Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell famously pinned the figure for the time required to achieve mastery in a field: 10,000 hours. That’s fine and all, but if you want to become a master underwater photographer—but only go on a couple dive trips a year—it could take several lifetimes.
But there is a loophole, a secret many up-and-coming amateurs are using to vastly improve their imagery in a matter of days: It’s called an underwater photo workshop, a week-long event packed with learning, diving, and (most importantly) vast improvement in underwater imaging skills.
Try not to think of these underwater photography workshops as school. Sure, there is some formal learning and training, but the real benefits are reaped from the immersive environment. You’re eating, diving, and living with other passionate underwater photographers and experts.
Remember hoping you could just put school textbooks to your head and the knowledge would just flow in? Well, with underwater photography workshops, the learning process is really like osmosis, flowing right in without even trying.
Imagine a week where you are surrounded by the top photography teachers, gear nuts and other underwater image-makers
“I think that this setting really helped me to focus on what I was being taught, and how I could use it to improve my photography,” says Kieran Cheong, who participated in the inaugural Roatán Underwater Photo Festival last year. “I think that this definitely resulted in accelerating the result of the instruction.”
After just starting to dive seriously in 2014, Cheong’s introduction to the workshop seems like fate. He was upgrading his kit by purchasing a strobe from Ikelite when he saw the Roatán Underwater Photo Festival listed in the events section. He signed up right away, hoping to learn how to take killer shots with his Olympus Tough TG-3.
And he did. It’s hard to even notice that many of his images of the numerous sharks, eels, and dolphins found in Roatán were taken with a rugged point-and-shoot. Perhaps surprisingly, Cheong credits his marked improvement not so much to the detail-oriented presentations, but to the hands-on help from the photo pros hosting the event.
Kieran Cheong’s images look like they were taken by someone with a decade of learning experience, not just a single week
The 2015 Roatán Underwater Photo Festival was headlined by the likes of DPG contributor Brandi Mueller, and pro shooters Sandy Sondrol and Paddy Ryan. Similar events in destinations like the Cayman Islands and Indonesia bring headliners like Alex Mustard and David Doubilet. Perhaps the winningest underwater photographer of all time, Keri Wilk, will join DPG Editor Joe Tepper for the 2016 Roatán Underwater Photo Festival.
“After [each dive], the [professional photographers] approach each diver and offer their insights into what you were doing well and what could be improved,” says Cheong, “I learned a lot from this type of instruction.”
The hands-on help of professional photographers is key to accelerating the learning process, according to Cheong
At the end of each day, attendees share their images with the group for positive critique
For beginning underwater photographers, working with pros in such an environment has an unquestionable impact. Perhaps more surprising are the benefits to be reaped by even the most seasoned underwater photographer.
Thinking about upgrading your setup but want to take the camera for a spin first? Some events, like the annual Digital Shootout, provide the opportunity for attendees to test out the latest gear alongside knowledgeable industry experts. For the 2015 edition of the Digital Shootout, leading underwater imaging retailer Backscatter supplied more than a dozen hot, new camera models for testing.
Want to experiment with a complex creative technique? While workshops cover the basics like lighting, composition, and post-processing, the experienced pro shooters are able to customize the syllabus to the specific needs of the students as the week goes on. It's like having a personal trainer for underwater photography teaching you the insider tips for techniques like snooting, close-focus wide-angle and split shots.
Want to learn a creative technique like adding a dive model to your image? Just ask the pros
Underwater photo workshops are a great way to build your imaging portfolio, with access to prized subjects like dolphins, sharks, and stunning reef scenes
There’s also the friendly competitiveness that comes with the imaging competitions to wrap up the training. Take, for example, Dave Herrick, who sported a long diving resume heading into the 2015 Roatán event—including a longtime relationship with his beloved Nikonos and flashbulbs (1978–2010). But he probably wouldn’t consider himself an international award-winning underwater image-maker. At least, not yet…
“[The workshop] forced me to think more about what to do in different diving photo situations, and to get out of my comfort zone and experiment more to get better exposures under different and more difficult photo conditions,” says Herrick, who admits he isn’t always the most technical-minded photographer.
As it turned out, getting out of his comfort zone was just the right trick. Herrick’s stunning image of light beams cutting through a series of underwater tunnels nabbed him the “Best in Show” image at the festival.
Ultimately, if you want to make the most of attending an underwater photography workshop, it all comes down to you. Herrick puts it simply: “Put as much into it as you can, so you can come away from it with as much as you can.”
Dave Herrick’s hard work pays off with this image, which earned the top prize at the 2015 Roatán Underwater Photo Festival
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