), but you can help the cameraman make their shot when you make yours.
Patience, patience... PATIENCE!
In general spearfishing is a game of logging lots of dive time for small handful of shot chances. You can’t script taking a nice fish, especially catching the moment on camera, because things happen really fast when they happen. But, if you are committed to capturing your hunt for posterity then you have to be willing to wait. The cameraman is usually working twice as hard as the hunter; sacrificing technique and breathing efficiency for composition angles and position adjustments.
I like to bank some natural habitat content of live fish before the hunting begins. It makes for a better story when you get to see what the fish looked like before getting it’s new body piercing. Using the same tactics as a hunter, you can shoot even the most elusive species with your camera... but only if you’re given the time to do so. Some spearos are too bloodthirsty to wait for the documentary aspect to take place, and usually after the steel is slung it is much more difficult to get close to the game in that same area. Ask for a few “scouting dives” next time to grab some good filler for your story.
If the species you’re after is common and it’s not a once in a lifetime opportunity then take a moment to ensure your filmer is ready to dive. Avoid leaving the surface without some sort visual communication. A dedicated cameraman will follow you down even if they weren’t prepared, but this creates a safety issue and reduces their ability to match your dive time. Pause for second before pulling the trigger if you can, every second allows the camera to get closer. Take your time, because time breeds creativity, and creativity results in satisfying coverage of your dive day!
The Art of Not-Posing
Along with not breaking the 4th Wall, the best photo and video content shows the diver in crisp form without distracting appendages and equipment marring the shot. Streamlining and clean technique is key to efficient and safe diving. I love nice silhouettes during the descent and epic “find the diver” shots of camo wetsuits on a reef. But after your big magazine debut the last thing you want is your certification instructor e-mailing you about head and arm position, equipment management and body control. Be sure to remember your training even when the lens is on you and be mindful of how you will look in print or on a computer screen.
In after-the-recovery fish pictures, the subject should start by relaxing the body and not fighting to maintain a certain position; allow the cameraman to adjust to you. It’s hard to see the beauty in a shot where fins and arms are flailing around like you’re auditioning for a Jackie Chan movie. Clean up your hunting tackle so that the shooting line isn’t looped around your neck or gun floating in front of your grill. Let your legs dangle parallel beneath or behind you.
To avoid bubbles and shallow depth buoyancy issues, try performing a “negative breath-hold” dive by exhaling to sink just below the surface (no deeper than 5 feet) instead of making full surface dive. This should be done with caution, but it will extend your time window for images while providing a more appealing composition than floating at the surface.
Making Dead Beautiful
Ultimately our goal in spearfishing is to put fresh and ethical protein on the dinner table, but there is no reason why we can’t look good doing it! We must keep in mind though that there is a line between an obnoxious “trophy” shot and a respectful homage to the fish. When I watch deer hunting shows where the successful hunter starts dancing and singing and shaking the animal around it makes me sick, but the ones where proper reverence to the out-of-doors is portrayed are the ones that make me proud to be an outdoorsman. I believe the same to be true with fish, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to harvest our oceans and the minute we take that for granted is when we’ve lost connection to the spirit of hunting.
Shoot your fish pics as soon after the kill as possible to preserve the natural color and character of the animal. Work with the sun’s angle and tilt the fish’s belly toward the lens to maximize available light while avoiding contrast producing shadows. Clean up any protruding organs from a gut-shot and swim out of any blood clouds, the fish deserves to look it’s best in it’s final portrait. Adding action to the shot can be accomplished by mocking an ascent with the fish or returning to it’s habitat on the bottom; use unique camera angles to add creative value. Riding the fish like a bull or holding it like a phallus is not a way to accrue undersea Karma points.
Eyes are important, on the fish and the diver. Fish eyes hold some of the most beautiful colors in the sea, so super close-up shots can be surprisingly striking. The diver can add intrigue to an image by gazing down their catch’s length, looking into it’s eyes or searching up toward the surface. Basically anything but looking into the cold, black eye of the camera.
Above water is another time to put your creative stamp on an otherwise ugly scene. “Dock of Death” pics usually come off gluttonous, but if arranged neatly with your spearguns framing your scaly carcass pile some artful intent can shine through. Some notable spearos have signature poses they perform with their prize which can become a trademark if done consistently. Whether it be hoisting it over your shoulder, pointing it straight at the lens, laying down next to it or even allowing a scantily clad woman the honor; unique (but respectful) fish pics stand out amongst the rest.
Use these tips to get the most out your next dive day by having great hero shots to show your friends and family. Working with a cameraman can be a rewarding challenge that could lead to a magazine cover or YouTube sensation. Always remember to thank your camera person for their effort and share some fish with them because more often than not, they’d rather be releasing a shaft than the shutter.
Share you best shots with us on our Facebook page or send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to get published in the mag! We also welcome any photo or video questions that you might have to email@example.com
Ryan is from Wrightsville Beach, NC and has committed his life to documenting the beauty of the oceans and the people that subsist on her bounty. He is our Photo Editor and his credit list includes the likes of National Geographic Television and Outside Magazine. For more of his work, check out www.InSeaWorldwide.com