A Conversation With… a new series of articles

Recently, I realised how fortunate I am to meet so many underwater photographers on my travels, and how the conversations we share continue to help my photography improve. The more views and opinions I am exposed to, the more I learn and the wider my knowledge base. My aim in this series of articles is to spread the knowledge around and hopefully tips will come up in the conversation format that wouldn’t in a normal article.
These aren’t formal interviews and I promise not to ask anyone where their favourite place to dive is! Instead they will be discussions about underwater photography focused on what particularly interests me in that persons work. When my schedule allows, I’ll do one every month or two and publish them on Wetpixel and Underwater Photography Magazine. The only rule is that these are face to face interviews (no phone or email interrogations) with characters, some widely known, others less so, from our world.


Rand McMeins &Todd Mintz in Canada. Photo Alex Mustard

I kick off the series up in Canada. I am here on Vancouver Island pointing the microphone at Todd Mintz and Rand McMeins. We’ve been diving the wonders of Browning Pass out of Port Hardy. This is also where I first met them face to face, on the same trip last year, and indeed where they became firm friends years earlier. Their friendship has played a key role in their photographic development, providing encouragement and honest constructive feedback on their work. Todd is Canadian and Rand is from the USA.

Neither considers themselves a “pro”, whatever that means. Although Todd regularly contributes images to Sport Diver and Scuba Diving magazines in the US. They have both done the majority of their photography in pixels, but perhaps, surprisingly, have clear views on getting images right in camera.

Arguably, it is their phenomenal track record as consistent winners in underwater photography competitions that really marks them out. Without getting too explicit, to save their blushes, Rand’s wins include at the International Competitions of LAUPS, NCUPS and Underwater Images, in Scuba Diving Magazine’s Annual Competition and in the National Wildlife Awards, oh, and receiving the David Doubilet Award For Excellence In Underwater Photography. Todd has received four Best Of Show Awards, in Nature’s Best Ocean Views, Scuba Diving Magazine and twice at NCUPS, once when he was a novice entering his first competition, he swept the board in both the wide angle and macro categories. In short, there are few underwater photo contests in the last few years when one or the other hasn’t starred. Often both. My hope, as I click on the Dictaphone is to uncover some of the secrets to this success.


Todd Mintz. Photo Alex Mustard

Alex: To start you off easy. One thing that struck me diving together is how happy you both were sacrificing your dive time to show me great subjects, when they could have been winners for you. I guess you prove nice guys do finish first.
Todd: That’s why I became a dive master. I found I enjoyed helping others. I get great satisfaction from finding a great subject for someone, particularly if it is something they have never seen. I will point it out and step away. Both you and Ryan Canon have made the same comment.
Also you have to recognise that locking in on a subject for 40 minutes and just banging away is not as productive as shooting a half a dozen shots, stepping away and letting someone else shoot, while you review your images seriously and think what else you could do.
Rand: Last year when you [Alex] were up here for the first time, I’d get so excited when I spotted a subject that you haven’t shot. There was more pleasure in getting you over to shoot it, than me, and also it is great to see a fresh perspective on a subject I have shot over and over again. Seeing your take on it might give me ideas. Seeing other people’s work can help you avoid a creative rut, always shooting a subject the same way.
Alex: Yeah, that is a big part of my motivation for these interviews. I feel very lucky to have had exactly that inspiration from diving with so many talented chaps. I grew up in relative isolation as an underwater photographer, which had some advantages, but mainly disadvantages. I think that is why I value so much diving with other shooters now. How did you guys get going?
Todd: I started the other way. I ended up fortuitously on trips with pros. Taking the last spot on a boat and finding it filled with big names. Many of them were really good people, amazing photographers and very willing to share their time and information. One of the first I met was Jim Watt, who sadly is no longer with us. On the Shear Water, he would take time out and call me over, show me a little of what he had done that day, how he did it and was really open to sharing.
The other two people who had a huge impact on me changing my approach were Jen Hayes and David Doubilet. I was with them for three weeks in Raja Ampat. Jen encouraged me to push my photography further and explained to me the importance of getting outside the box. Its about looking at all the angles, and not getting locked in to one preset type of shot. At some point you have to cut the cord and put yourself out on the edge.


Rand McMeins. Photo Alex Mustard

Rand: The watershed in my photographic development was a workshop with Jim Watt. It really gave me a fundamental idea of what I should be looking for when I am shooting to make my pictures interesting and different from what most underwater shooters are producing. For example, he was a great advocate of having a secondary subject in the frame. Many of the images that I have won competitions with have had secondary subjects. These separate a photo from the standard shots, and make it a much more compelling image.
Alex: So why contests? What is your motivation for entering? I am aware that your continuing success pretty much funds all your dive trips!
Rand: The original reason was they are great barometers for finding out how you are doing. For whatever reason, both Todd and I have had success almost from the get go. Also because I am not a professional photographer and I don’t really have another outlet for my images, apart from my website. Contest results are seen and appreciated by lots of people. And quite honestly, these competitions, thanks to their sponsors, do have some fantastic prizes. There is nothing wrong with a free dive trip or a nice piece of kit!
Todd: Prizes are nice and the trips subsidise producing more images and convincing my wife to let me spend more money on camera equipment! I was on a contest-winning trip when I met David and Jen, which had a huge impact on my photography beyond the images from that trip. I also feel proud to say that a lot of the people I have met have become good friends. I also see competitions as an avenue to get known by the magazines.
Alex: I believe an important factor in both of your successes, is your friendship. There are plenty of examples underwater of photographic friends, who have driven each other on to excellence.
Rand: My friendship with Todd grew and blossomed from both of us being willing to share ideas. Be harsh with one another, help each other see the flaws in our work so that we can improve.
Todd: Honest pure feedback…
Rand: …is hard to come by.
Alex: It must help in one of the hardest elements to competitions, which is selecting entries. Something I say when asked is submit your best pictures, not the pictures from your best dive. How do you decide?
Todd: My wife is probably the first to see them. I don’t edit much on the boat, I get more from the conversation with other photographers. Every trip is a great opportunity to learn from other people. Its something that I have bugged Rand about, you have got to talk to the other people, find out what they are seeing, the subjects that are exciting them. I really get motivated from the positive energy from other people’s enthusiasm.
Anyway, my wife doesn’t analyse my pictures, it is just what jumps out at her, And then secondly Rand has always been a huge source to go to. We email all the time and by the end of it, for most competitions we usually know what each other is entering.
Rand: It’s a process we go through. For each competition we’ll have possible entries that we just want to get a second opinion on. Sometimes you just fall in love with a shot, for reasons that may not translate into a winning photo. For example, with supermacro, it was so darn difficult to get a shot in focus, composed and sharp that you can’t see it is just average image. You need someone to tell you it’s a nice portrait, but it’s a rare day that a nice portrait wins anything these days.
All that helps us pair down our entries, but I’ll still enter an image if I feel strongly, even if Todd doesn’t rate it. But it is very rare that I enter a questionable image and it places. We’ll pretty much know what is going to win from our entries.
You [Alex] and I talked a lot about the jellyfish shot last year, but I don’t go around to fourteen different people trying to get their views. [Rand’s jellyfish and crab shot has so far netted over $8000 USD in prizes]


Rand McMeins’s crab riding jellyfish photo.

Alex: So just a few people whose will give you an honest opinion. So you’ve got a pretty good handle on when images are good enough to win. How do you deal with it, when they don’t?
Todd: There are so many great photos out there that anytime I win I feel fortunate. I have certainly been disappointed when I thought I had something and then it’s not placed. But, you may have the right image, but in the wrong contest.
Alex: There are also vagaries in the judging process, and I say that as someone who sits on juries and is regularly involved. In my experience, judges are very rarely biased and want to pick the best entries for the contest. But, for example, a lot of the success of an image can depend on what else came in that year and the impact of a shot is reduced if two or three people have entered similar photos.
Rand: That is another reason that Todd and I talk.

Continued on page 2…