Mexico's Cenotes: 11 Top Photography Tips
The cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula offer unique and exciting scuba diving opportunities and have always been ranked among the world’s best freshwater dives. For photographers, the lighting, visibility and distinct environmental features provide a near limitless backdrop for creativity and technical challenges. The results can be astounding images, however, achieving what you see in your mind’s eye is not always so simple. Based on my experience I have compiled a list of tips and tricks that can greatly improve your abilities to capture these incredible places as they deserve to be showcased.
Safety is always the top priority in diving the cenotes, and special considerations need to be taken in an overhead environment. The cenotes create extremely unique underwater imagery opportunities and it can be easy to get lost in their beauty and find yourself quite literally between a rock and a hard place. Proper gas planning for entering a cavern should always be observed, leaving ample supply to exit with as well as a reserve for any delays or failures. Adequate but not excessive equipment should be carried – no Christmas-tree divers here, please. From the open water there must be a continuous guideline, and following it must be respected. No matter how tempting it may be to deviate from the line, nothing outside of it is worth the risk of getting lost. Always listen to your guide, who must be a minimum of Divemaster and Full Cave Diver, and will be diving in full tech gear. The rules are in place for a reason, and when they have been broken is when accidents have unfortunately occurred. Don’t be that guy.
2 Buoyancy & Awareness
Buoyancy is our bedrock in any type of scuba diving, and in the cenotes, it becomes our top priority. Scuba diving in freshwater challenges our buoyancy more so than in salt water, as the lower density leads to major shifts from only minor adjustments. You WILL need to use your BCD and not just rely on lung volume as we often do in the ocean. To further complicate things, some cenotes are solely freshwater while others are a mix of fresh and salt. Where the salt and freshwater meet creates a layer called a halocline, which is an incredible visual effect. When undisturbed it appears like a sheet of glass, and when a diver swims through, it mixes together to appear as a blur. Hitting the salt water is like putting on the breaks; you sink, sink, sink through the freshwater and then whoops become completely buoyed up by the salt, and vice versa to come back up. Combine this with delicate limestone formations and silty bottoms and you have an incredibly sensitive environment. Contact with anything should be avoided as best you can, for the betterment of your photos and the conservation of the cave systems. Therefore, 360-degree awareness is critical. Safety divers for those concentrating on their photography is never a bad idea. Guides are not permitted to carry cameras for this reason.
3 Do Your Research and Dive the Plan
With Instagram and other photo-sharing platforms, we have so much access to images that we often have a good idea of what it is we want to see and capture before even getting in the water. All the cenotes have something unique about them, I think it is important to have an idea of what you are aiming to shoot to ensure you get the best results. Setting a plan and communicating it pre-dive with your team will yield the best outcome and prevent those awkward underwater miscommunications, which in the overhead environment can cause much bigger problems. Make sure you brief any relevant hand signals that may be needed and carrying a slate or wet notes can help in times when more complex ideas need to be communicated. Keep it safe, simple, and let the creative juices flow.
4 Season and Time of Day
The angle of the sun and its relative position in the sky changes throughout the year and of course throughout the day, creating peak times for the light in each cenote. Say you want to see the light beams in the Pit reaching down 30m to the sulphur cloud, or Cenote Carwash when it is a vibrant orange colour, or Angelita when the water is at its clearest, ask your guide to get you there at the best possible time. We dive these environments year-round and see the changes day-to-day, and those subtleties will make a big impact on your shots. Timing is everything and asking a few questions beforehand will help your expectations to be met accordingly.
5 Capturing the Big Picture
The majority of photographers shooting regularly in cenotes use wide-angle, and I’m no different. The sheer magnitude of some of these picturesque scenes is daunting, but you have a few good options all yielding different results depending on your style. In my opinion, using a fisheye lens tends to distort the images a bit too much, noticeably in straight lines of light beams and rock formations. I prefer to use 16mm on my 16-35mm rectilinear lens to avoid this distortion and keep things looking as you see them. Panoramics, though hard to pull off, are another style alternative from a normal single frame taken with a wide-angle lens. There are also opportunities to shoot smaller subjects with a longer focal length. The cenotes have a variety of freshwater fauna and artefacts like animal bones and Mayan pottery that can be shot with longer lenses. Be sure to ask your guide and they will happily point these out to you.
6 Slow that Shutter Speed
Which shutter speed to use is case-by-case, but some subjects in the cenotes move very slowly or not at all. There are many factors, but one tool that I use is knowing the slowest possible shutter speed that I can shoot on a stationary subject and still get a crisp photo. A general rule, as long as your stability allows, is that your shutter speed can be double your minimum focal length, that is 15mm to 1/30, 24mm to 1/50. You need the camera to allow in as much light as it can before the help of boosting your ISO. For me, with my 16-35mm, that is 1/30 while using ambient light, and can be less while using strobes to freeze the frame. The more stable you are, the lower shutter speed you’ll be able to use. Couple that with better technology and improvement in camera and lens stabilisation, and we can get incredibly sharp images with slower shutter speeds.
7 Higher ISOs
I continue to be impressed by the low-light capabilities of new camera models. As flooded caves are among some of the darkest places on earth we really do require the most from our cameras in terms of dynamic range and higher useable ISOs. The typical rules of using a lower ISO in underwater photography don’t apply here. We can now create images with ISOs of 3200 and higher, and as technology improves I predict we will continue to be able to push these levels to reach our desired exposure settings.
Many of us have been taught that lower f-stops like F8 or F11 are to be used in wide-angle photography to achieve a desired depth of field, but this can be challenging in the overhead environment. My advice is don’t be afraid to shoot on a wider aperture, such as F4 or F5.6, to expose your image. Personally, I prefer to work around my shutter speed so that I can do a lot in post-production, but a blurry image is a blurry image. Bigger domes and diopters can also help with increasing overall image sharpness while shooting at those lower f-stops. I would always rather have an image with slightly blurred edges than no image at all.
9 Models Make the Photo
As photos of the area spread on social media, the desire for interesting images of destinations and experiences has increased exponentially. Having a human in an underwater photo gives us something to relate to or can provide a certain sense of mystery and adventure. The sport of freediving has also increased in popularity, and 'Trash the Dress' photo shoots have introduced a whimsical and artistic spin on underwater photography, with the cenote as the perfect backdrop for your creativity.
10 Focus and Haloclines
Like any low-light environment, focusing in the cenotes can be a bit of a nightmare. Each diver must carry a light to communicate with the other members of their team, additionally, I recommend having a focus light on your camera to aid you in those darker sections, especially if formations and artefacts are your desired subjects. Autofocuses are improving but still are not 100 per cent correct for our needs. Manual is still my preferred method especially while shooting at wider apertures, with the goal of achieving a sharp, focused photograph. With this in mind, be careful if you’re diving in a cenote with a halocline (see No. 2). Haloclines are mesmerising and quite surreal to see, but nearly impossible to shoot in. For sharp images, be sure to move above or below the layer where the fresh and saltwater meet, not directly in it. Your photos may seem sharp while you’re shooting, but when opened in Lightroom they will be blurry, not because your focus is off, but because the water itself is blurry.
11 Advanced Lighting Techniques
The lighting possibilities are as endless as your imagination. The use of strobes are always a nice addition when lighting a diver or a distinctive formation. In contrast, sometimes less is more, and using ambient light, shadows, and your model’s primary light source can create a very moody image. Silhouettes of divers are classic and dynamic, and their primary dive lights can create a leading line to help move your eyes through the image. Outside of ambient light, an effective technique is using video lights to backlight your subjects to create a 'halo' surrounding them, which can be very striking.