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Hard Knocks: A Journey from Zero to Hero
By Pauline Wong, May 10, 2019 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

Editor’s Note: So often we read articles by famous photographers covering advanced techniques in exotic places. These are great, and they give us something to aspire to. But let’s be honest; most of us are just not at that level yet. It is demoralizing for a new photographer to dream of a Nat Geo cover shot, only to end the dive with a blurry shot of a fish butt. We need to share our stories of how we got started so that we can inspire the next generation of underwater photographers. Pauline Wong’s story is perfect for this. So hop in and benefit from her misfortune! She will give you some laughs, some lessons, and the motivation not to quit.
 

Paralarval wunderpus shot during a blackwater dive—one of the top bucket-list critters
 

You never forget your first breath underwater—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Now, do you recall the first time you took a photo underwater? Did you shoot it with a GoPro on a selfie stick, or maybe on a mobile phone in a zip-lock bag? Was the experience as good as that first dive, or did it leave something to be desired?

My journey in underwater photography, like many of you, began with a GoPro. It was a shaky video that aimed at the seabed and spun around with tons of bubbles everywhere. Everything was green—and that was how my seasick viewers felt at the end.

My first picture was shot on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. After my Advanced Open Water course, I was comfortable enough to bring extra equipment with me underwater. It was amazing and, once home, I proudly showed off to my family and friends. It was awful. I had to spend about 10 minutes describing each photo I’d taken. My “great” photos had no specific subjects, divers cropped in half, reef and fish shots that were supposed to be of bubble coral shrimp, and so on. Come on, I’m sure you have that photo, too.
 

The only half-decent shot to come out of my first dive trip, a cenote in Mexico
 

I started to take my underwater photography more seriously on my first dive trip to Cancún, Mexico. I was lucky enough to join an Insider Divers trip run by my instructor at the time, Simon Lorenz, who also happened to be a professional underwater photographer. He pushed me to upgrade my equipment from my trusty GoPro. We were going to be chasing sailfish, swimming with bull sharks, and diving in the cenotes—it was time to get serious.

Following Simon’s advice, I bought a Canon PowerShot G7X Mark II—along with a list of items that I had no idea how to put together. It was overwhelming for me to pack all these alien items with me on my very first dive trip. To make matters worse, half of our group had big cameras, and I was the only new photographer.

But something l learned was that being a beginner with new equipment has its advantages. The most important was that I was supposed to have bad pictures! Just kidding. I was so glad I met a few like-minded people during the trip, people who were willing to share their tips and knowledge with me. It is the advice of all these fantastic people, as well as my passion and experience, that I would like to pass on to you here.
 

Everybody loves Nemo, right? But they can be such a pain to photograph!

 

Buoyancy, the Hard Way

Learn from your mistakes. You will make a lot of them, but hopefully, you don’t get discouraged. Here are some mistakes I made, perhaps you can learn from them and that will make your life easier.

Mistake 1: I didn’t know my camera. I knew how to turn it on, and where to pull the trigger, but otherwise, nothing. What do you do in that situation? Shoot in fullly automatic mode. I had had a very brief introduction on strobe positioning by fellow divers—at least I could do that, right?

It turns out that even simple strobe positioning on full auto mode was harder than I thought. I ended that dive with only a few shots that weren’t blurry, and only one photo was good! Aside from being new, what was my problem?
 

Learning to stay off the bottom and controlling your breathing is the first step to shooting
 

It wasn’t to do with my camera as such: My buoyancy and air consumption were terrible. How did I use so much air in such a short time? What was I doing? Why is everything so hard? It looked so easy for the others. Dive in, point at the subject, make a few adjustments, move the strobes, and magic happens, right?

It turns out I had not learned the first rule of underwater imaging: buoyancy first, photography second. You need to be able to hold still in the water to get good shots. More importantly, you should protect what you love. Getting one good image is not worth smashing the reef to pieces due to your lousy buoyancy.

Even if you’re an experienced diver, it is okay to burn your air when you are new to photography. However, sometimes you find out the hard way that you breathe a lot more when shooting. Unfortunately, many divers learn this lesson in the Out-Of-Air kind of way. One trick I learned is to mount a spare computer (with a wireless link to my regulator) on my camera, right in front of my eyes.
 

Another bucket-list shot for many photographers: Be ready though, kissing mandarinfish get the act over with really fast!

 

Start Small

When I started shooting on that trip to Mexico, it was mostly wide angle. I was always on full auto mode, as I had no control of my camera underwater, even though I was great with it topside. It was a frustrating time, for sure, but then came my first muck diving experience in the Philippines, on an Insider Divers trip to Puerto Galera and Dumaguete.

Suddenly things began to click, and a new world of possibilities just opened up to me! Macro photography offers the best opportunity to understand how your camera works. You have the whole dive to park yourself on the sand somewhere and figure how your camera functions. It is also a great way to play with your strobes. I messed up a lot of shots, but I finally began to take decent pictures.
 

Cute couple: Lemon gobies make excellent macro subjects
 

For beginners like me, it’s always a good idea to join a imaging workshop or take a course in photography. There is always something new to learn from the trainers, and I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn from different mentors.

My very first proper underwater photography workshop was in Lembeh, again run by Insider Divers founder Simon Lorenz. And we were also lucky to have DPG Editor Andrew Marriott as our guest trainer. He shared so much of his knowledge on photo taking and post-processing—it helped me a lot. The focus on this trip was macro photography, and this worked perfectly for me.
 

Snooting can be used for dramatic effect, making even common subjects really stand out
 

The idea of a workshop is that you can ask your instructors anything. They’re there to help you figure things out: camera settings, lighting techniques, composition, and post-processing. It is so much fun to be in a group of like-minded people talking about photography, sharing tips and learning from each other’s mistakes. Everyone was there to cheer each other up!

That workshop and my newfound success with macro shooting led me to upgrade my compact camera to a mirrorless system. Having learned from everything I did wrong the last time I upgraded my camera, I went straight to macro and found another workshop—this time with Tim Ho at the Anilao Photo Academy. Tim is a great guy and an excellent teacher, but also a multi-award-winning photographer.
 

This shot perfectly illustrates the concept of taking your shooting back to the basics
 

Tim took me back to the basics of photography: Shooting underwater is different to shooting on land. It sounds so simple, but many new photographers assume that just because they can shoot great on land, they can shoot well underwater. Tim disabused me of this notion entirely.

He stripped my rig down to just the camera and the housing. From there, I learned how to shoot with only natural light while evaluating the environment. Only after we had learned those lessons did we slowly progress to shooting with the help of artificial light—just a regular dive torch. Finally, at the end of the workshop, we added strobes into the equation. At first, it seemed like I was taking a step backward, but sometimes that is what we need to do. That time in Anilao pushed me to learn what my camera can do. Try it; you will be amazed!
 

Simple, clean, nice bokeh. You don’t need to get fancy to take great shots

 

Back to Where I Started: Wide Angle

With all the tools I learned from shooting macro, I finally went back to experimenting with wide angle. The last time I had tried shooting wide, I was just hoping to get something in focus! Now I was thinking about how I wanted to frame my subject, and creating a story behind each photo. It was still a lot of hard work. There was a lot of trial and error, but in the end, I started to shoot the way I wanted to.
 

My later attempts at wide angle were much more succesful than my first. It’s not as easy as it looks!
 

I am proud of myself for using all the skills that I have learned. There have been a lot of hard lessons, but I think the most important is to be proud of your shots and the progress you make as a photographer. Shooting while diving is challenging. The conditions always change, and your equipment can be extremely frustrating, but in the end, keep shooting. Share your time in the underwater world with everyone who doesn’t have the privilege.

Things really have come full circle for me, as I’ve become a dive instructor myself. Teaching others to dive has led me to share my love of underwater photography, too. This passion has resulted in me being asked to be a underwater photography coach for an upcoming workshop in Anilao!
 

The nice thing about shooting wide is that you can start to get shots of bigger animals

 

A Few Final Tips

1. Know your camera: It’s a good idea to have a copy of the manual somewhere accessible, or become friends with YouTube videos.

2. Photography = light: Without light, there is no photography. Play with your camera at home, take some food porn, and shoot photos of your pets, your friends, or your Star Wars figurines. (I like my Lego ones.) Try shooting under different lighting conditions, both on land or underwater. Don’t attempt to bring your pets diving though…

3. Do a workshop: There is always something new to learn, and you will end up having a new group of dive buddies!
 

Who doesn't love a coconut octopus carrying its house around?
 

4. Try something new: If you are always shooting with black backgrounds, try bokeh, silhouettes, or even colored light.

5. Decide what your mission is: Maybe you want to spread a message about conservation, or you could be merely documenting different critters you encounter. Think of how to convey your message through your photos.

6. Last but not least: Always put your creature subjects first. We are the ones in their habitat, after all. Take photos and only leave bubbles.

7. Okay, the final one, I promise: Be proud of your photos and enjoy the process!
 

I feel I’ve come a long way in my shooting, and hopefully the best is yet to come!
 


 

About the Author: Pauline Wong is an avid diver and underwater photographer. She lives in Hong Kong, but her real home is the ocean. You can find her diving, shooting, and teaching new divers and photographers. If you would like to follow her adventure, or join her on a trip, you can find her on Facebook and Instagram. To find out more about joining Pauline, Simon Lorenz, Tim Ho and Wayne Jones for the underwater photography workshop at the Anilao Photo Academy in July 2019, visit www.insiderdivers.com.

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