’Memorable shots come when you dive for them’

PLEASE FORGIVE THE SLIGHTLY tongue-in-cheek title of this new series, Be The Champ! These articles are about far more than achieving success in photo contests.
I hope to explain how to take stunning pictures regularly – how to take the type of shots that are good enough to win underwater photo competitions.
Whether or not you choose to enter the competitions is up to you!
Underwater photography contests are a big part of our scene. There seems to be a major one just about every week and online ones almost daily.
Despite their popularity, I don’t believe they should ever be held up as the ultimate photographic goal. I have always thought it strange that so many underwater photographers put such great stock on competition results, yet at the same time like their images to be thought of as art. Other art forms don’t exist to compete!
This said, there are many positives that come from competition. I like to think that photographers who compete regularly are match-fit, their image-making skills sharpened to help them to produce memorable images on a regular basis.
I would encourage any underwater photographer to develop a competition attitude (you don’t have to enter) and benefit from the focus it gives your photography.
This doesn’t mean hogging every subject, elbowing your buddies out of the way, or lying all over the coral so that you get that perfect shot and others don’t. Try to remember that contests are not about treating every other diver (and the environment) as an opponent, but should encourage us to strive for excellence and try new ideas with our photos.
In this series of articles I plan to share many of the secrets to success, and to explain how to excel in the various disciplines of underwater photography.

THE MOST IMPORTANT advice, if you want your underwater photographs to stand out, is to dive for your pictures, rather than just taking photos while you dive. Make photography the focus of your diving, and you are on the right track to excellence.
Photo dives tend to be most productive when you stay within your diving comfort zone, because you can then give your photography your undivided attention.
Next time you see a set of competition results celebrated in the pages of DIVER, think about how many of them were taken within 10m of the surface.
We all have different comfort zones; types of dives we are most used to doing. So there are no hard and fast rules here.
You will know your own comfort limits. If you are planning a dive on which to push them, it’s probably best to leave the camera behind, because at best the dive is likely to be unproductive for images.
Good diving skills are also paramount. This doesn’t mean the number of qualification cards you carry. Most important for underwater imaging are your in-water skills – skills that can be honed only by time beneath the waves.
This is why many advise new divers to wait a while before they take up photography. As an underwater photographer we are our camera’s tripod, so it’s important that we are as stable a platform as possible.
Good buoyancy and trim are vital.
Stability is obviously important for macro shots, where we want to focus accurately and compose a photo on the millimetre scale, but it is also crucial in wide-angle photography. Not so much for framing, but much more so for lighting.
Photography is painting with light, and the difference between a poor shot and a stunner is often defined by the quality of light. This usually means moving flashguns around and adjusting their powers until we achieve the desired effect.
If we’re not stable in the water, the camera is never in the same place twice. So when we change the lighting, it won’t necessarily create the effects we’re after.
In essence, we would be chasing a moving target.

MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS prefer to dive slightly more upright than the perfect horizontal preached by educators, for a more comfortable angle from which to address the camera. But we often need to contort into some pretty unusual positions for some photos.
A low camera, aiming slightly upwards at a subject, will separate it from the background, making the resulting image pop.
Being smooth and steady with our movements and breathing will also help us to get close encounters with marine life. A slow exploratory pace will also reveal more subjects.
Finally, diving for images is so much easier if you are able to find a good photo-buddy. Few things will hold back your photography more than a pairing up with someone who is constantly bored, urging you to hurry up. You’ll end up ruining both of your dives.
A photo-buddy will want the same things under water as you do. Boat-rides to the site become times for photo chat – a chance to get into the zone before you hit the water.
Such buddies can even ease the financial pain of getting into underwater photography, because you can always buy different accessories (such as a wide-angle and macro lens) and share them until you can afford your own.
You might be surprised how many big names in underwater photography rose to prominence as part of a double act.
Soon you’ll be shunning those deep wreck dives with 10 minutes on the bottom for hours in the shallows, searching for critters and capturing the beauty of underwater light.

STARTER TIP
Honed diving skills are the bread and butter of excellent underwater photos, not least for the safety of you and the environment.
An underwater camera can be a terrible distraction, and has caused many to lose sight of their buddy, computer or contents gauge.
It can also make us so driven to get the shot that we don’t care whose feet (or anything else) we tread on. Caring for the delicate underwater environment should always be part of our thought process when taking pictures.

MID-WATER TIP
Don’t try to shoot it all on one dive. It’s best to dedicate a dive to a certain type of shot. “Jack of all trades and master of none” applies to photo-diving.
When you find a good subject, work the opportunity. This doesn’t mean taking the same photo over and over, it means trying different angles, compositions and lighting on the subject.
Once you’ve tried your ideas, stop and let someone else shoot. Often, by stopping and thinking as they shoot, you’ll get your best idea.

EXPERT TIP
Take your photography seriously, but don’t take competitions too seriously – particularly the results. Judging is entirely subjective, so don’t be disheartened when you don’t win.
I have seen many pictures, including my own, fail to pick up prizes at club level and then go on to win on the international stage.
Following the same logic on subjective judging: don’t let your ego get too carried away when you do win!

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