The first time someone handed me a camera underwater was in the Cayman Islands in 2003. It completely threw me for six! (Where does that expression come from anyway?) I had NO IDEA what I was doing! It was all I could do to point it in the right direction and press record and not bump into anything in the process. I loved it! But I found it so terrifying that after two dives attempting to make a little home movie, I gave up.
Several years later I bought my first underwater camera; a little Olympus point and shoot, which I took to Fiji with me in 2009. I still had NO IDEA what I was doing and pointing and shooting were about all I could manage. The photos were TERRIBLE! Flat two dimensional images of nudibranchs taken from directly above from at least a metre away (because I didn’t want to bump into the reef). Wonderful shots of a clown fish’s arse. Hazy blue/green images of the tail of a shovel-nose ray that was resident at about 40m on the house reef, taken from a great distance as it swam away as fast as possible. Again, I gave up.
Later in 2010 in Koh Tao I had progressed to a Canon G11 (the latest model in those days!) and still had NO IDEA how to use it. This time I figured I needed proper training to figure out what all these buttons were for. Sadly, there were no photography courses available, but I found a video course and figured it couldn’t be that different.
The video cameras in back then still recorded on tape, and were relatively heavy. I considered myself to be a fairly experienced diver (instructor since 2003 with a couple of thousand dives). I scoffed when I was told I had to spend the first three dives just practicing my buoyancy and not actually taking a single shot. Until the first dive. With a camera in my hands I couldn’t do a fin pivot to save my life! (A basic buoyancy skill taught to open water students). After ditching my wetsuit (it was 29 degrees after all) I finally managed to get myself under control!
After a 26 dive course, which also included editing tuition, I considered myself to be a pro. How wrong could I be? Looking back on the early videos which I went on to make in standard definition with my G11 and then later with a proper video camera in a Gates housing (which I have to this day), they were diabolical. Poorly edited (which took me literally hours and hours), horribly colour graded (I am still learning that craft), and not even slightly matched to the music, I would be ashamed to produce something like that today.
But the point of that ramble is, everyone has to start somewhere. I put a lot of work into learning and perfecting my craft. I still consider myself to be learning every day. Like every perfectionist I know I can always do better. I know there are many far better photographers out there. And I have come to realise over time, that no one is born with a camera in their hands.
Everyone who becomes a good photographer has a few things in common. Talent and an eye for composition can come naturally to some degree, but it must be fostered through hours and hours of practice. Dedication and determination to learn and become a better photographer must never wane. You must be willing to put in the work. Hours, days, weeks and YEARS of work are needed to become a really good photographer.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photography Pioneer
Having great tools – the best camera, housing, lights – is just not enough. Good photographers study the theory of how to manipulate light. They practice and experiment with different techniques. The best photographers are those who put aside their egos and realise that they can learn something new every day. They watch tutorials, read books, search the internet, listen to the experiences of other photographers, take courses and spend every spare moment thinking about how they can improve. It becomes an obsession.
The second thing to learn from this is not to become disheartened when you don’t get the results you want right from the beginning. Don’t give up, as I did multiple times. Learn from other people’s mistakes. When we learn to ride a bike, we fall off a few times before we get the hang of balancing. But the first time we freewheel down the hill is pure elation. Persist and persevere. Keep trying and keep being open to learning new things every day.
So what is the first step? Buying a full rig of camera, housing and lights is not it. Research a camera setup that you can grow with. Try out cameras from friends and other divers whenever you have the opportunity. Start with the basics, master them and then slowly add more complexity. Don’t try and dive in at the deep end, literally. Get professional advice and tuition. It was the best thing I ever did. A professional intensive course is one of the fastest and most effective ways to learn. Personal guidance from a professional can give you invaluable insights and fast track your learning curve.
But after that initial course, keep educating yourself. Seek out as many different opinions and sources of advice as possible. That can be anything from the words of support of a friend to internet tutorials (of which there are MANY), to books and further continuing supervised education.
But nothing can teach you as much as you can learn by doing. From an early age as humans, we learn by imitation and repetition. In our earliest years of life, we learn to speak and learn a language in this way. We learn to walk, ride bikes, swim, cook, paint pictures, do cartwheels and pretty much everything else in life through practice.
So take those lessons from the classroom and the internet and get wet with your camera. Take pictures. Lots of them. The digital age has revolutionized photography by giving us the opportunity for an infinite number of ‘do-overs”. The wonderful thing about digital media is that you can take as many photos as you like until you get the one you want to keep. This was never possible back in the days of the Nikonos and film! It has made mastering photography easily attainable by everyone.
The first things you need to start understanding are the basics of composition, white balance, and exposure. The composition is what makes you want to look at a picture. It helps you to direct the viewer's eye where you want and to see what you want them to see. Setting white balance properly is how you obtain good colour. Exposure is basically the manipulation of light through your camera settings and later through the use of a strobe to control the brightness of your picture, and also several other more advanced effects. This can also affect your white balance and colour.
Just these three things can be quite overwhelming for a beginner, so it is worth learning the theory behind how cameras work and how to control these things with the camera settings. It is possible to fix some mistakes in post-production but way better to get it right in camera. Top tip number one is to understand the basic theory of photography.
Top tip two is to practice on land. This will give you time to become familiar with your camera, the location of all the buttons, its capabilities and limitations before you go in the water. It will also give you plenty of time to practice composition techniques and start to think creatively.
Top tip three; add levels of complexity slowly. Don’t try and learn everything at once. Practice buoyancy with a camera first, once you have mastered that move onto composition. Once you feel comfortable with composition start to focus on white balance and exposure. And then add strobes…. And night diving… etcetera, etcetera…. You wouldn’t learn to drive a motorbike before you had mastered riding a pushbike! There is nothing wrong with taking things slowly. Enjoy the learning process, don’t be in a hurry to become an expert. Don’t forget this is supposed to be fun after all!
So I hope you are not too daunted by the overwhelming intricacies of underwater photography! Remember it is a really fun hobby. Enjoy the underwater world and discovering all the beautiful creatures there to capture with your lens. Learning photography will stimulate your interest and love for our beautiful blue world. Underwater photography is the instigator of passion for the ocean, just as passion for the ocean instigates our love for photography and our desire to capture on film the beauty we behold in our eyes. As long as you approach underwater photography with the passion you feel for the sea you will learn and progress and love it more and more.
If this blog has stimulated a desire to learn more about underwater photography and to follow your passion for the ocean, consider taking photography classes. Soulwater Productions is launching a brand new level one underwater photography course in August. It is designed both for beginners to start developing their basic understanding and skills or for those who already have some understanding of photography principles on land to transfer those abilities to the underwater world.
This intensive program covers everything from photography theory, to practice on land, supervised in-water training, and post-production editing techniques. From the first click to final edit, you will learn everything you need to know to start producing beautiful underwater images.
Over three days and five dives you will have the training and direct supervision from Adrienne Gittus, creator of the award-winning documentary “A Fish Full of Dollars”. The first course will be run from 20-22 August at the beautiful Villa Alba in Tulamben, Bali. Imagine learning to become a proficient underwater photographer in a tropical Indonesian paradise! Sign up now, spaces are limited and will fill up fast. Contact Adrienne for details.