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Dive Photo Guide


Photo Lab with Alexandra Schmidt-Thaler
By DPG Editorial Staff, August 9, 2020 @ 09:00 AM (EST)

Pro underwater photographers Jeff Milisen and Rico Besserdich take a detailed look at five of reader Alexandra Schmidt-Thaler’s images, giving her pointers and feedback on how she might improve them.

Pinar Wreck, Bodrum, Turkey, Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini with kit lens, Olympus PT-EP06 housing, Inon HWL-100 wide conversion lens, f/13, 1/320s, ISO 400

Jeff Milisen: The gradations of color are gorgeous, and I am always captivated by the way the waves break on the shoreline. I also love the hint of Snell’s Window. The rock formations are cool, but they don’t steal the show as a subject. If I was intent on making them the subject, I would have tried a few different angles to create more of an abstract. There is some not exactly negative space, but the borders of the image don’t add much, and I might have moved to crop out the boulder area at the right. I also might have tried to include more of Snell’s Window by moving up the rocks into shallower water where the Snell’s space is much clearer. That’s where the leading rock lines are strongest anyway! At the end of the day, sometimes what you see doesn’t quite translate to a photo.

Rico Besserdich: While some might not find anything of interest in this image, for me it’s still a pleasing picture. I personally like the color gradients, starting from yellowish rock structures in the lower part of the image, going to a more blue/cyan color in the middle, and then ending up in blue-green and red tones in the upper area. No sharks, no fancy critters, yet the eye can discover so much. When judging this image, we also need to consider the photographic equipment used: Alexandra has squeezed the best out of her little camera. On the post-processing side, the rocks in the center might be a bit too dark as we’ve lost all the detail in the shadows. The image could also use a bit more sharpness overall to bring out the finer details. The camera settings are fine, but I would prefer ISO 200 and a slower shutter speed, which would result in less noise. I do like the idea of shooting images in areas that other divers just pass by without noticing a thing. For me, this makes the photograph, despite minor technical issues, a successful one.

Pinar Wreck, Bodrum, Turkey, Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini with kit lens, Olympus PT-EP06 housing, Inon HWL-100 wide conversion lens, f/3.5, 1/400s, ISO 400

Jeff: This is a fun image to share with your dive buddies. When I see a black and white image, I want there to be a reason it is black and white. While we want that reason to be emphasis of texture through desaturation, more often than not it is our last-ditch attempt to save an image in post. There are some shadows among the rocks that are nice, but I want more. More drama, more dynamics, and you get that by finding creative angles and getting close! Next time, you might put yourself in front of the leader and frame the guide with the two buddies on either side. And then there is the story, which at this point is just three divers swimming. I want them to have purpose. At some point, the divers must have stopped to look at something. Incorporating a sense of story in an image helps round it out and draws curiosity.

Rico: Technical aspects aside, this image made me smile. We have one diver who is just enjoying the dive. We have another who seems to take underwater photography very seriously, toting a bulky DSLR rig (focus light still switched on!). And then we have yet another who prefers to follow their passion with just an action cam attached to a stick. From a photojournalism perspective, this is actually a funny shot with a story to tell, and is thus worth a closer look. In terms of composition, I would love to have the divers swimming in open water instead of having those distracting rocks in the frame. As for camera settings, a slower shutter speed would again allow a lower ISO and a narrower aperture, which would improve the rendering of the water and image sharpness. Finally, with a black-and-white conversion, one should pay attention to details: A silhouette shot can be powerful, but one must execute it carefully. Here, some elements are silhouettes, while others are not. Still, we also have to take the limits of the camera into consideration, and ultimately, that makes this shot a keeper.

Sandy Beach, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini with kit lens, Olympus PT-EP06 housing, ReefNet SubSee +5 diopter, Sea&Sea YS-D2J strobe, f/6.3, 1/125s, ISO 200

Jeff: Now we’re talking! An unusual-looking animal portrait! I like these! The green scuzz with the tan skin gives the whole image a strange but fun atmosphere, befitting of the strange subject. I’m a fan, but I was recently told that compliments feel good, but criticism is what makes people better—and this is Photo Lab! It looks like you are working with just a single strobe here. This isn’t so much of a problem as it is something to keep in mind. For example, the green shadow on the body starts a little too far forward and the face is ever-so-slightly burned with light. Try playing with the strobe angle a bit to have the light come more from above-left than just straight on the face. Compositionally, I want to see that left hand, so some patience to wait for the fish to move might have paid off. Also, get closer, and maybe tilt the subject in the frame so the tail goes up and right. This might help give you some room in front of the animal so it isn’t quite so squished against that left margin while also using that negative space over top.

Rico: This is an interesting critter that not every diver gets to see! The colors look good and I like that the focus on the eye is spot on. The overall image sharpness is good, too. Possibilities for improvement are firstly, a different shooting angle, and secondly, different strobe positioning. With respect to the former, an “eye-to-eye” angle works better than a downward-pointing angle. Regarding the latter, there’s nothing wrong with using a single strobe, but in order to illuminate the subject properly, it would have been better to have the strobe positioned above the camera housing, pointing slightly downwards toward the subject. Finally, the composition could be improved by getting closer to the subject, which would make the distracting surroundings less visible in the frame.

The Lanterns, Eagle Hawk Neck, Tasmania, Australia, Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini with kit lens, Olympus PT-EP06 housing, ReefNet SubSee +5 diopter, Sea&Sea YS-D2J strobe, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 200

Jeff: There is a lot of good happening here. The animal’s colors are beautifully set against a murky dark background. You have a slight hint of surface color in the upper right. And the details in the pattern, yum! There are two glaring issues that I see here. The first is the amount of negative space. That is just wasted pixels. Maybe expose the grasses at the bottom to give a burst of green, or move in closer to the subject. Something. And then there is the elephant in the room—it is a butt shot. Rarely do images taken from behind the subject work. If you can’t get in front of it, at least get the animal straight from the side.

Rico: A very colorful image of another interesting critter. It isn’t that easy to shoot this species with a more-or-less neutral background, so kudos to the photographer for waiting patiently for the right moment. Furthermore, given what we know about the gear and settings, it seems the photographer got about as close as she could to the subject, which is also laudable. I personally don’t find it a big deal that part of the fish’s tail isn’t lit by the strobe, but it highlights the importance of trying various strobe positions, angles and output powers—that could be a game changer. Furthermore, I would pay a bit more attention to image sharpening in post, especially when downscaling images for use on the Internet. I assume the original full-resolution image is sharp, and the reduction in size added a bit of softness. Once again, given the inherent limitations of Alexandra’s system, this is a pleasing shot of an interesting and unique marine animal.

Deep Glen Bay Wall, Eagle Hawk Neck, Tasmania, Australia, Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini with kit lens, Olympus PT-EP06 housing, ReefNet SubSee +5 diopter, Sea&Sea YS-D2J strobe, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 200

Jeff: I am captivated by this little thing! Our sea spiders are always such drab colors of brown, and while they fascinate me, their color just isn’t interesting to anyone but nerds. But that yellow sea spider is amazing! And I want more of it! Get closer. And that background on the left just isn’t doing it for me. I love black backgrounds, and that would certainly set this subject off. Even moving the frame to the right would include more black to help better present the pycnogonid. At the very least, get closer and crop in to really bring the focus in on the interesting critter. Finally, open up that aperture a little to get the cool creature in focus with some nice bokeh in the back.

Rico: Sea spiders are quite tricky animals to photograph and Alexandra has done her best under the circumstances. The colors and focus are fine, and the spider is positioned in the frame according to the Rule of Thirds, which is good, too. Still, I would love to see the animal in a less “defensive” pose, meaning with legs more spread apart. Furthermore, the image could have been improved by getting closer to the subject, having more of the sea spider and a bit less of its surroundings in the frame. Having said that, a kit lens combined with a +5 wet diopter can’t be compared with a real macro lens, so perhaps this was already the closest distance possible. We must also remember the inherent limitations of Alexandra’s kit lens in terms of sharpness and color reproduction. Finally, a slight (say 10%) lowering of strobe power, or just moving the strobe 4–6 inches further from the subject, would have helped to add a bit more depth as well as fix the very few slightly overexposed areas (spider legs).


Final Comments


Jeff: I think, in general, you obviously have control over the exposure and focusing mechanisms. These aspects are critical for a successful image. Where you could improve is in exploring compositional elements. Learn to focus everything about the image on the subject. Anything that isn’t subject should add to it by telling a story, complement its colors, or be cropped/blacked/bokeh’ed out. It is important that you keep in mind what to include, and it is almost more important that you know what to exclude from the image. Finally, subjects that are swimming toward the camera, or even ideally at a 45-degree angle across your view, will be more engaging and demand the viewer’s attention.

Rico: Many underwater shooters, even hobbyists, invest serious hard-earned cash in state-of-the-art camera rigs. Meanwhile, Alexandra just grabs her tiny entry-level camera, mounts the kit lens, travels around the world, and simply keeps on shooting what she loves—proving once again it’s not the camera but the photographer that takes the image. It’s obvious that Alexandra explores the underwater realm with her eyes wide open, always looking for photogenic scenes and interesting subjects, whether it be rock formations in the Mediterranean Sea or rare critters in Tasmanian waters. While she has the talent to be a good spotter of tiny sea creatures, she also has a sense for the photographic potential of scenes many other divers would just swim by. Ultimately, perhaps, she has now reached the point where her photographic equipment no longer matches her personal standards and goals. No need to sacrify the piggy bank, but once Alexandra makes the step to the next technical level, we had all better be ready for even more impressive images from her diving adventures.

About Alexandra Schmidt-Thaler: Alexandra took her first snaps at the age of 12. When she began scuba diving, she started taking pictures with a Kodak disposable waterproof camera. With a growing interest in underwater photography, she purchased an Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini, which she is still using. In 2018, she took some photography lessons with the aim of making better images on her vacation to Tasmania this year.

If you’re interested in having your images critiqued in our Photo Lab column, send us five of your best images (unwatermarked), sized at 1500 pixels wide (for both horizontal and vertical images), and for each image, a one-line description, location where it was taken, camera, housing and lighting used, and exposure information. Please also include a 50–80-word biography detailing your photography background.


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