THE WORLDWIDE WEB IS A GREAT LEVELLER, they say. If “they” are talking about pictures, then I reckon the level is well below par. The Web is being choked by a cacophony of dross, as the world shoves uninteresting and badly photographed pictures down the pathways of technology.
They appear on Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest and a plethora of forums, and sadly underwater pictures are a growing part of this polluted river, making its way to a pixel cesspool.
Perhaps I’m being unkind. After all, modern cameras are easy to use and allow everyone to enjoy the pleasure of photography. Yet I feel cheated by people who don’t seem to care to learn the nuances of the art.
INON UK has now developed a two-day training programme for divers who want to get more from their cameras than blue, unfocused snaps of fish-tails.
Divers like Jennifer Stock from London, a shooting producer/director who makes TV programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing, Countryfile and Emergency Bikers.
“Ive taken some underwater photos before, but never with an external strobe,” she told me. “Some were good, some not so.
“Ive had an ambition to combine diving with filming for a while, and thought the course could be a first step towards that, and an opportunity to meet people who could point me in the right direction.”
So Jennifer joined the first INON UK overseas course, which was run at the Roots Camp near El Quseir on Egypt’s Red Sea coast.
Tour operator The Scuba Place arranged the travel and accommodation and the course was run by INON UK’s Steve Warren. He set it up to arm divers with the knowledge needed to make better use of compact cameras.
“Most of the group had done some underwater photography before, and wanted to progress their skills, buy new equipment or understand where they had gone wrong in the past,” said Jennifer.
“I think the course covered a lot of ground and was quite comprehensive, which was good, but you did have to accept that you werent on holiday. For example, one night we had to leave the fun of eating and drinking beer by the campfire to go back to the classroom and view our pictures.
“In the end, I think we were all happy to do so because we wanted to see and chat about our efforts as our group.”
EVEN SPREAD OVER TWO DAYS, the course was intense, with its classroom and open-water training. I asked Jennifer if she thought it was better for being run in the sea rather than a pool. “Yes, definitely. We had real subjects, fish that swim away and delicate coral, as opposed to being in a swimming pool filled with Star Wars figures and plastic sharks.
“You experience backscatter, shooting in a current, using the light and the sun. I also learned that you need to keep a much closer eye on your buddy.
“At one point I lost both my buddies. Ive never lost one buddy on a dive before, let alone two. Checking up on my buddy is something that I’m really strict on. However, this seems to go out the window when Ive got a camera in my hands.
“I suppose I learned that buddying someone with a camera can mean that you have a bit of a rubbish buddy, and I mean me, not them.”
I agree, and this should, in my opinion, be the way photographers really learn the art. Pool-training can go only a few steps down the road to understanding what you’re doing under water. Pressing the shutter is a small part of the underwater picture-taking process, as any serious photographer can testify.
The INON course appears to have been conceived from a genuine understanding of both underwater photography and how compact camera users think and learn.
The aim of the first dive is to show how easy it is to take bad pictures with cameras in automatic mode, which is how many divers use them. It’s a case of breaking students down to build them back up.
“Perplexed” is the best way to describe the students’ faces as they walked into the water with the instructors. Yet as they went through their images afterwards, you could see the dawning realisation that they had been tricked by technology primarily designed to take holiday or party snaps.
Taking better underwater pictures means taming the wild stallion of technology and steering it in the direction you want.
BACK IN THE CLASSROOM, the pictures were shown and explained. The students quickly
got the message that what not to do is as important to learn as what to do – which is what came next.
“Steve did a great job of breaking down each topic,” said Jennifer. “The course is very methodical.” And that helped the students to improve quickly.
The next goal was to demonstrate the marriage between shutter speed and aperture and how the two work in different situations, such as shooting into the sun.
This was something camerawoman Jennifer found a bit of an eye-opener. “I learned that you can happily shoot into the sun under water. If I did that on land, I’d ruin my shot.”
With the basics of photography implanted, the course moved on to the various disciplines involved in underwater photography – macro, wide-angle, and working with flashguns.
Each classroom session was followed by a dive in open water to practise what had been learnt in the classroom. As Jennifer said, there were no props to play with - it was all natural, all moving and the experience was much better for that, I believe. The learning curve is steeper, but a mountaineer would rather conquer Everest than Snowdon.
The Roots camp has a good house reef. There’s a narrow channel through it onto the outer wall, and you can then choose to go left or right.
Going right brings you to a steep wall face followed by a sloping coral garden with a pinnacle topped with an anemone – a great subject for beginner photographers and for macro subjects.
The left side is made up of big pinnacles, bommies and fissures, which is more a wide-angle photographer’s territory.
You can dive at any time of day, and having such a pleasurable dive-site to ourselves meant that after the course the students could put into practice what they had learnt – a benefit not lost on Jennifer.
“At the end of the course we had a couple of free dives with the equipment that came included in the course,” she said. “It was great to take the things wed learned and have a play in a real environment.
“I ended up finding a beautiful octopus at dusk and had great fun taking pictures of it in the dark for as long as my air lasted.”
I’VE BEEN A PHOTOGRAPHER since I was 11 and a professional photographer both on land and under water since 1994.
I have seen quite a few underwater photography courses for compact camera users, and while I would hate this review to end up sounding like an ad, I believe this is the most professional, intelligent and well thought-out I have come across so far.
It is based around the housings, lenses and flashguns that INON sells and the system is provided to all students, but there is no hard sell. Instead, students get training on all facets of underwater picture-taking, with no time wasted while half the class look for the differently named modes on their own cameras.
Jennifer is thinking about doing the next course. The other students are all going on amazing dive trips with a fresh approach and hope to return with pictures to be proud of.
One of those tributaries that feed into the cesspool of dross pixels has just dried up and diverted into a stream of artistic endeavour.
The INON UK Level One Underwater Photography Course is available through UK and overseas dive centres, which set their own prices and schedules. Instructors are encouraged to add to the course or offer tailored coaching if it is not appropriate for a student.
Roots Camp in El Quseir has an on-site restaurant and bar, classroom facilities, shore-diving and bus trips and boat excursions to other dive-sites.
For £949 The Scuba Place offers the course, seven nights’ accommodation at Roots Camp on a soft all-inclusive basis in a deluxe chalet, five days’ unlimited house-reef diving, flights from London or regional airports to Hurghada or Safaga and transfers. www.thescuba divingplace.co.uk