As freedivers and photographers, we have all probably read books on those topics, and there are many really good books that separately cover all aspects of photography and freediving…but I don’t know when I have ever read of both activities being as thoroughly explored together as in Glass and Water: The Essential Guide to Freediving for Underwater Photography. Written by Mark Harris, a former four-time British Champion freediver, Glass and Water is a thoroughly accessible, easy to understand, primer for those of us who are passionate about freediving and want to capture our experiences as more than just memories.
As a freediver with limited underwater photography skills, I was quite pleased to find that the book is written in a way that allows me to feel comfortable with the new information, as well as provide more in-depth instruction and “pro-tips” for the experienced photographer. Divided into 13 chapters under three sections, Glass and Water is a 188 pages of a subject-matter expert sharing his passion with the world. Mark has devised a three-part model he calls “The Freediving Actualisation Triangle” that describes the interaction and application of the three fundamental elements: Equipment, Technique, Training. Mark also advises that “Snorkeling and Freediving” are similar enough, and that all the techniques discussed are accessible enough to both sets, to warrant inclusion.
Part One covers Equipment and Basics. So, here is where there always has to be some compromise, if for no other reason than space. Mark handles this by subdividing the section into separate chapters for Freediving Equipment, Photographic Equipment, Underwater Photography Basics, and Challenges and Opportunities for Freedivers.
As a diver, I have always been concerned about weight, hydrodynamics and task-loading. These concerns are even more important when freediving. The convenience of having a BCD (Buoyancy Compensating Device) with numerous attachment points and many pounds/kilos of lift capacity make it supremely simpler to manage heavy, cumbersome camera equipment. When freediving, one has to be much more aware of the physical characteristics of the camera and housing they are using, and the effects drag will have on the diver; harder effort, less bottom time, not having a free hand if needed, etc.
Chapter One covers the covers the selection of Freediving Equipment. Mark writes at length on the basic freediving gear. His coverage of fins, exposure protection, mask and snorkel, weights, dive computers, diver’s floats and accessories is exceptionally comprehensive for being one chapter. His descriptions and examples are adequate to allow a novice to learn what the minimal equipment is, how to choose it, and what it’s used for.
Chapter Two covers the Photography Equipment. I immediately thought back to my old Nikonos V was a beast to lug around and operate…and certainly required two hands. We have all been on dive trips where there’s some diver wrestling a monster Gates housing, secretly envious, yet glad we aren’t lugging four house payments around on a lanyard.
So, Mark addresses how we will classify cameras into three major sizes or forms: Small Form refers to point and shoot, usually fixed lenses and GoPro-like action cameras. Medium Form cameras with interchangeable lenses that require external housings, and Large Form systems that require two hands to manipulate and include most professional SLR’s (Single Lens Reflex). The classifications assist the diver in making decisions on a combination of factors that relate to size and versatility and the intended usage of system.
So, a diver looking for simply taking cool selfies and pics of dive buddies underwater would be served well by the Small Form cameras, whereas a person wishing to take magazine-quality pictures and high-resolution macros or underwater movies would need a larger-sized camera system. The selection of Equipment forms one side of the Freediving Actualisation Triangle. The equipment choices determine the level of Training and the Techniques discussed further in the book.
Chapter Three weighs in on Underwater Photography Basics. It is detailed enough to give a novice a good foundation in Technique, composition, color balance, exposure control and reducing some of the common errors and minimizing issues.
Freedivers will find Chapter Four, which discusses the Challenges and Opportunities for Freedivers of great interest. There are two main concerns, covered by Deep Water Benefits and Issues and Shallow Water Benefits and Issues. The reality for freedivers is that “deep water” is really whatever your maximum working depth is…that place where you can reach safely and spend enough time to “compose and capture an image”.
Shallow water is the zone of comfort where snorkelers and freedivers can take the time to locate, compose and take much more deliberate photos. Macro photography becomes realistic, and equipment selection can include setups with more drag (strobes), opening up a much higher-quality photographic opportunity. So, choosing that right size and capability equipment form becomes critical depending on where you are going to be diving.
Any book that involves freediving will eventually address breath-hold techniques. Chapter Five is titled Lungcraft and appropriately converses on breathing techniques, training tips and methodology, breathing physiology, risks and concerns. This chapter has quite a lot of detail that will be of great usefulness to the novice freediver and provides a good general refresher for more experienced divers. Most importantly, it speaks directly to the other two sides of the Freediving Actualisation Triangle, which are Training and Techniques.
Chapter Six dives right into proper Finning techniques. After explaining why monofins are not the best choice for photographers, Mark breaks down the variety of different bi-fins (stereo fins) available and their relative pros and cons. This is an excellent primer for a novice and can help them determine the best initial investment based on material, style, intended usage, etc. The chapter then discusses the “how to” of proper finning techniques.
Chapter Seven concerns itself with Descents and Ascents and considerations with camera equipment. Mark introduces another new term to the book; SOUPA, or Submersible Optics Underwater Platform Assembly, is a novel way to rig bulky equipment at depth, putting it much closer to the photography subject (especially useful in macro work), while freeing your hands at the surface for a proper entry. This one concept made the entire book worthwhile to me…the adaptability of this idea to other equipment I would want at certain times made me wonder why I had never thought of it…duh! Excellent information and a workable solution to efficiency and streamlining during a portion of the descent and ascent.
Chapter Eight is chock-full of pictures and diagrams explaining Neutral Buoyancy, which may be the most critical skill for any diver, whether freediving or on SCUBA. The Techniques developed through extensive Training are designed to give the freediver experience in finding that optimal buoyancy while task loaded and carrying gear and equipment that might not be neutral, is certainly bulky and changes one’s natural balance point dramatically. By addressing these topics before going diving, the diver increases safety, endurance and duration of the dive and overall safety.
Chapter Nine tackles Hydrodynamics head-on. From physiology, equipment considerations, buoyancy factors, etc. this is a comprehensive treatise on the importance of streamlining, how to achieve it with maximum efficiency while taking pictures and moving with bulky equipment and a host of other germane issues. Thee a re a number of pictures and diagrams illustrating the concepts and serves well for the novice diver as well as those new to underwater photography.
Chapter Ten is all about Safety. No book can replace the safety knowledge gained in a freediving certification class. We should all know that freediving is an inherently risky endeavor and proper training and observation of one up/one down and knowing proper buddy rescue techniques will make the difference between great post-dive discussions and injury or death. This chapter covers many of the most critical safety points for freediving, and Mark doesn’t pull any punches in recommending one take a proper freediving certification course. Excellent pictures and graphs illustrate important concepts in this, as in every chapter.
Chapter Eleven is titled Creature by Creature and talks about the how to photograph sea creatures, and how to behave around them. Mark emphasizes not stressing out the subjects, keeping a safe and respectful distance and specific species interaction advice. Award-winning Photojournalist Andrew Sutton is introduced and contributes an essay devoted to photographing Long-finned Pilot Whales, a subject he is a renowned expert on. Manta Rays are discussed by Dr. Anne-Marie Kitchen-Wheeler, 5 time UK Ladies Freediving Champion, avid underwater photographer and Manta Ray researcher. Sharks, manatees, and numerous other denizens of the deep are also discussed.
Chapter Twelve is the reader’s Virtual Dive and is a an outline of putting everything learned in the preceding chapters into play. From Equipment Selection to Photographic Subjects, this chapter takes you through all the steps and considerations while reading like a “real time” review of a typical dive.
Chapter Thirteen is titled Behind the Lens and is a generous opportunity Mark has provided us to meet three exceptionally talented photographers. Mark takes us, in interview style, through a Q & A with Shane Wasik, the owner of Basking Shark Scotland, a diving and wildlife company in the UK, specializing in photography expeditions to capture Basking Sharks on film. Shane talks about tips, techniques and what it is like to photograph these gentle giants.
The next interviewee is award-winning underwater photographer Danny Kessler, who specializes in mega-fauna photography. He gives invaluable “pro-tips” on shooting clear and well-composed photographs of very large subjects such as whales.
Last, Mark interviews his wife Laura Storm. Named Buddy Diver of the Year by Diver Magazine in 2006, Laura is an expert technical diver as well as underwater photographer. Laura talks about photographing challenges as she transitioned from an equipment-dependent technical diver to a more “alpinist approach” as a freediving photographer. Laura also contributed a rather awesome poem than can be found at the end of the chapter…well worth the wait!
Generally, when reviewing a book, film, or equipment for DeeperBlue.com, I ask myself these following questions: Is this relevant to divers? Is this adding to our body of knowledge? Is this making us better/safer/more efficient? As I concluded reading Glass and Water, I came away with a great appreciation for the tremendous amount of work that Mark Harris had to do to distill years of knowledge and experience into a cohesive format. He has introduced new concepts, streamlined old ideas and given different perspectives by including other experts in the dialogue. A good book should feel like a conversation, with give and take and leave you wanting more. Glass and Water is just that sort of book…and adds greatly to the ever-expanding library of knowledge that freedivers and photographers can draw upon.