High quality imagery that was shot underwater is not nearly so rare as it was just a few years ago. Todays Social Media images often rival cover shots of Dive Magazines.
Much of this is caused by the fact that the software (editing Programs like Lightroom) and hardware (our camera Housings) we use have gotten better in both quality and ease of use, so images that would have astounded the world in the not so long ago film days are being captured by relatively new shooters today digitally.
Many of todays enthusiasts then find their most limiting factor to be how often he or she gets to work on their craft... and for many, this means a Dive Trip, also known by most as vacations.
A popular discussion with many of these divers revolves around the "next step" in what one hopes is a logical stair step towards becoming a better photographer.
Early on in diving with a camera, one learns some tricks about travel- often by making mistakes along the way. Specifically that some types of Dive Trips lend themselves to capturing good images better than others. This means that certain locales will bring home more images of your desired quality than others.
This range can be a function of everything from visibility, to the number of dives a day, the length of the dives, degree of difficulty, or even the size of the group one dives in. A dive operation that routinely caters to serious photographers will know this, and try to provide everything from rinse tanks and work stations to the ability for the photographer to move at a pace dictated by his subjects.
Throw into this equation the conditions and biodiversity that attracted photographers in the first place, and you have a winning combination for bringing home more strong images.
Once a few favorite places have been found to travel to, and a style of photography begins to emerge, we come back to the initial question- what is the next step?
Being efficient in maximizing the learning curve matters more to those who have less time to learn. Many divers are happy if they are able to get a few trips in each year- so they care a lot. The solution of working at a diving location could be a great one, with it's own challenges.. (since you probably can't shoot while you're working, you'll have to shoot and dive on your days off.. of diving)
The truth of the matter is that your trips, and your shooting all become part of what should be considered your Workflow. It begins while you select a location, continues while you pack, and finishes in the editing suite. Photographers that approach their craft this way can soon find themselves with hundreds of images that are of publishing quality- perhaps not unique, but strong. At any point in your journey, considering a trip that involves an educational aspect makes good common sense.
These educational style trips can take place in a lot of different forms, but suffice to say that when you get a group of photographers together that all have the same desire, and are willing to share knowledge, it creates an opportunity for learning at an alarming rate.
My preference for formats would be the Workshop, with no elements of competition. This encourages people to share tips, techniques, experiences, stories, and failed experiments with each other. It also often causes divers to work together on a shot, perhaps holding a light or modeling for each other.. things you might hesitate to do if competing for the same prize.
I recently attended a Wide Angle Workshop in the Red Sea with Dr. Alex Mustard, one of the leading photographers today, along with 20 photographers from all over the world. I have attended and given many workshops over the year's and each has been a tremendous learning experience. Alex has developed a Workflow for learning that made this my favorite Workshop yet.
We start with Module 1, Shooting Light Rays in the caves of the Red Sea. Having done this many times before, Alex has a collection of stunners (no exaggeration here- award winning amazing images) from the very site we plan on diving the next day. He shares in a briefing the different images and settings, lenses, etc. and talks about the reasoning for those choices. Essentially setting up the shot for us all to try- the timing for the light rays (mid afternoon) and every detail is reviewed. I can tell that some in the group have done this dive before as they refer to different sections. I'd never been to the Red Sea, and I hate caves.. but these are easy, safe- no special gear or even lights are needed.
Module 2 was shooting Oceanic Whitetip Sharks- which I found out late was the theme of this trip.. (I read Wide Angle Workshop, and didn't read the fine print.. wide angle and Alex Mustard was all I needed to know, I have studied his work for year's now)
Most of the briefings on the Oceanic Sharks were on what not to do safety-wise. Don't surface, don't get separated, don't run out of air, be careful getting in and out, and keep an eye out,. things like that. But we were also able to look at his past work, as he shared settings, technique and even editing. Capturing images of the Oceanic Whitetips is relatively straightforward compared to Light Rays or the next day's Dolphins. We hang in about 15 feet of water, out of sight of the moored boat, and spread out from each other, and wait. During this time you read the light at various positions relative to the fading sun (the Whitetips are most easily found late afternoon) with your light meter, take a test shot or two of the blue water or a buddy, and basically wait.
There is never any bait used.. the sharks will find us because they are curious. And they are bold. Comparatively speaking, (in my experience) other sharks are afraid of divers and seem to skulk around the perimeter, trying to work up the nerve to come closer. The Oceanic Whitetips that we saw came directly in for a couple very close passes, and a circle or two before moving on. I wouldn't describe them as even mildly aggressive, but rather, simply confident. It's one of the things that makes them such a beautiful shark species to photograph.
With late afternoon light, spinning around in a circle moved my light meter about 3 stops as the sun moved through the frame, the average was F-10 at 125th second with 200 ISO, so I stayed with that, not knowing the direction I'd have to shoot, and reminded myself to stop down the Aperture if the sun was anywhere in the frame. Two of the large Ikelite DS-161's are my standard flash choice, and I set them to TTL because you never know how close you are going to end up shooting an animal like this, with TTL if I shoot from 10 feet away it will fire a full power flash to try to light the shark, but then if I shoot the next image from 2 feet away the TTL will power down the strobes to stop any overexposure.
The last module was Dolphins. I have had 30 years of bad luck with Dolphins, (Alex said I might not want to share that with everyone) -Dolphin always seem to leave the area when I get in the water.
Once in awhile you pick up a tidbit of information that changes everything. Preparing for the snorkel session Alex mentioned that you need a very fast shutter speed for Dolphin. That's no surprise, but I was floored when he said 1/500th-1/1000th of a second. Had he not mentioned that I suspect I would have shot around 1/125th to 250th second, which would have been likely to have some motion blur. I'm quite sure that I would not have seen this in the preview window, but only later on the computer. I would never make that mistake now, but on that day I'm pretty confident I would have used the wrong shutter speed for the images I was trying to capture.
Shooting Dolphin is really hard. I was shocked at just how fast they swim, huge bodies passing within a few feet of you at high speed is something I've never experienced before. Since this was Natural Light shooting I used Shutter Priority on all of the images with the shutter set at 1/640th second with 400 ISO. These are great settings for this scenario, and an interesting indicator of how much faster Dolphins swim than Sharks.
The whole experience was brief, just a few jumps ahead of the pod followed by chaos of bodies falling off Zodiac boats and splashing about. Very cool. Photographic issues were lots of bubbles in the frame from the small boats, and the snorkelers. We were told that swimming fast and splashing attracts them in closer, so it's pretty chaotic.
One of the reasons this is called a Workshop is that each evening the photographers onboard could submit two images -finished and edited, for discussion. If you choose to submit the images as a DNG file from Lightroom, then all of the metadata accompanies the images. This allows everyone to see not only the finished piece, but also see the original unaltered file. Therefore all of the steps of the edit can be retraced, allowing comment and discussion as to not only the in-camera quality of the capture, but also the editing process. This teaches everything from Composition to editing in a clear and concise way.
No matter what level of knowledge you come into a program like this with, there will always be a benefit. You are combining a trip specifically scheduled for photographic success with a collective mind set and energy from a group of your peers, -what could be more fun?