A Conversation With… a new series of articles

Todd: People can be discouraged if they don’t place, but for all you know they placed three and you were fourth and it was just on the difference between one judge and another. Enter the same image again and you could be first. If you really feel strongly about an image, don’t give up on it, get some feedback from honest people and enter it again.
But you have got to be prepared to listen. There was a thread on Wetpixel where someone was looking for critique and you [Alex] picked apart an image from a judging perspective on why is wasn’t quite there. People have got to look for those resources.
Alex: But it is very difficult in internetland to be honest and direct without coming across…
Todd: …as an ass.
Alex: Ha, ha. Yeah. It’s much easier to do those things face to face or on a private email, not a public forum.
Todd: You’ve gotta have thick skin and listen to the criticism.
Alex: Exactly. Without that attitude you are not going to get better.

Dancing with dolphins by Todd Mintz.

Alex: To change tack slightly, I’d like to get into the meat of creating those winning shots. What was the underwater thought process behind those winning shots? How do you recognise those special opportunities?
Rand: It is part of the growth process. When we finally got to the point of visualising shots ahead of time and going down with a plan looking for something we’d seen or never seen but hope to. I have slowly built in my mind a library of shots that I believe are possible to get in the right circumstances. For example, I had seen photos of birds with baitfish from the Sardine Run in South Africa and was always dumbstruck. I had always imagined in my how I would want such an image to look, should I ever get the opportunity. And then when I was in La Paz in Mexico shooting sealions, a couple got back on the boat and said there are millions of little fish over there and the birds are diving in. And I got my chance.
[That photo won the David Doubilet Award for Best In Show at Beneath The Sea.]
Todd: I remember that shot, and the moment I saw it I said it would win. Interestingly enough most of his successful shots I have said that about, but there are plenty of others that he’s been happy with that I have been brutally honest about and told him I don’t think so.
Rand: Foremost in my mind, when I drop and start looking for subjects is to look for interaction, behaviour, just something going on. I consider that a more interesting shot than a shrimp or a fish. A shrimp on a fish is more compelling.
Todd: I’d agree. Even when I have previsualised ideas, once you hit the water everything can change. You start to see other things. With my dolphin shot, I had seen the interaction of the dolphins with the people on the scooter. The flow of it, it was almost like a dance and I saw it coming and got myself into position.
With my mangrove shots in Raja Ampat, we had done several dives there and I had seen the sunlight coming through the trees and it was beautiful and I knew I needed a foreground subject. And then as I was cruising along and saw the anemone with the clownfish and I thought this is the shot, if I can get it to translate into the camera. And fortunately I had the time to get everything right.
[Todd’s anemonefish photo has won 3 separate Best Of Show awards]


Todd Mintz’s Anemonefish in Mangroves photos on display at the Smithsonian Museum. Photo by MikeO.

Alex: Time and diving freedom are very important. The chance to repeat dive sites and then stay put when things are hot. I think another important factor in your success is that competitions are the main purpose of your photography, and that gives you a clarity of thought and focus.
Todd: For me a successful trip is coming back with that one image that I am pumped about. I like to say, its got potential. Potential for competitions. For a winning image you need to be looking for something artistic in the shot. Not just here is a shot of a unique subject, but is there a unique artistic flare, in terms of the colours, flow, multiple points of interest, the negative space is huge in winning images. So often you have the right subject, but not the right setup.
Alex: So it’s probably equally important to be able to recognise great setups and to identify subjects that are poorly setup and know not to waste time on them.
Todd: Exactly. Successful images have got to catch the eye instantly and have that wow factor.
Alex: Easier said than done. How do you make your entries stand out?
Todd: It is all about the light, the quality of the light, the textures from the light. Really working those angles. Not just standard lighting, standard setup, nice clean shot. Play around with it a bit.
Alex: I agree, a decade ago a technically perfect image was just a wonder to behold and would win. But now you need something extra.
Todd: You’ve got to put the time in, you’ve got to be willing to review your shooting, critique it seriously, figure out where you can improve.
Rand: You’ve definitely got to separate yourself from the crowd, be prepared to be different. Go against established wisdom. Back when we were shooting the [Olympus] 5050s and we were snapping two macro lenses on together, to push the boundaries and shoot super tight macro photos. I loved that type of photography, so to continue it the SLR, Ryan [Canon] suggested the 2x teleconverter. I remember being told at the time on DigitalDiver and Wetpixel that the glass quality is horrible and not worth the effort. Anyway my first trip with that setup was to the Turks and Caicos and I got that little yellow blenny.
Alex: The one that was on the stamp.


Rand McMeins’s Turks and Caicos Stamp.

Rand: Yeah. And had I shot that with a standard lens, it would have had a lot of negative space around it and just been another blenny shot. It is like the snoot work I did, which now Keri [Wilk] has got into. And he is getting some amazing creative lighting with the snoot and it is separating his photos.
Alex: So you’re saying to keep up the continue success you have to do a Bowie and keep reinventing the techniques you are using and be prepared to go against perceived wisdom.
Rand: I think so. Because digital photography is becoming so widespread, and the competitions are going to get harder and harder to win.
Todd: But you don’t need to be so wrapped in the technical. Its something Jen said, probably the biggest complement I have got, that I have an eye and see things in terms of taking the shots. Of course you need to be in control of your equipment and I have upgraded when I have found it has limited me for what I want to accomplish.
Alex: Well if you will have a Canon!
Todd: Ha ha. Jim Watt, by the way, shot Canon. But I think it has got to be more about the art. You have to have a solid base in technique, but I am the last person to talk to about the point whatever difference between this sensor and that sensor. But you have to open yourself up to seeing things. When I started I used to say, yep, there is the subject, I can compose it in the third and shoot it this way. But now I’m looking for details, eye shots, fresh angles.
Alex: Another point I’d like to make after diving with you both is how much you respect the environment, never touching or moving a subject for a shot. Underwater photographers often have bad reputations for not caring, and it is an important message that you win competitions playing fair.
Todd: If we are meant to find the subject and it is meant to happen it will. You can’t force shots. Keep your eyes open and it will appear. There is never a need to move or harass things.
Rand: For me, personally, it is part of the challenge of shooting underwater. First finding shots in all the life underwater. And second, people who manipulate subjects, the word gets around, this is a fairly small, tight knit community, and they hurt themselves, their reputations.
Being more positive, there seems to be so much interesting stuff naturally going on, it may take some patience to find it, but there is no justification for [setting shots up]. And most of the time the natural behaviours are much more interesting.
Alex: And you won’t get a gunnel nicely wrapped around the kelp by putting it there. There is a natural harmony to animals doing their own thing that just looks better.
Todd: It is like taking pictures of people posed. They always look staged.
I have two young boys and I want them to grow up with a respect for nature. I enjoying sharing the stories behind my shots and I couldn’t do that if I had moved something.
Rand: Every aspect of the challenge of underwater photography you have a choice of good or bad. If you want to be a good macro shooter you have to master the challenges. Or you could just crop the hell out of your image and it will look fine on the web. Maybe the depth of field is a giveaway. Basically if you are going to cheat, you are a cheater. I wouldn’t get any satisfaction winning a contest because I put a nudibranch on the back of a frogfish.
Alex: Not sitting on the fence then. Another contentious issue is Photoshopping. Almost all competitions you enter do not allow any significant manipulation to the content of the frame. And there are a lot of people out there, who have an attitude that with every image they see better than theirs, they think “That’s all Photoshop. If I was better at Photoshop, I’d be winning the competitions too.” And I think you, Todd, are the perfect example as you are not the best with Photoshop.
Todd: Ha ha. I have never taken the time to bother with it, because if I can’t get the picture right in the camera I need to go back and redo it better. Also I don’t believe you can ‘Shop an image up to replicate the quality of something that is properly lit, properly exposed and properly shot.
Alex: I agree, and all the really talented underwater shooters I have dived with all their good stuff is spot on the back of their camera. And I think a lot of people hold their own photography back because they don’t believe those results are always possible in camera.
Todd: I am sure I’ll start learning more Photoshop in the future, as I do see some techniques that interest me artistically. I am not a purist, per se. I just relish the challenge of getting it right. I’ve nothing against the art of Photoshop, it certainly is an art too. It is just not something that appeals to me at this point.
Rand: Me too. I have, like, five adjustments that I do. I like my photos to come out of the RAW converter done, apart from sharpening. Part of the challenge, if not the challenge, is to get that photo perfect in the camera.
Alex: Any final advice for those trying to dethrone you in the contests?
Rand: It is basic, but read the rules. They are often very specific about certain things. I highlight the rules, all the important details.
Todd: I do the same thing.
Rand: I know from conversations with organisers they often say things like “Some guy entered a great macro shot, but in the wide angle category so we had to toss it!” When entering a competition, look at the categories and make sure your image fits the category. You won’t win divers and marine life unless you have a diver in it.
Todd: Learning more about the subjects can make a huge difference.
Rand: If you are not underwater shooting a lot, it is doubly hard to get good photos when you do dive. Like in Port Hardy, every time I go there I have a better understanding of the habitat, the creatures. What I can expect to find and what I have shot a million times before that is just not going to do it. Or on the other hand, you have the grunt sculpin. I’d love to win a contest with a grunty because they are such interesting creatures but they are so hard to shoot in an appealing way.
Alex: There is always something to work on, something to come back for. Thanks, guys.

More info and photos:
Rand McMeins
Todd Mintz

Next month Alex enjoys a conversation with Martin Edge.