Once again, that stupid camera has taken me out of my comfort zone.
It is 3 am, and I am wide-awake. I try desperately to bore myself back to sleep: I stare at the ceiling, think about work projects; try to unravel the mystery of the missing raw files from a dive I did back in May. No luck. I look over at Andy who, of course, is sleeping like a baby. I consider smothering him with a pillow but decide that I might not be able to get another model at such short notice…I refrain.
We leave for Monterey tomorrow, where we will both be competing in the California Beach and Boat Dive Photo/Video competition. This event has “shootout” rules, where competitors have a set time (24 hours) to take pictures at a handful of dive sites and turn them in for judging. Andy knows this competition well – it has been around for 29 years, about as long as he has been shooting. On the other hand, this is my first big shootout, and I am terrified. I know that my fear is totally irrational, as few of the other competitors know anything about me – I could enter the water, screw it all up, and sneak away without anyone being the wiser. On the other hand, Andy has won and/or placed multiple times in this competition and is a professional photographer (i.e. there are expectations). Plus, since people in Monterey actually know who he is, he can’t sneak out anonymously – he MUST feel more pressure than I do. Well, rationality be damned. I can’t help it. I’d really like to do well, and my nerves are shot.
By the time we enter Backscatter Underwater Photo and Video to pick up registration stuff, I am almost lightheaded with anxiety. I see one or two people I know – I greet them with smiles and hugs, I collect my rules and submission information packet, and I am managing to give off the impression of being a functional human being but then I hear snippets of conversation that start to freak me out all over again, “A few professional shooters, already in the water” and “a ton more competitors this year compared to last year.” I look at Andy and send a telepathic message: I need to get away from this and in the water ASAP! He snickers at my panicked face, makes excuses, and steers me over to the Breakwater so we can start diving.
I don’t know Monterey well enough to find uncommon subjects, so my best bet is to shoot something common in an uncommon way. There is one macro shot I have thought about trying– a Dendronotus iris nudibranch (very ordinary in the bay) poised over its food source, a tube anemone. Making this shot appealing may not be so easy, however. The anemone stalk is basically a dirty, brown cylinder sticking out of the sandy bottom, and it retracts its tentacles once the nudibranch starts feasting, pulling in the nudibranch’s head (in other words, at this point, one’s photo would depict a nudibranch butt sticking out of a gross-looking, mucky stalk). I carry a snoot with me so I can attempt to light only the tentacles of the anemone and the nudibranch.
It takes me over half the dive (did I mention I am already freaking out?) but I finally find a Dendronotus in perfect position. Relieved, I get as low as I can, position one strobe, and squeeze the shutter - I get only 5 shots before the nudibranch is sucked into the body of the anemone. I never see another well-positioned Dendronotus during the dive, and I resort to shooting other subjects for the remainder. Not long thereafter, I run into Andy (he has been off shooting wide angle, of course) and we swim in together. At this point, I feel a tiny bit better and am relaxed enough to head over to Backscatter for a beer.
The next day, we find ourselves on a local charter boat with old and new friends, headed south to Carmel to the Outer Pinnacles, a lovely site covered with pink and purple hydrocoral. The visibility is fantastic, and since wide angle is the order of the day, we are both excited. However, our excitement deflates after we’ve been in the water a while – we are both looking for anemones or lingcod or cabezon – any defined foreground subject for some close-focus-wide angle – nothing. We shoot a bit of hydrocoral, but I am not too happy, and I can see Andy feels the same way. At the very end of the dive, Andy finds a fish-eating anemone perched perfectly on top of a deep rock (in a competition, our unspoken rule is “finders, keepers” – he/she who finds the subject has dibs on it - otherwise, a fistfight could break out, and really, no one wants that). I find a place to leave my camera, model a bit for him, and then head up to the shallows to shoot the numerous sea nettle jellyfish that float there.
We get onto the boat and meet each other’s eyes – I know we are both thinking that if the day continues this way, we’re going to get creamed. Fortuitously, another boat is anchored at our planned second dive site, and we head back into the bay to a site known for various anemones and sun stars. The visibility isn’t as good, but there are plenty of foreground subjects here, and we take turns modeling and shooting until our air is running low…we then head back to the dock, grab our memory cards and laptops, and rush over to Backscatter to download, edit, and submit. I submit 2 macro shots and 4 wide angle; Andy didn’t even bring a macro lens, and he submits 6 wide-angle images.
Now all we have to do is wait. And hope.
When the stills awards ceremony announcements begin for the Wide Angle Traditional category, Andy’s name is the first called. And the second. And then he takes the first place. My name is called when they begin the Wide Angle Unrestricted category, and it comes up twice in quick succession – we did it, both of us! When the dust has settled, we have each had four images place: Andy takes a first, a third, and two Honorable Mentions, and I take four Honorable Mentions. I can’t stop smiling like an idiot – I somehow got 4 Honorable Mentions!!! When they announce Andy’s name as the Best of Show winner, it is beyond fantastic. We sit there silently, not even looking at each other, kind of blown away.
I could end here like so many fairy tales, but I won’t. Truth is, even if I had been creamed, I would have been glad I challenged myself at a shootout. Talk about pure – all the shooters dive the same sites on the same day. If the visibility is 10 feet, well, we’re all shooting in crap. And if the surf/swell is big, we’re all getting our butts kicked. It levels the playing field in a way that few competitions can – and we are left to the simple stuff: luck, skill, luck, maybe some strategy, and luck. I’ll be back next year for sure - and back to square 1 all over again, just like everyone else. Including previous Best of Show winners…
No way! Panic had set in at 80 feet under a calm sea. I looked at Allison and said, “Oh %$#!” through my regulator. My muffled expletive was heard, and the look in my eyes reiterated everything she already knew. We had failed! Failed to produce a single good image on our second of three dives in the California Beach and Boat Dive Photo/Video Competition.
My past wins in this type of contest had been numerous - years ago that is. I went full-time as a professional photographer soon thereafter. “Those days” were over, and I had even judged this and other competitions several times since then. I resolved that as a “pro”, my presence in such competitions was no longer appropriate, and so I resigned myself to work and forgot about competing. Now, after many years, I had decided to return to a few competitions a year, “just for fun” (at least, this is what I told myself). And, of course, just the competitions, like this one, that allowed professionals to participate. Unfortunately, it seemed that my “ big comeback” hopes and dreams were nearly dashed.
This annual one-day event, known amongst underwater photography competitors as a “shootout”, was held in Monterey, California for it’s 29th year this past August, and conditions were ripe for a change. In years past, this contest, held by the Northern California Photographic Society (NCUPS), allowed beach diving only. This alone limited participation. Add to that the fact that the contest always seemed to be scheduled on a day when conditions could keep even the California sea lions out of the water, and event participation had slumped over the last few years. This year, the rules allowed boat diving, which gave it a much-needed rebirth. Attendance was great, with over 70 divers participating, both still and video shooters. In addition, Monterey, which boasts cold water (seriously, bring a drysuit), overcast skies, and often a lack of underwater visibility, was giving us a stellar performance. Flat seas and nearly clear skies with no wind made this one of the best weather windows the competition had ever seen.
Unfortunately, my performance (on this second dive at least) was far less than stellar. However, the dive wasn’t over yet.
We turned back toward our dive boat, Escapade, where owner/captain Jim Capwell and his crew anxiously awaited our return. They, too, were involved in the competition this year, as NCUPS had added a prize for the charter boat that produced the most winning images. By now, much of the gas in our 32% EANx cylinders was exhausted, and at least 90% of our no-deco bottom time was expended. We arrived under the Escapade with just enough gas and time to make a nice slow ascent and hang around in shallow water for a while. Time to pack it in and hope we can pull something off on our third and last dive, I guess. I looked at Allison again, looked at my computer that was running up toward deco, and I just shrugged my shoulders. She knew what that meant. Looking down momentarily from my depth of 60 feet, I noticed one lone anemone perched atop a rock, way below us. Against my better judgment, I signaled Allison to stay and model (please) and dove for my “last chance” subject. I hit bottom at 97 feet and cursed again. “Oh, well, get to work, shoot a few, and get up fast,” I thought to myself.
I set my f-stop for the distance, metered the background water quickly, set the shutter speed, composed the shot, aimed my two YS-250 strobes and focused on the anemone. I fired off a quick set of shots, checked the composition and histogram in my LCD, adjusted the strobe position a little and fired off another set. I tend to operate on autopilot after 30 years of shooting, most of them in California waters. It’s tricky in Monterey, though, and it has been years since I was a local here and could more easily judge the conditions. As I reviewed the images in the LCD once again, it was clear that I’d missed the lighting effect I wanted. A quick look at my computer registered good and bad news. No deco, but gas was running low. One more quick strobe adjustment and another set of images and hopefully I’d have it. After that, it would be time to call it quits and head up slowly. The next set was close enough, so I headed back up toward Allison and shallow water for a nice stage of long safety stops.
Back aboard the Escapade, I still felt the angst of an upcoming defeat. All I had were a few images of one lone anemone. Not much to win a contest with. Before the event, back at home in San Diego, I had strategized how to beat the Monterey locals and dreamed of victory. Now I was pretty sure I’d be the laughingstock, kind of like the professional boxer that stages an unsuccessful comeback after years of retirement and is then relegated to the ranks of shame. How could a “pro” lose to amateurs? Let me tell you, there are a million ways in a shootout.
Thankfully, our second dive proved more productive. Though nowhere near the visibility of the first, we were able to find several more subjects. After shooting a few good sets of images, my faith was restored. Ironically, the images shot on the first dive were the best of the batch. My “last chance” subject, the lone anemone at 97 feet, had paid off. Amazingly, it took first place in the Wide Angle Traditional category and ran against all the other firsts, taking Best of Show.
As an amateur, I’d won these events many times before, occasionally sweeping entire categories. However, this day had reminded me of what a difficult and humbling experience it is to compete in a contest like this. A shootout is what I now remember to be the “great equalizer” of underwater photography contests. It takes planning, skill, courage, a serious will to win, and more than anything else, just plain old luck.
Thanks to Susan Brown, Robbie Turner, and the other members of the Northern California Underwater Photographic Society for organizing the 2010 California Beach and Boat Dive Photo/Video Competition. Thanks also go to all sponsors for their generous donations. the competition is organized by NCUPS, and the winning images can be viewed at their site. We’d also like to thank Kelly Bracken for providing topside images for this article and please note that Kelly won first place in Wide Angle Unrestricted category of this same competition. Finally, many thanks go out to Captain Jim Capwell and the crew of the Escapade Dive Boat, as well as all the participating charter boats.
More Information about Andy Sallmon’s images, classes, and photo expeditions can be found on his site.