Thailand – Australia – United Kingdom

Technical Diving & Camerawork

by Christos Kardana, Big Blue Tech

The underwater world is a challenging one: both physiologically and psychologically. As a complex organism, all of our body’s vital biochemical processes have evolved over millions of years to a narrow set of pressures and temperatures that exist on the surface of the earth: where the human body has been designed to exist. As a technical diver, the moment you leave the surface and descend to depth, you are exposing your body to an environment so alien that the dramatic changes in ambient oxygen pressure and temperature can have a delirious effect on the body. The main centre of your focus suddenly becomes the application and execution of the pre-set methodology and techniques that have been drilled into you as part of your training, in order to conduct safely and efficiently the purpose of your dive – whether mission based or simply for fun.

This extreme type of diving is characterised by more equipment, more planning, more task loading, more methods and more risks. Many technical divers choose to include the addition of a camera rig to this extensive list. This may be a video or photography unit, in many cases encompassing a complex lightning system and battery pack. Underwater camerawork is difficult and frustrating as it is, even in perfect conditions within the recreational diving range (above 40m). So why add this burden to a complex technical dive? For the same reasons any individual takes photos or video: for documentation, surveying, scientific purposes or simply satisfying the artistic vein. The fact remains; for the segment of divers that crave deeper and darker environments; there are camera opportunities with deep coral reefs, beautiful wrecks, inspiring caves and sea creatures simply not present within the shallower depth ranges of diving.

Using a camera on a deep technical or cave dive can be challenging and difficult, but of course not impossible. Renowned technical diving photographer Leigh Bishop and videographer Evan Kovacs have proven this on many occasion. In a physically demanding environment, the key to successful deep diving camerawork is equipment, psychology and the correct handling and execution of the camera itself. At these depths, standard recreational housings are of no use, with most allowing a maximum depth rating of 40m. The drastic reduction of light means you have to pay even more consideration to shutter speeds, focus, filters and lighting than at shallower depths, were the sunny crystal clear water and auto function work hand-in-hand to produce a ‘more than decent’ shot.

At this level of diving, with regards to equipment, the planned dive in question will require extra cylinders (travel gas or decompression tanks) usually attached via a dog clip system to the divers harness. As a self-sufficient diver you will also have the availability of redundancy equipment, checked for function and efficiency ready to be used in any emergency or back up situation. Adding to this a deep camera system with lights, one has to consider its presence on the rig as a whole. Will it be clipped onto a D-ring to allow for a quick ‘ditch’?. Will the camera interfere with gauge reading, gas switching, team gas sharing (if the necessity arises) and the general function of the personal dive rig itself? The housings utilised on deep dives are designed with excessive pressure in mind and are big and bulky allowing for a full set of manual controls to be accessed and in many cases have to be operated using both hands. If the use of a reel, either for a back up buoyancy or surface marker purpose becomes necessary, it is imperative that the presence of the camera doesn’t pose an entanglement risk or even divert the divers attention away from the correct use of the reel itself. The most dramatic example being whilst in a cave diving situation, where the quick shot of a stalagtite formation diverts your focus so wholly that the line you were sure was but a few inches away from you has now suddenly disappeared from torch view and you have no access whatsoever to the cave exit!

As is customary in technical diving a 6m-bubble check is conducted ensuring function of all personal and team member’s equipment prior to the direct descent to mission depth. All usual camera checks for leaks must also be conducted at this part of the dive, bearing in mind if any leaks are detected at depth it isn’t as simple as bouncing to the surface to the safety of the dry boat, especially when a decompression ceiling has been imposed on your profile: the camera will either be sent up via a line and lift bag (and hope it is retrieved by surface cover), or its with you for the duration, not allowing your destroyed unit to affect your focus on the dive plan and multi- level stops. If the dive can be ‘cut’ or ‘called’ due to camera leak, then do so, following the new decompression requirements generated for the shortened dive. Furthermore, many deep technical wrecks or dive pinnacles will be at the bottom of the open ocean with little or no image opportunities present after the planned bottom time, unless your team mate decompressing on a line can make for some interesting footage or photo. This must be taken into account, as the majority of dive time may be spent hanging on a line or under a boat, again, not allowing the camera to divert your attention away from following your run time correctly and meeting your gas and decompression obligations. Unlike recreational scuba, where extra time spent filming a shallow water shark may mean a return to the boat to change to a full air cylinder, with technical diving, a couple more minutes at 60m filming the hull of a ship can mean insufficient available gas to fully meet your deco. requirements, running the serious risk of decompression illness or the so-called ‘bends’.

Then there’s the presence of nitrogen narcosis and its associated effects on the divers body. As the partial pressure increase with depth, the inert gas nitrogen goes into solution dissolving into the fatty tissues surrounding the nerve cells. The result is interference with the transmission of impulses along or between neurons simulating a similar physiological state as that when under the influence of alcohol. The manifestation of inert gas narcosis can have as series of effects on the divers function; affecting memory, concentration, reasoning and an overall reduction in alertness and coordination. Depending on the individual’s comfort level either a sense of euphoria may ensue or on the opposite side of the spectrum: anxiety, which can lead to distress and panic. Pioneer ocean filmmaker Jacques Cousteau himself once stated, “Narcosis destroys the instincts of life!” As simple tasks become difficult to perform, increasing task loading to a particular situation by the addition of a camera, a greater risk is posed to the diver. While under the influence of narcosis a phenomenon known as ‘perceptual narrowing’ may occur. This term is used to describe the divers complete focus switch to one single task, completely neglecting other necessary considerations one may have whilst at depth. This is a particular concern to deep camera operators, where ‘idea fixation’ can ultimately be the cause for team separation, exceeding run times and ultimately running out of gas. Furthermore, impaired reasoning, severe delays in response to signals or subject matter and the loss of dexterity can affect the manipulation of the camera rig itself, ultimately making for useless footage or photographs.

Whilst using a camera many divers tend to manipulate the movement of the unit both with changes in buoyancy but also with breath, in many cases shallow breathing or retaining an inhalation for an extra second or two in order to approach marine life or prevent bubbles entering the frame. You may also find yourself finning excessively to get into different positions in order to capture various angles of a certain subject. As carbon dioxide (CO2) is a natural bi-product of respiration and exercise the CO2 level in our system will increase with added physical intensity at depth. An increase drive to breathe (from higher CO2 levels) coupled simultaneously with increase breathing resistance (common in deep diving) will cause adoption of a negative pattern of rapid shallow breathing. Adding to this an irregular breath pattern due to camera work and the overall result is a reduction in “fresh gas” diffusion in the lungs and consequently less CO2 removal from our body’s tissues. At sufficiently high levels, CO2 can cause depression of the nervous system and thus have a positive relationship overall with nitrogen narcosis, as well as additional concerns such as CO2 toxicity; leading to potential unconsciousness, with little prior warning except for the anxious desire to breathe faster and deeper.

Aside from the onset of narcosis and CO2 build up, one has the reduction in temperature to consider. The severity of this change depends on seasonality and the specific dive site, but generally in any marine environment there will be a decrease in temperature with deeper depth. Maintaining this depth for an extended period of time, which is common practice in the world of technical diving, will further exacerbate the effects of this reduction upon the body. As homeotherms, (organisms maintaining a relatively constant body temperature) we function most efficiently when the body’s core temperature is around 37 degrees Celsius. As the temperature drops we lose body heat via conduction as heat moves from a place of higher temperature (our body) to lower temperature (the ambient environment). Furthermore, our wetsuit becomes so compressed at deeper depths that there is a reduction in its insulating capacity. In an attempt to keep warm the body shifts blood away from our limbs to our core, ultimately affecting motor skills like manipulating equipment, in this case a camera, affecting the overall quality of the images captured. Additionally, the association between temperature reduction and inert gas narcosis exists, both working hand in hand to cause minimisation in dexterity, mental concentration and function, impairing fine motor skills necessary to efficiently operate controls on the camera.

In conclusion, there are many factors to be taken into account whilst technical diving with a camera, but just like any form of diving the correct mental and physical approach can ‘make or break’ not only the dive itself but the effectiveness of your camerawork and the subsequent product. Ensure all dive planning and camera set-up is performed well in advance of the dive in question. If you ‘cram’ everything prior to the dive you will only increase the chance of error, posing a safety risk to yourself and team members as well as a higher risk of housing flooding due to a rushed camera assembly, forgetting perhaps an essential O-ring or pre-dive check. The increase level of anxiety prior to the dive due to workload will only have a spiral effect on the dive, increasing the chance of excessive narcosis and irregular breathing patterns. Stay well hydrated and in good physical health. As an aspiring technical cameraman or woman you will have to don multiple tanks and equipment both on deck and underwater, as well as highly exerting yourself in the water column, altering your body position to achieve a variety of interesting shot angles. Plan your dive correctly in accordance to the site and the necessary footage or photos you wish to achieve, choosing the best possible gas mix. By reducing the partial pressure of nitrogen in the breathing gas you can reduce the effect of narcosis. Narcosis itself is believed  to be reduced in individuals with strong motivation to perform a task. If everything has been checked for operation and safety and the use of the camera itself is second nature, then you can concentrate on the task at hand. Acclimatisation is also a key principle. Prior to a serious technical dive you wish to take a camera on, conduct some “work up” dives. Prolonged and frequent exposure may provide some degree of adaptation to the effects of temperature and narcosis. This will also mean extra in-water time to refine all key technical diving skills, thus allowing a greater concentration window available for the camera on the day, as all other necessary skills are honed and run times have become second nature.

Taking a camera on any dive can be extremely frustrating, but at the same time extremely rewarding. If you are not completely confident with your technical diving abilities, it is best to become accustomed to all necessary applications and equipment before adding the extra task loading of camera operation. For example; when visiting a new site, if time allows, perform a dive without the camera, utilising the exact dive plan intended with it, making mental notes on potential shots and what risk factors you may have to consider. It’s also best not to “SOLO” dive whilst operating a camera, taking into factor perceptual narrowing and task loading. Furthermore, if your team mate or “buddy” are not willing to accommodate your planned dive with the camera, its best not to take it at all or ultimately find a team mate who is. There is nothing worst than worrying about your images and your teammate at the same time. Whilst operating a camera at depth, it is best to dive with someone of equal or greater ability. If your focus is on the safety and correct execution of your teammates profile, it will only decrease the standard of your camerawork and increase your personal frustration and anxiety. Realistically, however, at this level of diving any member of the team should be self sufficient, and the success of any dive is based on the complete understanding and co-operation of the group as a whole.

Returning to the surface with images or footage of deep wrecks long lost to history, caves only but a select few are willing to dare and portraits of deep dwelling creatures rarely put on celluloid, you will quickly realise the fulfilment and enjoyment of deep technical diving camerawork. The key to success is being honest with yourself and your abilities. Conduct the dive with utmost concentration and modesty, ignoring personal ego, alongside immaculate planning and equipment preparation. The correct understanding of your camera unit’s maintenance and in-water function is also necessary – for that however, refer to your cameras manufacturing manual…


All material is © Christos Kardana / Big Blue Tech.

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