Be the champ! Originality
WHETHER I AM on an exotic liveaboard, an Egyptian day-boat or even shore-diving here in the UK, I see an ever-increasing number of divers carrying cameras.
For some, it’s just a way of recording their dives. There is nothing wrong with that.
But many of us spend numerous submerged hours in pursuit of those really special shots. When we are not succeeding, it can be frustrating.
I believe the correct mental approach is key to unlocking the secrets to success.
In the coming months I will be covering in detail how to excel in specific areas of underwater photography.
But before we get to that, it is fundamental to get our photographic philosophy correct.
This is not a problem of images not coming out. Underwater photography used to be difficult, but with modern cameras everyone’s pictures should come out most of the time.
The challenge now is producing something that really stands out among so many good photos. Underwater photography has become about much more than focusing our camera. It is about focusing our thoughts and ideas on producing an outstanding image.
Many photographers do not lack effort, but it is a failure to switch on the mind as well as the camera that holds back their pictures.
I see many who think they are the centre of the diving universe, hogging subjects for the entire dive, but coming back with very ordinary shots.
It is not about how many photos you take of the frogfish; what matters are the ideas you bring to the subject.
It is a flawed approach that is all too common, and reminds me of a quote from Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
THE OTHER MISTAKE is to always have an excuse ready: “If I had that lens… if I had those new strobes... if I was better at Photoshop or Lightroom… if I could go to that great location”. But in reality, brilliant underwater photos are being taken on the popular dive sites we’ve all dived, and of subjects we’ve all seen.
The three shots illustrating this month’s article were taken in the UK.
Wherever you dive, it is naïve to think that you are going find subjects that haven’t been photographed before. Even rarely encountered creatures, like pygmy seahorses, have been shot so much, by so many divers, that there must be millions of pictures of them nestling in hard drives around the world. So in underwater photography these days, it is not what you see that matters, but the ideas you bring to those subjects.
“Idea” can be a scary word for photographers, but it shouldn’t be.
A photo idea can be very simple, such as the angle from which you want to photograph a fish, like wanting to frame a lionfish against blue water, or dropping beneath the bows of a wreck and turning off your flashguns to create a strong silhouette.
Regularly such ideas come simply from “what looks best” at the time.
Just as frequently, we will draw inspiration from something in another photo we have seen before. Looking at underwater pictures we admire will always benefit our photography.
We should always try and identify what we like about them, which parts we can then try to emulate and incorporate in our own images.
We should also look at images of a particular subject to identify what has not been done before, to find that fresh perspective. If all the photos of a particular subject are shot with a certain type of lighting or lens, why not try a different one
Some ideas are planned long before a dive, and can take several dives or longer to realise.
For example, I’ve long wanted to shoot clean spilt-level photos of seals in the UK, without the need for Photoshop. British seas are usually a bit choppy for this type of shot, so I built a super-sized 550mm dome port to control the water surface. The problem is that it needs 6kg of lead to sink it halfway!
For the shot to come together, I need a sunny day in mid-summer, so that the above- and below-water images have the same exposure. I need to be close to cliffs to give me a background and, of course, I need a friendly seal. And so far it hasn’t quite come together!
I’ve got close, and the almost-shots have won me awards, but I know there is a better shot waiting to be taken. Perhaps this summer
IT IS A MISTAKE to think that underwater photography is a completely underwater activity. Many memorable images are the result of plans hatched long before a dive.
A great place for ideas is other realms of photography. Off-camera flashguns have become a fashionable technique for adding extra interest to wide-angle shots.
Although it is not a new technique, a photo of mine taken a few years ago of the VW Beetle in Capernwray is widely credited with starting the current fad.
My inspiration for this idea came simply from the way that car magazines sometimes shoot vehicles, with a flash on the inside to light up the interior.
I just decided to do it under water.
Such thoughtful images are often easiest to produce on dive sites we know best. You may be most excited about diving one of the world’s famous dive sites for the first time, but our best photos often come closer to home.
There are so many high-quality underwater photographs around today that we need a spark of originality to stand out. And this is true whether we are trying to attract the attention of competition judges, a magazine editor or simply our friends in the torrent of updates on Facebook.
The best way to achieve this is through ideas. Creating stunning underwater photographs is definitely a case of mind over subject matter.
Look at lots of underwater photos, and when you see those you really like, figure out what it is you like about them. Start with fish photos. Are there certain angles that work best What about backgrounds
Then, on your next dive trip, try to work these same angles. Some photographers keep a scrapbook
of their favourite pictures from old magazines. I do it electronically, and have a folder on my computer desktop called “Inspiration Images”.
It is obvious, but that doesn’t stop it being important: learn about your subjects. You don’t need to know the Latin name of every nudibranch, but a little knowledge goes a very long way.
It helps knowing what you’re looking at, where to find species and interesting behaviours.
I know one photographer who always photographed the rear end of nudibranchs until he discovered which end was the head. Read one of Jamie Watts’ articles in DIVER – they are packed full of photo ideas.
Look beyond underwater photography for inspiration. Other branches of photography are the obvious source for ideas. Paintings both contemporary and classical can be instructive, because the artist has total control of the frame.
I have a friend who regularly tries to reproduce the dramatic lighting style of Caravaggio’s paintings with his underwater lighting, using strong shadows that are particularly effective inside wrecks. Believe in your ideas and follow them through.