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Breathhold_Hero

AN INTRODUCTION TO BREATH HOLD PHOTOGRAPHY

By Diana Himmselspach     16 Dec 2016

Take a deep breath and follow free diver and photographer Diana Himmelspach as she shoots incredible underwater images without the aid of a scuba tank

Our intelligent bodies always want to keep us alive.

In free diving we act completely against what is reasonable for our protective mechanism—we hold our breath and swim away from the surface.

The alarm bells go crazy. The body tells us we need to return to the air source and breathe.

Overwriting this sophisticated system is the hardest part of free diving—it is the mind that needs to expand over the body.

Often I dive down, cruising along the reef on a nice, relaxing, long breath hold and take in what Mother Nature has to offer.

It’s like meditation: no thoughts about yesterday, no worries about tomorrow.

I simply enjoy and admire the underwater world’s amazing flora and fauna, which I have been studying for almost a decade.

A school of Crescent-Tail swims above a submerged reef. The fish’s bright red color would be completely absorbed and invisible to human eyes at this depth (around 25 meters). It only shows if we shine light on them—like I did here with two strobe lights
A school of Crescent-Tail swims above a submerged reef. The fish’s bright red color would be completely absorbed and invisible to human eyes at this depth (around 25 meters). It only shows if we shine light on them—like I did here with two strobe lights
A baby whale shark in Cenderawasih Bay, northwest Papua New Guinea, lets me up close and seems to be attracted to my camera’s dome port
A baby whale shark in Cenderawasih Bay, northwest Papua New Guinea, lets me up close and seems to be attracted to my camera’s dome port
This image shows a fish’s-eye view of a wave rolling over a reef near the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra, Indonesia. Shooting in waves can be quite challenging and, at times, dangerous. Sometimes I use waves to practice breath hold—I dive under, hang on to a rock and let a set of waves wash over my head. Counting and filming the waves distracts me from the urge to breathe
This image shows a fish’s-eye view of a wave rolling over a reef near the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra, Indonesia. Shooting in waves can be quite challenging and, at times, dangerous. Sometimes I use waves to practice breath hold—I dive under, hang on to a rock and let a set of waves wash over my head. Counting and filming the waves distracts me from the urge to breathe

Suddenly my eyes catch a subject—a beautiful beam of light dancing down the reef or a big fish or marine mammal. Meters and minutes become secondary as I concentrate on photography.

One of the biggest advantages of breath hold photography is that it doesn’t make any noise. Gliding silently through shifting shades of blue allows me to get closer to my objects and move at their speed.

For shooting big schools of fish, or big rays and sharks, it makes a huge difference to be able to follow them around without being burdened by a tank. I can go up and down, and as fast as I like.

The biggest fish in the ocean: a whale shark, in Cenderawasih Bay. The scuba diver looks tiny next to the gentle giant and beams of light are dancing into the endless blue
The biggest fish in the ocean: a whale shark, in Cenderawasih Bay. The scuba diver looks tiny next to the gentle giant and beams of light are dancing into the endless blue
A free diver swims along a rope in Jemeluk Bay, Bali, using a monofin. This type of equipment requires some training—what dolphins perform so easily and gracefully is anything but for members of our kind
A free diver swims along a rope in Jemeluk Bay, Bali, using a monofin. This type of equipment requires some training—what dolphins perform so easily and gracefully is anything but for members of our kind
A free diver ascends to the surface, as seen from the inside column of a cave in Kabui Bay, Indonesia
A free diver ascends to the surface, as seen from the inside column of a cave in Kabui Bay, Indonesia

Once I know what I want to shoot, I position myself according to the image I want to create and peek through my lens.

Now the real work begins—aligning the strobe arms; adjusting the strobe intensity, camera settings and positioning—and at this point my diaphragm may start to contract.

Being aware of my body and the signs it shows me, I keep concentrating on the image I have in mind and align with the rhythm of the increasing contractions.

I need to know my body’s limits and capabilities very precisely in order to calculate when it really is time to make my way up to the surface.

A good shot usually takes a few dives before it is perfect.

One of the most challenging breath hold images I have even taken: a manta ray cruising next to the boat at night, remora swimming behind it and above, the full moon shining through the clear water. It is incredibly hard for the camera and human eyes to focus on fast-moving objects, especially while holding one’s breath. Free diving with these gentle giants at night was literally breathtaking and this experience will always be one of my most vivid, magical and touching memories
One of the most challenging breath hold images I have even taken: a manta ray cruising next to the boat at night, remora swimming behind it and above, the full moon shining through the clear water. It is incredibly hard for the camera and human eyes to focus on fast-moving objects, especially while holding one’s breath. Free diving with these gentle giants at night was literally breathtaking and this experience will always be one of my most vivid, magical and touching memories
A huge, old gorgonian fan coral grows perpendicular to the current in a narrow channel in Kabui, Indonesia, that divides two islands. British explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace is known to have cruised these waters in the 1860s
A huge, old gorgonian fan coral grows perpendicular to the current in a narrow channel in Kabui, Indonesia, that divides two islands. British explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace is known to have cruised these waters in the 1860s

But of course I don’t always get a second chance; a strong current, a moving object or changing light conditions can all affect the final outcome.

Breath hold photography is always a challenge, and my dream would be to free dive and shoot more big fish and marine mammals like sharks and whales. We will see where the current takes me next!


Do you have experience of breath hold photography? Share your images below or on Instagram @momentum.travel.

Main photo: Ethan Daniels; body photos: Diana Himmelspach

Diana Himmelspach
Diana Himmelspach

As a high school teacher in landlocked Germany, Diana Himmelspach finally listened to the call of ‘the big blue’ and launched a diving career that took her from the Red Sea to Thailand, Malaysia and finally Indonesia. She has since studied with marine biologists and worked as a cruise director, living and teaching onboard a boat in Indonesia for the past decade. Find her on Facebook.

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2 comments

  1. Beautiful pics, but Germany is not landlocked. It has a northern coastline.

  2. It seems odd to describe Germany as landlocked.

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