I MOVED CAUTIOUSLY UPWARDS, half-blinded by the sunball above the silhouetted hammerhead. I was trying to position myself so that the shark stayed in frame, while at the same time blocking the light and diffusing the rays around its body.
Concentrating on my positioning while wondering how much closer I could get, and then becoming convinced that the settings were all wrong anyway, I fired, winced at the result and withdrew to let someone else have a go.
I wasn’t living large in Cocos or the Brothers, of course. I was in Basildon, Essex.
The dive site was a 6m-deep tank, the sunball a powerful movie lamp high above and the hammerhead was stamped “Made in China”, just like the 100 or so fish and critters on the artificial reefs below. The cabin-cruiser wreck in the corner was genuine enough, however.
It was a Sunday in July, and in our submerged habitat I was one of four students undertaking the INON UK Level One Underwater Photography course.
Leading us were the two experts who devised the programme, Steve Warren and Mark Koekemoer.
I should declare an interest at this point. Both instructors write for DIVER ­– Mark wrote the PhotoCall series, offering advice for compact-camera users, and Steve has contributed many thoughtful (and often rather doomy) opinion pieces based on his long experience as a diving instructor.
But short of going on a one-week photo workshop in the Red Sea, how many places in the UK offer the sort of facilities for snappers that Ocean Optics does Steve and Mark offer training based not so much on book-larnin’ as on their own practical experience.
I was on the course under cover, posing as a lazy photographer who rarely ventured beyond automatic settings – someone who didn’t really know his f-stops from his exposure latitudes.
The role came perfectly naturally, I admit, and a number of imbecilities on my part as the day progressed underlined how far my photography has to go.
But the Underwater Stage feels like a place where transgressions will be tolerated. Rather than a slap, help is always at hand to overcome your hang-ups.

THIS IS AN INTENSIVE DAY. We started at around 9.30am and were still reviewing our efforts well after 10 at night, with the prospect of long drives home.
Steve and Mark try to group the four students on any course by ability as far as possible. As it happened, on this occasion the other three trainees were all experienced SLR photographers.
Mike was the odd one out in that he was new to diving and looking to adapt his techniques to the underwater environment. Sarah was a very enthusiastic regular diver both in the UK and abroad, and a proficient compact user; and Terry, who clearly knew his way round a camera, had been “part of the team that introduced RAW to Britain” and worked as a “digital evangelist” (don’t ask me).
They all knew more about photographic theory than I did, but had their own reasons for paying £250 for this entry-level course.
The programme consists of seven classroom theory lessons, with multiple-choice reviews at the end of all but the last, and two 90-minute pool sessions.
Without print-outs, note-taking is encouraged, but Martin Edge’s The Underwater Photographer is recommended as the manual to complement the course – after all, Mark Koekemoer did write the digital section.
Students are encouraged to chip in at any point, though with so much to get through the free discussion continued through lunch and other breaks.
You’re welcome to use your own compact camera system, but the underwater work does require use of interchangeable wet lenses and external flash. So the default kit handed out is a housed Fuji F50, which you prepare yourself, plus INON flash and wide-angle and fisheye lenses mounted on a lens-holder.
Make no mistake, this is an INON-sponsored course, and after playing with its equipment you may be tempted to ask about prices later. One of the multiple-choice questions is even “Advantage of using INON lenses is...” and apparently a lot of attendees have fallen for the hardware.
But although the instructors are also retailers there is no hard sell, and other systems do a similar job.

STEVE IS ADAMANT that even if wearing a wetsuit, no-one using steel cylinders in a freshwater tank needs extra lead. As Mike soon discovered, he was right – it doesn’t improve your buoyancy one bit.
There is ample space for four students and instructors in the tank, and plenty of scope for individual attention. Steve directed us via one-way Buddy phones that clip onto your mask beside your ear and which I found very effective, though others experienced the odd communication breakdown.
On the first wet session we experimented with distances; tried out different shutter/aperture combinations on the reef; silhouetted Fergal the hammerhead against the light, and marvelled
at the possibilities opened up by wide-angle and fish-eye lenses.
The second session began with an exercise that underlined earlier instruction on flash settings and angles to retain colour and avoid backscatter. We strove for more artistic lionfish shots by boosting shutter speeds; worked on white-balance settings, often a stumbling block; played with an extreme close-up lens; and tried, with only limited success on my part,
to capture images of Mark backlit above the wreck.
After each tank session we would chew over our work on screen. Even with my efforts our instructors managed to compliment at least a couple of shots. Steve is generally patience personified – Mark too, though he can at times appear astonished that people might exist who think that hot shoes are something you get from Dolcis.

AT THE START OF THE DAY, when we were discussing matters such as buoyancy skills, refraction and backscatter, I thought the course might be too basic for some attendees. But judging from their reactions everyone gained something, especially from the inwater practice and the chance to discuss problems.
“I needed to refine my knowledge rather than just going click,” said Sarah appreciatively.
“Pity I couldn’t use my own camera,” said Mike, “but I found the course very useful.” Terry
had told me early on that he was finding the experience helpful, and had picked up some useful tips.
I did suggest afterwards that some of the time spent on the basics might be saved by sending students a foundation to study in advance. There are a lot of technicalities to absorb in one day, especially for a complete novice. But the course does seem to offer benefits across quite a wide competence range.
I went home, and shortly afterwards bought a new camera to replace the ageing Fuji that
Mark had kindly referred to as “a collectible”. Let’s face it, even this year’s compact will date fast.
Brimming with what I hope is new understanding, time alone will tell if knowledge can overcome inbuilt impatience.
Steve Weinman

The INON UK Level One Underwater Photography Course at Ocean Optics costs £250. The Underwater Stage can be hired for £60 for two hours for divers wishing to practise individually