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Dive Photo Guide


Quick Tips: Making the Cut in Underwater Imaging Competitions
By Andrew Marriott, January 22, 2020 @ 09:00 AM (EST)

DPG-SharkCon 2019: Gold in Shark Behavior by Shane Gross

Underwater imaging contests like the DPG/Wetpixel Masters and DEEP Indonesia competitions aren’t just a lot of fun; they help motivate us and push the boundaries of underwater photography and video. If you are going to take the plunge and submit your work, there are some things you can do to help boost your chances of success. Of course, these won’t necessarily guarantee success, but they should help provide some behind-the-scenes insight into what catches judges’ eyes.

Winning a photo competition requires a lot of skill, patience, and luck. There is no set formula you can follow that will guarantee a winning shot, but there are things you can do to increase your odds. The biggest challenge you need to overcome is making the first cut. Judges will see hundreds (or even thousands) of images in major competitions and going through them is a tedious process. What you need to do is make the first big cut; if you do that, you have a real chance to win. Like it or not, your image will have only a few seconds in front of the judges before they pass judgement on it. Only later, when the list is much smaller, will they spend time and really pore over the images. Your focus is these few seconds. Here is how you can maximize that precious time.

Gold - Compact Camera OWU 2014

Our World Underwater 2014: Gold in Compact Cameras by Bert Willaert


Know Your Category

Enter your shot in the appropriate category. This seems so simple, but you’d be shocked at how many people try and slip their shots into categories they think will have fewer entries. There are shooters who think that their shot of a diver swimming with a whale shark is good, but it won’t win in the popular wide-angle category. So instead they put it in marine conservation, or underwater fashion. Do not do this! It is extremely transparent what is going on and it will only irritate the judges. In the last competition I judged, there were several images like this that, had they been entered in the correct category, would have had a good chance of winning. Instead, they were instantly deleted.

See What Won Recently and Don’t Repeat It

There are all kinds of hot trends in underwater photography, and we all see vast numbers of photos online. Pay attention to these trends and realize that this represents a good sample of what will be entered in your competition. Two years ago, this was black water in the macro category. When black water first came out, the shots were new, exciting, and very often won. Now they are so common they can get a little repetitive—which is too bad, but it’s the truth. See what won in your competition last year. Check out what people are posting online. Then make sure what you enter is not either of those. You want to stand out, and this guarantees your photos will be different.

Our World Underwater 2016: Gold in Macro Unrestricted by Jeff Milisen


Carefully Read and Follow the Rules on Post-Processing

This tip seems self-explanatory, but you’d be amazed how many people misinterpret it. If the rules on post are very strict, and very specific, then you want to strictly adhere to them: For instance, the “Traditional” categories in the DPG/Wetpixel Masters competition “allow for the adjustment of brightness, contrast, color, and sharpness only.” Having said that, you’ll be surprised that if you really examine the rules for most competitions, they typically allow a good deal of flexibility. Outright insertion of animals or removal of large objects isn’t allowed, of course. But things like color correction, backscatter removal, and limited cropping are often allowed. The reason for this is that most shooters are taking their photos in RAW and these are “undeveloped.” Judges want to see your final image and they want it to be nice and pretty. In any case, these days cameras are so powerful they are blurring the lines between what is post and what is in-camera, and this forces competitions to have less rigid guidelines. Play by the rules but take full advantage of what they offer.

Don’t Invent Rules

This goes along with the advice above on post-processing. Read the rules carefully and follow them, but don’t add your own assumed rules in there. For example, in the DEEP Indonesia competition last year, I had entrants talk to me after and wonder what was wrong with their shot. These were quality images, but they just didn’t have the punch of some of the winning images. What was the problem? The photographers assumed that the photos had to be shot in Indonesia! Nowhere in the rules did it state this, and by creating their own rule, the photographers lost a chance to have a winning image. You can’t win if you don’t make the cut and you can’t make the cut if create your own obstacles.

DEEP Indonesia 2015: “Best in Show” and Gold in Animal Portraits by Eduardo Acevedo


There Are No Points for Difficulty

I’ve heard some great stories about how a shot was taken, or how some incredible new camera technique was used to create a nice visual effect. But judges don’t have time to figure out how you took your shot; we can only judge it on the merits of final appearance. The point is, don’t add unnecessary difficulty to your images. In the end it doesn’t matter. We don’t know if the shot took you two seconds to shoot, or two hours; and to put it bluntly, we don’t have time to care. After the competition every judge would love to hear the story, but during the grading process, it doesn’t matter.

Capture a Lucky Moment

I wish I could tell you how to shoot those amazing one-in-a-million moments, but they are (mostly) just dumb luck. However, most of you probably have shots of crazy things happening. Often these moments happen so fast that the photo quality is lower. Things are going at light speed and you don’t have time to set the perfect strobe position or lock in the correct shutter speed. The moment though is still amazing, even if you don’t think the photo is of your highest quality. Think twice before dismissing these shots. Judges want to see something different when flipping through a thousand images. In that key few seconds, if you can make just one of them pause an extra heartbeat and say “Wow”, then you’ve already made the cut.

DEEP Indonesia 2017: “Best of Show” and Gold in Animal Behavior by Ralph Pace


Enter Video

Most modern cameras can shoot excellent video, so start shooting video! Most competitions these days have a video category, and the numbers are only going to get bigger. The number of video entrants is only a tiny fraction of those entering stills. In fact, by making the cut in some competitions, you will almost automatically be a winner. There is no second round. Also, video takes the judges longer to view and it gives you more time in front of their eyes. If you do enter video, make sure it’s within the allowed length (five minutes in the case of the DPG/Wetpixel Masters competition). Anyway, nobody wants to watch nine minutes of footage from a single dive, even if it is a clip of Neptune himself riding a whale.

Shoot Portrait Style

Probably 95% of underwater photos are shot landscape style. Turn your camera vertically and you automatically stand out from the crowd. I’ve judged competitions where every single shot was landscape, and there were hundreds of them. Seriously, this one little adjustment will vastly increase your odds of making the cut. Be very careful of the rules regarding cropping. If you crop a landscape into a portrait shot, you will likely be violating the rules on cropping in just about any competition. You need to shoot portrait style.

World Oceans Day Competition 2019: Theme Winner and 1st Place in Human Interaction: Making a Difference by David Salvatori


Keep It Simple

You don’t need an image of a mermaid giving birth to a great white shark to make the cut in a competition. A good, clean, well-composed, carefully lit image with a mundane subject will often make the cut. Don’t think that you need some insanely difficult shot, or some crazy rare creature to make the cut. All you really need is a basic point-and-shoot, a torch, and a well-composed shot. Keep your shots simple and enter them; you might be surprised how well they will do.

Think Pink 2019: 1st Place in Macro by Pietro Cremone


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