A Conversation With Fotosub Photographers

Alex: Another interesting factor is the way that you dress the models, it is more of an artistic look. Although here there is quite a mix, some people using fairly standard diving gear and others using a more artistic look, with a yellow wetsuit, oval mask and a BC that enhances the silhouette shape.
David: Models really help your wide angle shots. I always think that wide angle without the model the hardest type of image to get in a typical CMAS style competition [these events usually have 5 or 6 strictly themed categories to make up the portfolio: wide angle, wide angle with model, macro, fish, fish portrait and local theme]. The model allows you to balance the composition and fill the frame. You might have nice corals, sponges, gorgonians, but then you have open water and the model is so valuable here. Taking a nice wide angle without a model can be a real challenge.
Alex: I think a lot of the time it depends on the dive site. If it is flat, for example, it is hard to find background interest. But if you have some structure its easier.
Carlos V: Why use a model if you can use an octopus?
David: Ha ha ha. I’m contemplating suicide.

Photo: David Barrio & Luisa Quintanilla. Fotosub Gran Canaria - Costa Mogan 2008

Arturo: The key to wide angle without model is patience. These competition photos are not accidental. They are planned. You find your scene and then you have to be patient, waiting for something to arrive and fill the space. Maybe a large creature, or a colourful fish or a school of fish. And that is one of the changes in attitude you must adopt. You are not going there to take the photo and go. Maybe you are ten minutes in one place waiting for the exact moment when the composition comes to you,
David: And all the time knowing you are under pressure that time is running out.
Arturo: So you have to know the behaviour of each animal. Will a stingray go up or a grouper will come and open its mouth. And you can’t touch anything and you can’t modify anything.
Alex: That is something I really respect in you all. Even with the pressure of a competition, you might be tempted to bend your morals a bit.
David: I think that this has really changed in the last few years. Before the older generation used to do this, they didn’t know better. But now people are behaving really well.
Alex: I also think that often the best macro setups are natural. You can’t force animals together, there is a natural balance. Except with the seahorse eating the goby, [David won a competition recently with a photo of a seahorse eating a goby], where you dip the goby in chocolate and then glue it in the mouth of the seahorse!
David: Ha ha ha. Yes, that is what I did!


Photo: Carlos Suarez & Mercedes Cabrera. Fotosub Gran Canaria - Costa Mogan 2009

David: For me the strategy is very important. I find the wide angle without model the hardest to get, so I try and do that first. Then get at least one shot for each category, to make sure I have some points, then try and improve each shot. You will always have time for this at the end.
Alex: So you are not just thinking about the photography, but also the strategy for the competition is always in your mind.
David: Always the strategy. Sometimes people finish with 5 great shots, but they miss one for the sixth category and they have a zero and their average will be low. They can’t win.
Alex: I am interested to ask you Carlos [V], as someone shoots lots and lots of editorial work for magazines around the world, do you really have to change your approach for the fotosubs?
Carlos V: I don’t really like the CMAS competitions, which are very restricted and they tell you what you have to do, and the images are very old fashioned in style. I like this competition much more [Fotosub Gran Canaria] because of the freedom. You just have to produce a collection of images and the variety is up to you, as long as the collection is balanced.
Carlos S: I agree with Carlos. When the competition has very defined categories I don’t enjoy it as much. And then when you dive and you see something great, which would be a fantastic photograph, but you don’t take it because it is not what the competition wants. This is artificial.
Carlos V: In that way the CMAS style competitions have to evolve. They are starting to, but they still will force you to take a crab shot and you may not like crabs. You want to take a nice dolphin photo, and this is frustrating.
Carlos S: Yes.
Carlos V: As a result the collections all look alike. And they have been looking alike for the last twenty years. The people who follow those competitions think that those of the photos they have to take, so they keep taking the photos people were taking twenty years ago and there is no progress.


Photo: Carlos Suarez & Mercedes Cabrera. Fotosub Gran Canaria - Costa Mogan 2009

Alex: The other thing we’ve talked about this week, is that the amount of diving is so restricted that despite having some of the best photographers, you have so little time to shoot for all the categories that the resulting images are not always really special. And then people look at the results, not knowing the rules, and they ask why is he is champion because they have better photos at home.
David: That is changing too. At the Sardina Fotosub [in north Gran Canaria] we had a week to dive in the area as often as we wanted. Dive at different times and use different conditions of the sun, even night dive. The only restriction was you could only take 60 shots per day, adding up to 360 shots during the week to present in 12 categories.
Alex: That seems much more sensible, because it is an important skill in photography to know when to shoot for light, for behaviours.
David: It was very comfortable. You didn’t have the stress, you just plan the picture and go and get it. Or you have time to hunt for really rare critters, even if it wastes a whole dive. But overall it leads to a much better collection of pictures, which in the end is what the sponsors want. Not just CMAS style pictures.
Alex: And this doesn’t make it easier for the photographers because it increases the challenge. I think it is really interesting that you guys, who are really involved and winning lots of prize money in the competitions as they are, still are pushing for changes in the very traditional CMAS approach. Usually the winners want the rules to stay as they are!
But for me it has to come slowly, it would be wrong to change it too fast. The core values of fotosub install a very good technical sense into underwater photographers. I always say you guys are match fit photographers, very sharp on everything.
David: That’s true. After a season of competition, I went to Lembeh and was with another photographer who does not compete and I saw it with pygmy seahorses. He would need 20 or 30 shots to get one good picture. When you are used to competition you have to be fast and accurate. Just 3 or 4 pictures and I knew I had the seahorse. You get to know your screen and you are 100% certain. That is very valuable on trips.
In competitions I have a cruising setting, I go to on my camera so I am ready for anything. If something comes up I should get a good result. And when I am on trips this can get me a shot when something amazing happens. Something you may only see once in your life.
Carlos V: They certainly make you quicker and more productive. Here we only have 37 minutes, but when you are on a 90 minute dive in a nice warm place you really can get a lot done.
Alex: For me, one of things that people have always said about fotosub photographers, Spanish, Italian etc, is that they have great lighting control, especially with wide angle. What do you look for in your wide angle lighting?
Carlos V: Personally I look for colour, texture and volume. That is what will make you images stand out.
David: It sounds like you are talking about shampoo!
All: Ha ha ha.
Carlos V: And a smooth feel.
Alex: Because your worth it.
Carlos V: You need the right amount of light to get the colours. Colourful pictures are eye-catching. This is the first consideration. Then the position and power of each strobe you can alter the texture and the volume.
Alex: OK, so when you see newer photographers shooting wide angle, what are the mistakes you see that they can improve.
Carlos V: Not getting close enough, and then when they learn to get very close they don’t adjust for this in their strobe positioning and the light goes over the subject,
Alex: I couldn’t agree more. It one of the most common mistakes I see.
David: People go from horizontal to vertical positions without changing the strobes because they get lazy.
Carlos S: You need to change the strobes and put them in different positions for different set ups.
Alex: I guess that is one of the disciplines that comes from having limited frames, it makes you get it right each time, not settling for a “that will be ok” attitude.
David: Trying to get softer lighting, so you don’t see the heavy hand of the strobe lighting, by pulling the strobes back and avoiding hotspots.
Alex: Which always look unnatural and pull the eye of the viewer.
David: It is because people get lazy.
Carlos V: Moving the arms is very important.
Arturo: And when people are new they want to take lots of photos as quickly as possible. But if you plan to shoot something, you should shoot it as well as you can. Take your time and try and get the lighting exactly as you want.
David: You need to understand the strobe cone, and for that you need to practice at home in front of a white wall. You need to see where the light goes and when it will give you backscatter. And now in competition more and more people are using snoots and strobe covers, even on only one side of the strobe, to control precisely the cone. People here are really starting to play around with light.
Alex: I really believe that creative lighting remains an area of great potential for expansion in underwater photography. If you want to differentiate you work and really make it stand out, there is a lot to do in this area. And I feel that the next five years we’ll see more and more of this.
David: I think digital is giving that opportunity. You have the instant feedback and learn faster and go further.
Alex: As long as you have the inclination. Many people do not.


Photo: Carlos Villoch & Maite Uriabarri. Fotosub Gran Canaria - Costa Mogan 2009

Carlos V: I think that we will see more and more strobes in the pictures and also lots of constant light with the advancement of the LED lights becoming more powerful with smaller batteries.
Alex: And the cameras getting better at high ISO.
Carlos V: High ISO and constant light will be a common technique soon.
Alex: I think fotosubs, once the competition is over, is one of the best places to learn the really cutting edge ideas and techniques.
David: In competitions like this you always want to be the first one that enters a picture using a new technique. Now we are all talking about the INON endoscope lens. You want to try new kit and make new pictures. Even your Magic Filters. Two years ago was the first time a Magic Filter shot was entered in this competition and the jury gave it strong points.
Carlos V: Low shutter speeds were never used until recently, because we were worried that the judges would take points away for the lack of sharpness
David: Three years ago I entered the first black and white picture in a fotosub. And people were really surprised because everyone was used to slide film, where you could not change this. It worked. The competitions make you very vigilant about what is new. Keeping an eye on Wetpixel forums and the Spanish photography forums, to see what is new. New ideas and techniques to try.

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