In this latest article in The Guide, liveaboard photographer Alex Lindbloom discusses how to create a sensational portfolio of underwater images—even when your job means you’re always diving the same places every day….
You have most likely decided to live like a nomadic aquatic hobbit—sitting in your windowless cabin (if you are one of the lucky ones), staring into the fluorescent glow of your computer screen, deleting backscatter as your boat surges to its next destination—for one of two reasons.
One, you’re taking a sabbatical from “real life” and are chasing that idea of a dream job where you get to live and work in paradise, dive with a big, sexy camera, and make a bit of money. Two, you are truly passionate about studying the art of underwater photography so much so that you are willing to sacrifice relationships, friends/family, and personal space in order to fully immerse yourself in this art form as a way of achieving some set of personal goals. Some of you may have ambitions of being the first to photograph a new species, or maybe you’re chasing a career as a wildlife photographer; or, if you’re like me, you may just want to hone your photo skills to perfection just to see where it takes you.
No matter what your goals are, if you plan to continue working as an underwater photographer once you leave your floating microcosm, you’ll need a portfolio, and in my opinion there is no better time to be putting one together.
A portfolio should reflect your best, most-creative work, the diversity of your skill set and your consistent ability to capture that much sought-after peak of action. You probably envision the rarest macro critters and giant pelagics performing never-before-captured behavior splashing across the pages of your portfolio. However, the reality of a liveaboard photographer is that mandarinfish threesomes and orca whale predations are most likely not in the cards for you. Instead, you have the same set of reefs that you’ve dived 223 times and the little black painted frogfish at 28 meters between the purple soft coral and the bommie with the sea fan. So what do we do? How do we create a complete set of knockout images of the same subjects with which you feel you have already exhausted all photographic possibilities?
In fact, you have a huge advantage as a liveaboard photographer in that you have endless time with the same subjects week after week to experiment with different techniques. If you feel you didn’t execute something right one week, you can correct it the next. Before a new trip starts, I go through all the photos that I’ve taken over the previous trip and mentally deconstruct them. I think about what I like and what I don’t like and try to make a plan of how I’m going to shoot these same subjects the coming week, and differently. What I’ve found to be helpful in my work is that with a few simple DIY tools and some good old-fashioned outside-the-box thinking, there are ways of pushing past that wall obstructing your creativity to allow you to capture those portfolio-quality photos.
MacGyver Yourself a Snoot
Once, while at the peak of a constructive motivational high educed by my general dissatisfaction with my macro images, I scraped together a bit of old wetsuit, a DVD spindle, some super glue and… voilà! My first snoot.
Using a snoot can be tedious work, and at times you’ll probably want to rip it off and let it sink into the blue out of frustration, but it can be a very powerful tool in spicing up your images. Halo, pin, and backlighting are just some possibilities of different techniques to try out with your new DIY macro tool.
It took me four to five trips and a sand-filled fin kick from a passing customer before I finally refined my stargazer idea
Macro for Wide Angle
Putting a macro lens on to shoot typically wide-angle subjects may seem a bit strange or just crazy, but “strange” and “crazy” are what catch people’s eye when they look at a portfolio. What I’ve noticed about this way of shooting is that it really makes the small details of the subject that you wouldn’t ordinarily be focused on pop out, and it changes the way you see the subject altogether. The textured wrinkles around a manta ray’s eyes, the serrated edges and colors of a parrotfish’s beak, or in the following image, the intricacy in the lines on a bumphead’s fins and scales.
This style of photography is still a work in progress for me, but I see great potential, especially after witnessing the results of another photographer’s images on Palau’s Blue Corner shooting gray reef sharks with a 60mm macro lens—or better yet a cage dive with great whites using a 100mm macro lens!
I hadn’t anticipated a massive school of bumpheads swimming past me on this dive in the Banda Islands, otherwise I would have had my fisheye lens on, but I’m glad I hadn’t because shooting these guys in an unfamiliar way provided me with a new style of photography!
Go for a Snorkel
In-between dives, while the guests are eating and sleeping, I like to take advantage of the shallows and bubble-free water to look for over-under possibilities. A good split is a very easy and powerful piece that every underwater photographer should have in their portfolio.
In Raja Ampat, the reefs literally go to the surface and above them is either mangroves or some of the most stunning rock formations. This means my surface intervals are usually spent with a sunburnt neck waist deep in water spitting on my dome port.
Perfect conditions, flat water and blue skies in one of the many sets of mangrove forests in Raja Ampat
Look for a Window
Snell’s window is a real crowd pleaser. Just about every photo competition these days has at least one of the winners taking advantage of this visual phenomenon. Something you should always be looking for as you continue to explore the reefs you already know so well is new window opportunities—and it helps if you can find something to put in that window.
On this particular day in Raja Ampat the current was moving just right to open up all the soft corals and smooth out the surface, creating this near-perfect window to the karst cliff face above
Don’t be afraid to get a bit weird with your settings and composition. Try something you wouldn’t typically do. You never know what you’ll discover.
These volcanic bubbles coming out of the sand look beautiful to the eye as they sway in the surge and dance to the surface in single file. For me the beauty comes from the movement of the bubbles, and capturing that movement is the tricky part. One day, while messing around with different ways to shoot the bubbles, I slowed down my shutter to a quarter of a second, just to see what would happen—I liked it.
After Sangeang Volcano’s most recent eruption in May 2014 the ever-present bubbles intensified significantly, creating some unique photo possibilities
Be Ready For…
People looking to hire underwater photographers, for whatever reason, need to be confident that the photographer can capture the peak of any sort of behavioral action. Anybody with a camera and a bit of experience can sit next to a subject for an hour precisely mapping out the lighting and composition, but can you do it when you only have a matter of seconds? A lot of this depends on being in the right place at the right time, but the other part is knowing exactly what to do when that rare moment presents itself. A good portfolio should show off your ability to really capture that moment in time.
I was just about to surface when the rare pelagic octopus pictured below appeared inches from my mask. It was hunting in the water column at night, but the second it saw my lights, it started a rapid descent to the sea floor just three meters below. I had been using my snoot so I was holding my strobe in my left hand, and I knew I didn’t want the snoot for this shot, so I quickly pulled it off and let it drop into the sand below. I had just a second, literally, to position my strobe arm and snap this shot before the octopus hit the sand and disappeared into a hole.
A rare, candy-colored pelagic octopus hunts in the black of night in south Komodo
Unless you work on some fantasy liveaboard that rotates seasons between the Azores, Antarctica and anywhere Indonesia, my advice is to forget filling your portfolio with images of mating narwals and saltwater croc splits. Embrace routine and repetition, jerry-rig yourself some different lighting tools, and start doing things with your camera that you haven’t done before. Yes, you’ll end up deleting a lot of your new images, but the ones you keep will be worth the hundreds sitting in your trash. In the end, it’s not about what creatures you have in your photos. It’s more important to focus on the actual photos themselves and creating something new.
To see more of Alex’s work, please visit his Flickr site.