THERE WERE FIVE OF US ON THE PANEL, and we judged all the photographs blind - that is, there were no names on the shots we were scrutinising, only numbers.
When I finally saw the list of winners in the Image 2001 Underwater Photography Awards, only a day or so before the awards ceremony, I was surprised to find that certain names appeared time and again.
That goes to prove that these particular photographers are consistently turning out excellent and varied work.
The awards evolved from what was the Brighton Festival of Underwater Photo- graphy. In those long-gone days, winners were drawn from a select group of photographers who knew how to get a picture sharply focused and correctly exposed. But widely available modern technology has now taken care of that, and the judges could almost take the elements of basic technique for granted.
We were looking instead for pictures that appealed in some extra-special way.
So how do you win an underwater photography competition As in any business, you please the customers, in this case the judges. With Image 2001 this could have been easier said than done.
On the panel were Diver Editor Nigel Eaton; Italian photographer Lino Chiumarulo; President of the British Society of Underwater Photographers Brian Pitkin; professional photographer and previous winner Phil Smith; and me.
Though united in being knocked out by the overall quality of the entries, we differed widely in our opinion of what makes a good photograph.
In the past we might have struggled in some categories to find pictures good enough to be winners. This time there were Herculean battles before we could settle on the photographs that deserved the medals. I would have been pleased to have in my own files many of the pictures that ended up in the reject box.
The competition was divided into Print and Slide entries. There were categories for Grand Master and Open (or non-Grand Master), with sections for Marine Life, People and/or Scenery, and Macro photography.
The Print category showed a dramatic improvement over past years, in both volume and quality, because of the advent of computers with high-quality scanners and photo-quality printers. Photographers are increasingly turning to this method of displaying their work to the larger audience.
The judges were impressed by the quality of results from photographing British subject matter, usually not found in the easiest of conditions, and in each case there was a Special British Award.
Her Charles Hood dominated the prizes for prints with consistently good work, including a masterful portrait of a plaice and a colourful nudibranch. Tony Everitt took gold with a squat lobster photographed in a riot of colour. Charles Hood also won a Special British Award gold medal in the Portfolio section.
There was also a special award for Manipulated Images and, unsurprisingly, computer-originated prints featured heavily. The judges looked at images that were like a good wig - impossible to spot - and also at those which used computer manipulation to do things not normally accepted as regular photography.
We were particularly taken by those entries which bolted together several elements to form a picture that an uninformed viewer might think was real.
Gold medallist Paul Kay gave us a good example of this. He also walked off with the Nikon UK Trophy for this category, with a prize of a Nikon camera and zoom lens presented by Nikon UK.
Portfolios were composed of six photographs (slides or prints) and judged either on diversity of subjects and range of techniques demonstrated, or on the diversity of images obtained from within a single subject category.
Graham Parker took a gold medal in the non-Grand Master category for his set of action-packed photographs of surface swimmers.
Some of the most spectacular results were from photographs made up of the most simple subjects. Mark Walker mopped up a lot of the print medals for individual pictures in the Open section through his understanding of the use of imagery and graphic simplicity. He will certainly be limited to competing with the Grand Masters next time. He also took the BSoUP Trophy for Most Promising Newcomer, along with£1000 worth of diving equipment presented by Northern Diver.
Throughout the judging, we tried not to be swayed by subject matter, and instead to concentrate on its treatment. In the Macro sections (both Slide and Print, Grand Master and non-Grand Master), we noted that the pygmy seahorse has replaced the frogfish, as that itself replaced the long-nosed hawkfish, as favourite subjects among those photographers who prefer to concentrate on tiny subjects.
Muck-diving is obviously becoming very popular with macro-photographers, and it seems that Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi is the destination of choice.
Going wide-angle, Tony White caught the mood of the moment with his dramatic picture of divers descending over the wreck of the Salem Express to take gold in the Grand Master Print category (People and/or Scenery section).
Italian Alessandro Dodi thrilled us with his wide-angle shot of whitetip reef sharks caught in a shaft of light, as well as his macro shot The Gold Feather, which won him the gold medal in the Macro section.
Alessandro also won gold in the Marine Life section and the Blandford Trophy for Best Festival Print (The Gold Feather). This came with£1000-worth of Mares diving equipment, presented by Peter Shaw of Blandford Sub-Aqua.
In the medals awarded for Slides, Pete Atkinson took Bronze for Batfish in the Marine Life section and Silver in each of the other categories of the Grand Master slides section with Reeds and Metallica. For good measure he added a gold medal for his macro shot of entwined garden eels.
Atkinson took the Oceanic Trophy for Best British Underwater Photographer for the quality of his overall entry. He also received Oceanic diving equipment worth£1200 donated by Oceanic SW and presented by Kelvin Richards. Other gold-medal winners included Charles Stirling, Jurgen Bender and Alexander Mustard in the non-Grand Master category, and Grand Master Darryl Torckler with his dramatic shot Deep Blue.
Among the international entry Italian photographers did well, but it was Werner Thiele from Austria who dominated the awards ceremony. He was unable to attend Dive 2001 but Peter Scoones, no stranger to collecting prizes himself, stood in for him.
Thiele won the Portfolio section with a wide range of shots, including a picture of an oceanic whitetip shark that drew a gasp of envy even from well-known shark photographer Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch, and a luminous shot in a freshwater lake of an underwater landscape that included both a diver and a trout. Then, among a raft of individual entries, came Thieles beautifully lit portrait of a grouper, which you can see on the cover of this magazine. It edged New Zealander Darryl Torcklers masterful picture of a dolphin and its wake (called Zooming) into silver-medal position to take gold in the Grand Master Marine Life section.
Besides a fistful of medals, Werner Thiele won the Aqua-Lung UK Trophy for Best Portfolio, together with Aqua-Lung diving equipment worth£1000, presented by that companys Roger Poll.
He also won the RegalDive Trophy for Best Festival Slide with his portrait of the grouper. The trophy came complete with a£3200 diving holiday for two at Manado and was presented by Mary Munley of RegalDive.
Thiele also took the Diver Trophy for the Grand Master of Underwater Photography. This was awarded to the photographer whose overall entry was judged to be Ã’of the most outstanding quality, proving consistent photographic technique and talentÃ“.
With that, Werner Thiele was also rewarded with a prize of a Mini-B diving unit and the recently launched Maxi-B diving unit, which were donated by Mini Breather International and presented by Rob Hart.
I suggest that keen underwater photographers start work now on their entries for Image 2003!
The first surprising thing about the Moving Images categories was how few entries had to be rejected before the final judging session. The second was how close to professional standards the non-professional entries were, writes Bernard Eaton.
The task that faced the judges was therefore not easy. It took all day, although in the end the verdicts were independently reached and unanimous.
Starlet in the Lagoon, shot in British waters by Francis Bunker, won the bronze medal in the amateur category, but again the continentals triumphed, with Italys Manfred Bartoli winning silver with his highly imaginative Dance of Death.
And Spains Leandro Blanco took gold with a most unusual video entitled Another Story. This won the AP Valves Trophy, and£450 worth of diving gear for Best Non-Professional Moving Image.
Unsurprisingly, a BBC film, War Wrecks of the Coral Seas by Michael Pitts and Crispin Sadler, won a medal in the Professional category, in this case the bronze. Spains Leandro Blanco popped up again to win silver with My World.
Britains Sue Daly took the gold medal with Boulet Bay Watch, which also won the Scubapro Trophy and£1000 worth of diving equipment, in the Professional Moving Images category.
The judges voted the day a most enjoyable and satisfying one, having seen some fine work.
They were Ray Gearing, head of Teddington film and TV studios; Brian Pitkin, President of the British Society of Underwater Photography; Maria Slough, film and television producer; Ray Sutcliffe, ex-BBC producer who specialised in underwater TV series, and Bernard Eaton, Divers Editor-in-Chief.