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Dive Photo Guide


Photo Lab with Pepe Suarez
By Matt Weiss and Lia Barrett, August 2, 2014 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

In this inaugural Photo Lab, DPG’s latest feature, we take a look at our readers’ images and portfolios, and provide feedback and guidance for ways to improve. This week, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Matt Weiss and Photo Editor Lia Barrett talk about five of reader Pepe Suarez’s images.

Similan Islands, Thailand (f/7.1, 1/100s, ISO 400 using two strobes)

Lia: I love soft corals—in fact, I have done many trips just to photograph soft corals. Images of their vibrant colors make people want to scuba dive, they lure people into paying thousands of dollars for dive trips, and they are great tools for underwater photographers to add that “wow” factor into their portfolio. For this particular image, I think you’ve got the composition correct. Using a figure is always nice for a human reference. I will say that though you can’t often avoid them, the glassfish turn the figure into a bit of an unrecognizable silhouette, which muddies the image a little. I would bring the figure forward or wait until the fish clear. I would also bring out the shadows and open up the exposure by perhaps shooting at a slightly lower shutter speed.

Matt: I agree with Lia that the diver being obscured by the glassfish is problematic. Another noticeable part of the image are the shadows in the reef—mainly the dark area under the soft coral. Some people love adding shadows to images for more drama (see the work of Aaron Wong). In this case, it distracts my eye from all the other great stuff going on. I would like to see the shot with different strobe positioning and some fill light on that shadow.

Conch, Cuba (f/6.3, 1/160s, ISO 100 using two strobes)

Lia: Composition, especially shooting something with a complicated physique, is very important, and I believe you are spot on for this particular animal. The eyes are obviously the focal point and are what the viewer is drawn to, so using negative space and the curvature of the shell is exactly what you want in this instance. I would, however, pay a bit of attention to your strobe placement. You seem to have lost the eyes a bit in shadow, making the lower region of the image flat. And from the reflections of the strobes, you can see that you had them placed too high and at an angle that created “hot spots,” which sometimes work, but rarely.

Matt: The conch shell is beautiful with leading lines guiding your eyes to the focal point. But, as Lia mentions, the focal point—the eyes—is a little dark compared to the hot spot created by the strobes on the upper-left corner. This means that your eye is naturally drawn to the shiny shell instead of those amazing eyes. Adjusting your strobe position and power settings could fix this minor flaw.

Komodo, Indonesia (f/11, 1/125s, ISO 100 using two strobes)

Lia: One of the most difficult aspects of photography is having an eye for composition, which you seem to have. You’ve taken an otherwise potentially mundane subject matter and used it quite well because of the way you’ve positioned your camera. The colors are good, and the image speaks to the tiny and minuscule nature of life and existence. My one small criticism would be the noise behind the fish. This would have been a particularly lovely image with a fully black background—but perhaps I’m just nitpicking here!

Matt: Interesting shot. At first I didn’t really respond to it, but the more I look at it, the more I like it. It tells a story and shows us a subject and composition not commonly seen in underwater photography. The larger the image, the more impact it has (click on the image to see a larger version). That said, the black background Lia mentions would really help. There is so much going on behind the fish that it’s hard to immediately understand what’s happening in the image. Additionally, color is so important to this shot that the reddish background distracts from the great color contrast of the fish and coral.

Manta ray, Burma Banks, Myanmar (f/5, 1/160s, ISO 400 using two strobes)

Lia: Who doesn’t love a manta ray shot? The thing about manta ray images is that you have to get the color correction on them right, or else they turn out cyan, green or totally blue—which is fine if you want to keep them just to show people that you saw a manta ray, but not if you are seriously trying to improve your photography. One way of color correcting is by using strobes to bring out true color. In this image, you are trying to bring out the lovely colors of the soft coral, as well as the manta ray. Too strong in strobe power and you blow out the highlights of the corals; too weak and you flatten the manta ray. It’s a toughie, but you can improve the contrast and color correction in post-processing by desaturating a bit of your cyan, and upping the contrast slightly. Again, do this with caution, for the highlights in the corals will start to blow (whiten), and that’s something you want to avoid.

Matt: This is a great moment that you’ve done well to capture. Trying to balance soft coral, blue water, small silver fish and a manta is incredibly ambitious! I love the movement in the image created by the manta swooping in from the upper corner, and the small fish dispersing. I have less of a problem with the color cast on the manta, but would have preferred you focused more on the foreground subject. The soft coral isn’t as bright and vibrant as it could be, and the patch of coral could be composed better. For example, the coral in the bottom-right corner is out of focus and distracting. Without being on the reef, it’s hard to say what exactly I would change, and perhaps this was the best angle in the circumstances!

Seahorse, Cozumel, Mexico (f/16, 1/160s, ISO 100 using two strobes)

Lia: Let’s face it, seahorses are rough. They never want to look at you, they move, and if you don't get their eye(s) in focus, you’ve blown the entire shot, and so on. Plus, shooting a seahorse vertically is always tougher, especially when trying to manually focus. I would say that out of all of your shots, this is the least strong—mainly because, while I can totally sympathize with what you are working with, there's too much going on. The background is distracting, and you’ve got a shadow from the coral or fan (that I am guessing the seahorse is perched on) shading the right side of its body. Also, when you’re shooting macro, you have to watch out for the color cast from your strobe. Here it is quite “hot,” creating an orange hue over the image. This can be caused by using a continuous light or by overcorrecting for reds and yellows during post-processing. 

Matt: Lia said it—seahorses are rough. The fact that you’ve got good eye contact and a nice exposure is an accomplishment. That said, this image would’ve benefited tremendously from one simple camera adjustment: turning the camera vertically. Seahorses, with their tall, slender bodies, beg for a vertical composition. Including the top of the head of this seahorse would turn a good shot into a great portrait.


Final Comments

Lia: I think Pepe shows a lot of potential. His composition is spot on, and his eye for interesting subject matter is apparent. He has a good base knowledge of light and exposure, and just has some technical aspects to work out. But I believe, with more practice, he will figure out those details and develop his own style quite nicely. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Matt: Pepe is clearly a thoughtful photographer. It’s easy to just look at an amazing subject, like a manta or a conch shell, and just shoot at will. If things are technically correct, the inherit interest of the subject means it will probably be a cool image. Pepe doesn’t just rely on interesting subjects for his photographs though. He thinks of the entire composition—lines on a conch shell, using mantas in the foreground,  the movement of baitfish. In some of these images, there are technical imperfections that slightly take away from the creative compositions—out-of-focus corals in the foreground, or distracting colors in the background. However, creative photographers usually work out the technical aspects with practice, and I’m sure, in time, Pepe will too.



About Pepe Suarez: Pepe is a dive instructor from Mexico City. His interest in learning underwater photography landed him a job in Thailand on a liveaboard where he was able to get his feet wet really quickly. When he arrived in Thailand with his new gear, he didn’t even know how to assemble it. But after a season of back-to-back liveaboards, he quickly improved. Now an instructor in Cozumel, he continues to practice his underwater photography.



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