Personal thoughts on ethics in underwater photography

May 19, 2016  •  4 Comments

Last couple of months have seen many words written to cover the topic of manipulating marine life in pursuit of stunning images. Before I add my own views, allow me to share an observation.

Majority of people involved in the debate see manipulation of critters as the dark side of photography. Hardly anyone would openly promote critter harassment as a great way to improve their pictures. In the absence of better ammunition, those who accept manipulation tend to resort to derogatory comments aimed at proponents of the topic. I guess manipulation is like speeding. Maybe you get where you want faster. You may be seen as cool among your similarly minded buddies. You may utter a few malicious words to address those respecting speed limits, yet you would hardly admit speeding on record.

I understand the urge. I did all of the above speeding-wise (speaking off the record obviously) and I did move small critters to a better background in the past. I have seen a dive guide pushing a boxer crab so the crab lost its claw. I resorted to harassing a critter using my own creativity as an excuse. I wanted to prove my worth as a photographer. The pressure is high in the face of a photo opportunity.

Boxer crab (Lybia tessellata). Species of Lybia defend themselves by carrying small anemones in the claws. This unfortunate crab was moved from its natural habitat of rubble and sand to a photographically pleasing background. It may have been an accepted technique in the past. Nowadays it is a sign of photographer's recklessness.

I know worse things are happening in the world and one lost crab's claw does not have an impact of an oil spill in Alaska. Yet preventing damage I may cause is one of the small things I can do straight away. "Great acts are made up of small deeds." Today I realise that it is better to wait for the right opportunity than to harass the marine life.

Waiting for an opportunity may be a hardly acceptable concept for somebody who is just starting with underwater photography. Nevertheless, with ever growing numbers of people diving with cameras, the ethics of doing so must be improved. Blowing up coral reef by a single crew in the name of research may have been accepted 60 years ago but is unthinkable today. Hundreds of thousands of photographers willingly causing everyday small damage may amount to a menace to marine environment.

Following the money trail, editors of diving press, producers of photo competitions, dive centre managers, they all need never-seen-before images to run or promote their business. Many of them do a tremendous job in conservation of nature. As their customer, I expect unquestionable ethics in underwater photography to be part of their corporate code of conduct. I vote with my wallet.

I am very thankful to Dr Alex Tattersall, a renowned underwater photographer, who brought this issue to the light of the day in a dispute with David Pilosof, the producer of the World Shootout photography competition. You can find the discussion thread on facebook.

I believe photographers play an important role in education about nature and conservation issues. Yet being very close to fragile eco-systems there comes a responsibility not to cause harm by own activities! Therefore I signed the petition More ethics in UW photography.

Dr Alex Tattersall published a very informative article about photography techniques to take brilliant macro images without subject manipulation, minimising damage to the marine environment. You can find this guidance at

Marine environment is beautiful and deserves respect to have a fighting chance of staying so.


Solaiman Sumon(non-registered)
well post you have published and your written article is wonderful . So much thanks guy for this posting here .
Absolutely true. I have been tempted but never manipulated and always wondered how people got some of the amazing images I have seen. Then I hear the true story behind some, not all, and I'm shocked. I thought wow, is that really acceptable to toss an octopus up so you can get a shot of it coming down. Heck no. It stresses them out. Glad you admitted your past and stopped and I'm just glad I was never good enough to care that much. Lol.
You're an ambassador of the sea, when considering ethics, consider how you want to influence those who aspire to be like you.
Alfredo Avalos
Excelent article Josef, it does take courage to recognize that you made mistakes in the past but now you are concious about the harm done to the ecosystem by doing actions that appear innocents, but when you see the big picture it mean a lot of damage to our ocean creatures life;

Thank you for sharing and for remembering us that we all can make a big positive impact in preserving our ecosystems by respecting the basic rule of respecting it over our personal interests.

Cheers mate!
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