Responsible Underwater Photography Workshop in Malaysia

by Sharyn Shufiyan

Kuala Lumpur, 2 June 2009. Photography has been one of the most popular forms of fine art in recent years. What is most interesting about photography is the idea of immortality - immortality of the subjects captured within that specific moment, that precise composition, scene or action. A truly marvellous picture tells a story and as the story is taken off land and into the sea, they unravel discoveries that are most intriguing.

Develop an eye for details.

Constantly exposed to the wonders of the blue world and with equipment manufacturers providing a good range of cameras (from beginners compact point-and-shoot to professional set-ups), many divers have decided to take up underwater photography to capture interesting finds. Unfortunately, many divers are not aware of the negative impact their enthusiasm may leave on marine life, such as broken corals or harassed sea creatures, which could also harm the diver.

To address some of these problems, a pilot underwater photography workshop spawned as a joint collaboration among Wild Asia, Reef Check and Fisherman Divers. Held on the 7th - 8th March 2009 in Salang, Tioman Island, Malaysia, this workshop was facilitated by Ariffin Aris, an underwater photographer, Shafinaz Suhaimi of Wild Asia and Ummi Haslinda of Reef Check.

Invasion of the Land Dwellers

The course trainers have observed, heard and read about underwater photographers having little respect for marine life. The latter may have a habit of touching, prodding or moving corals and other sea creatures around to get that ‘perfect’ photo composition. Sadly, many other new divers and photographers would learn and adopt these practices.

Trained to take photos without finning off corals.

By removing marine creatures from a certain place and having them spend their energy trying to get back to where they had come from, we are making them more vulnerable to attacks by their predators. Touching them does not just expose ourselves to the risk of being harmed, but can also removes the protective mucus on their bodies and thereby predisposes them to diseases or predation.

Some fish may puff up when provoked either by touch or a flash of the camera, while others may retract into their hideouts just by our mere presence in close proximity. Without knowing the nature and characters of marine life, divers would not know the best approach to photograph the subject and may inflict harm both to themselves and the animals.

When corals are broken, they are prone to disease, this leading to disequilibrium in the marine ecosystem. Even rocks, no matter how inane they look, provide a base for coral polyps to attach to and for coralline algae to grow and fuse rock and rubble together. So, without the ability to maintain proper buoyancy (and this also means watching where the fins are and not kicking up a storm of sand and silt in the process), divers would hold on to corals for balance and probably end up breaking them.

On that basis, the course trainers made sure that the first lesson covered basic aspects of responsible underwater photography mainly concerning divers’ buoyancy, awareness of surroundings, and respecting marine life. Proper diving behaviour and photography ethics must be inculcated before a camera is brought down underwater.

Technical Photography

A passionate photographer, Yusmar Yahaya has been taking pictures for more than ten years. He discovered underwater photography in 2004 during his tenure as a part-time dive guide in Perhentian Island. Through creative experiments using different techniques, angles and concepts, he continuously improves on the technical quality and storyline of his photos.

Pyramid-styled photo subject for trainees at Salang Beach, Tioman.

Pyramid-styled photo subject for trainees at Salang Beach, Tioman.

Realising that many divers, especially beginners, often accidentally damage the reefs in their excitement to capture pictures of the elusive marine life, he created the course modules and initiated this pilot photography workshop to educate and increase awareness on how to take underwater pictures responsibly. He also believes that getting it right from the very beginning will save them from months of trial-and-error attempts, which in turn, saves marine creatures from stress and physical threats.

“When you dive and find yourself immersed in the beauty of the underwater world, you tend to capture as many photos as possible for memories-sake. This is common to everyone especially beginners, but by not knowing the proper techniques and settings, as well as being able to manage light conditions underwater, the resulting images often do not reflect what they intended to capture. This is a classic case of running before you learn how to walk, not knowing the basics of camera handling and already plunging into the deep blue sea”, Yusmar replied when asked why he initiated the workshop.

Training the participants that weekend was Ariffin Aris, a full-time photographer who specialises in underwater and industrial photography. He taught the participants about basic camera handling lesson, explaining the different parts and how to deal with camera flooding.

“You need to master your diving skills before you can master photography. You have to master buoyancy first, or else you can’t do it responsibly,” advised Ariffin Aris, who also lectured on the different camera settings and photographic effects that can be applied during a dive. According to him, photography is “not a discipline where you have to play by the rules”.

“Once you’ve mastered your equipment, only then can you master your technique”, he continued.

Responsible Underwater Photography

With the growing popularity of underwater photography, it is crucial to be aware that our recreational activities have an impact on marine life. Therefore, divers and underwater photographers alike have to be responsible in their behaviour and actions.

Christmas tree worm is pretty, but hard to capture on film.

If diving is indeed their passion, preserving the majestic reefs and the astounding life it harbours ought to be a mission so that they remain in the future.

“When you dive, you tend to be in your own world”, commented Shairyzah Hisham, one of the participants. Attending this workshop had helped her be more aware of her surroundings.

Workshops like this provide the necessary knowledge and skills crucial to diving and photography. They are the platform to spread awareness amongst a community that utilises the ocean’s blessings as a sport and their actions, if not monitored properly, can be destructive.

Imagine diving in the deep blue sea, and all you can see is darkness - no splashes of colour, sways and movement of life. That is what we are heading towards if we continue on with our ignorance.

Photos courtesy of Yusmar Yahaya.

For more information on the Responsible Underwater Photography Workshop and the scheduled workshops for this year, visit or email