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Steve Williams

Defining the path to great Underwater Photography

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Hey folks,

 

I'm working on a little presentation to give at the local dive club on improving U/W Photography skills. I was very impressed with Alex Mustard's presentation at BSOUP and he got me thinking about the differences between good photographs and great images. I decided to try and put a simple chart together that would attempt to show the progression of a new person learning to shoot, up through the expert level. My initial idea was that I could use the chart to help students understand the difference between good pictures and great images and give them some tips to help them on the journey. I quickly realized that defining goodness can be an interesting exercise. It requires you to think about why we do what we do and I 'm guessing that could be different for everyone. This first draft supposes that the best U/W photography is ultimately done to affect the way people see the world and hopefully change some behaviors. It assumes we progress from learning, (getting exposure and focus right, learning how the camera works) to being able to take the classic images, (fish portraits, reef scenes, CFWA, etc) to making unique images (unique behaviors, compositions, new species), to having all these tools in the bag to be able to make those rare great images that affect people emotionally, tell stories with one frame, and hopefully change the way they see the world. Here is my first cut at it;

 

post-4526-1307342065.jpg

 

What do you folks think? I'm trying to keep it simple enough for new photographers to understand and still give them something to think about. I want to keep it camera neutral, we all know more expensive gear doesn't make you a better photographer.

 

I'd appreciate your thoughts,

 

Cheers,

 

Steve

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Ken Kobre hints at something similar in his excellent book entitled "Photojournalism - The Professional's Approach". In the Photo Editing section the grading of images is discussed, and there are four types:-

 

1. informational

2. graphically appealing

3. emotional

4. intimate

 

Which is pretty close to your chart Steve, if the first 'Learning' stage is omitted.

 

My copy of said book is well thumbed and I have two editions. Every now and then, I pick the book up and remind myself of the hows and whys of what photography can be. Ken's book has just one underwater image from a list of hundreds - it doesn't matter, as the grading method above has nothing to do with the medium the image is taken in and everything to do with creating more of the intimate and less of the informational. Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended.

 

In all honesty, there are precious few (if any) intimate graded images in my stock. I do forget this when I pick the camera up...so thanks Steve for reminding me about the book...

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I think showing images that represent each stage would be much better than a chart. Charts are a turn off specially when you're looking forward to a talk on photography.

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I see what you're trying to convey with this and mostly agree with the scheme you've chosen. I'm not a very accomplished photographer but I do have decades of experience presenting technical research, often to non-technical audiences. So if you will allow, here are a couple of thoughts on how the message of that chart might be presented

 

It seems to me that "quality" and "improvement" are the same thing (i.e. if the photo improves, doesn't the quality go up?). Given your text labels, I'm guessing that the "quality" axis might be better labeled something like "artistic merit" (yeah, good luck defining that!) and "improvement" might be better called "technical achievement". Or given the text labels on the x axis, maybe vice versa

 

I think there may also be a category of "impress yourself" somewhere after the first bar and maybe also after the third bar. If my own experience is anything to go by, I have already passed the first iteration (in that my photos impress me but are mostly crap) and am a long way from the second iteration. That is, it's easy to be impressed at first until you see truly good images, then you realize how far you have to go before your own images are worth showing

 

To be honest, I am not so comfortable with the text label of "affect the world", but I do like "emotional response". I guess lots of people might pause and contemplate a really fine image without the experience changing their behaviour. I cannot think of many images that were that powerful (including the iconic Apollo image of the "lonely planet"). But it is certainly something to aspire to!

 

Finally, I think that "telling stories" is really important. Those of us who dive tend to forget how utterly unknown the world beneath the waves is to the vast majority of people. To them the sea is just a vast blue-grey void. Helping people to see even a little of the ocean realm is a mission worth pursuing for its own sake

 

Overall, I think you are on the right track here. Good luck with your presentation!

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Simon,

I'll have to pickup Mr. Kobre's book thanks for the reference.

 

Andrew,

I agree on charts being boring but I'm an engineer and have to have one in the pitch. It's genetic. Lots of images will be included and once I get the story straight I'll turn it over to my art department (my wife) to make it more visually stimulating.

 

Thanks Jeff! Good stuff. I remember that thread and it really helped.

 

Robert, I like your ideas. I was struggling with some of the same issues. How about Artistic vrs Technical on the axes? Also added the Iconic Images. I can only think of three or four underwater but it's something to strive for.

 

Again, thanks for the thoughts guys. I realized that impressing others is not why I take images and isn't really the message I want to send. In thinking about it I shot pictures underwater for 20 + years and never showed anyone my stuff. I'm also thinking that the arc of learning U/W photography isn't really a straight line so thought about a little different way to describe it. It gives me the opportunity to talk about what it takes to get to the next level. See what you think.

 

post-4526-1307406627.jpg

 

Appreciate your thoughts, maybe "Camera Basics" instead of learning, the whole curve is a learning experience.

 

Cheers,

Steve

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Steve,

 

Now if you can tell me how to get from "Admired Images" to "Amazing Images," well I would certainly be indebted to you!

 

-Gina

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Great stuff steve.

You inspire me to continue along this journey of U/W Photography, I'm sure the group will have a great time talking to you and will also be captivated by some of the images you have taken. I've taught classes and it is amazing how much you learn while teaching or just leading a discussion about a subject you are passionate about.

 

Good luck and keep up the great work

Let us know how it goes.

 

ed

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Steve,

 

Now if you can tell me how to get from "Admired Images" to "Amazing Images," well I would certainly be indebted to you!

 

-Gina

 

Hi Gina,

I'm still working on going from "Good" to "Admired" but I'm thinking the goal of Amazing lies in a combination of study, lots of time in the water, and a few classes with folks like Alex. That should take us up the path on the technical side. To continue up the artistic path, I think it's important to keep the passion burning, without that I don't think there would be much to communicate. Using this definition, these are pretty rare images. Some people assume there is a component of luck involved, but I've learned to doubt this.

 

I guess my answer to you is I don't know yet, but I plan to enjoy our journey.

 

 

Hey Ed, thanks for the kind thoughts. One of the reasons I wanted to do the class was I hoped that I'd learn something along the way. I love the idea that I can come on Wetpixel and ask questions and get thoughtful answers from people I respect. There is no other place like it.

 

Cheers,

Steve

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post-4526-1307406627.jpg

 

 

Cheers,

Steve[/size][/font]

 

 

I like this revised slide a bit better than the original, above. However, I am not in agreement that increasing technical competence leads to iconic images. Given that today is 6 June I am reminded of Robert Capa's iconic images of this day from 1944 that were damaged in the darkroom, only a few survived. See: http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Robert_Capa.html

 

Many photographers may be overly obsessed with technical aspects, for example, thinking that more megapixels will make their images more compelling. There is more to it than that.

 

That said, digital photography has enabled me to go beyond the first stage outlined on your figure. Largely by allowing more images to be exposed in the limited amount of time or opportunities in which one can shoot a given subject in the underwater environment, and I do not mean more frames per second.

Tom

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Why not rename the horizontal axis time?

 

Often what works is not technical perfection, but knowing when perfection means something else. Many spend thousands of hours honing the skills to know when this happens.

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You could also add: How (do I take photos) What (do I photograph) Why (do I take photos) along the bottom axis. These vary, with some photographers never actually bothering much about the first two, but its the last that really defines the photographer and his/her understanding of the subject matter and potentially leads to 'great' imagery (IMHO).

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I think getting to Good or Admired is the best many or most of us can do, even with classes from Alex, lectures like these etc. I would say that even most 'pros' only make it that far.

From there I think we are all on our own as so many factors come into play they include vision, talent, hard work and practice, attention to detail, persistence, time in the water, luck which generally is proportional to time in the water etc.

Edited by loftus

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Thanks guys,

All good thoughts! Tom you isolated what I woke up this morning thinking about. The labels (Good, Admired, Amazing) shouldn't be on the Technical axis but instead on the curve itself. It's the combination of artistic merit and technical aspects that allows a great image to happen.

 

Knowledge of the subject is a great point Paul, I'll work on it, needs to be part of the pitch.

 

Wondering if it's a 3 dimensional chart, with time as the other axis..... More to think about.

 

Great list of other factors Jeff, but you left out rum, can't make up for the lack of talent, hardwork and practise, but what the heck. :)

 

Cheers,

Steve

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Great list of other factors Jeff, but you left out rum, can't make up for the lack of talent, hardwork and practise, but what the heck. :)

 

Cheers,

Steve

Especially if you are going to be a creative photoshop genius.

Have you ever tried tequila instead?

Now there would be a project, which drink results in better pictures. :)

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Interesting discussion. I agree with Simon (Decosnapper) that the horizontal access also relates to time - albeit with different folks progressing at different speeds (and some going the wrong way).

 

BTW, I take technical competence to mean all aspects of the photographic process from focus and exposure, composition, control of lighting and photographic vision. It doesn't just mean nuts and bolts, but should encompass the entire photographic process. And it certainly doesn't just relate to camera capability (as Tom points out)!

 

I'd also add that all photographers will take pictures at all levels on the diagram, whatever stage they are at. The aim should be to move average more to the right with time.

 

Alex

 

p.s. To answer Jeff's question - alcohol certainly makes me more pleased with my photos while I am taking them. Perhaps less so the morning after.

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In a nutshell: f/8 mate!

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That's what shows up for me too Alex. I think by breaking it up this way I'd put photographic vision on the artistic side but otherwise completely agree. My emphasis on making the chart in the first place is to show new photographers a path to improvement or as you say moving to the right. "Taking your U/W photography to the Next Level" Hey, I think we have a title for the presentation. :)

 

Interesting that some experienced pros, like you John, have all this so ingrained in your mind that it can be simplified to "f/8 and be there". I love the concept and much prefer to shoot that way, (not thinking too much) but I'm afraid it would be a pretty short presentation. :)

 

Jeff, I live 60 miles from Mexico and have a lifetime of experience with your chosen beverage. I'll start your recommended scientific study tonight. May take a while.

 

Cheers,

Steve

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Hi Steve,

 

I admire your effort and passion in trying graphically illustrate "the process". I think you've received a lot of great feedback. I've thought about the process a lot and have come to the conclusion that while there is a path throught the woods, it is over-grown in places and not that well marked much beyond the trail-head! I also think it is an individual journey largely because the subjective nature of the art form and the multitude of variables involved in answering the questions of why and how.

 

Having said that, I wish you the very best with the presentation! I wish I could be there for it.

 

Lee

 

PS: Good luck with the other research as well! :)

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Mmmmmmh... I think there is something missing in that graphic... Let me explain it:

 

Does it really matter how good are the pictures we take?. Are "taking good pictures" and "having the most fun out of UWP" solidly united? Unless we are pros, this is a hobby and the ultimate target is having fun, and we have all seen a lot of people struggling (and not enjoying AT ALL) because they were not taking the pictures they wanted (even when they were good). Fortunately, there are also a lot of people who get really bad shots but enjoy a lot... and those are the winners! So, maybe, I would include another graphic with Expectations-Reality-Fun dimensions which I find more related to having true success in our hobby.

 

Good night!

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Fortunately, there are also a lot of people who get really bad shots but enjoy a lot... and those are the winners!

 

Now there is a thought I can resonate with. Thanks David, great input. Guess I never thought it not being fun.

 

Just when I thought I was getting closer too;

 

post-4526-1307488817.jpg

 

 

The ?? marks are still on the technical side of making an "Amazing Image". Any thoughts?

 

Cheers,

Steve

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I think one of the unique things about underwater photography is the 'happy accident' that result in the amazing image. Things like the effect of water on light rays, reflections, ripples, bubbles, these are thing that are at once somewhat unpredictable and uncontrollable, but when we discover them just transform the image. I've discovered this in my pool photography as much as in the ocean, and found it's the real magic bullet that makes the genre so much fun. Like a kid in a candy store!

Edited by loftus

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Great addition Tom! Martin calls it the "Peak of the Action", I'll probably use that term, gives me a chance to promote the book.

 

 

Jeff,

If I understand what you're describing, you're talking about something different than luck. Shooting in the water brings with it some magic that just doesn't happen on land.

 

Thanks guys, new version in work.

 

Cheers,

Steve

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Here we go, Version 4.

 

post-4526-1307555585.jpg

 

Let me know what you think.

 

Cheers,

Steve

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