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BSAC has just rolled out the Underwater Photography Skill Development Course, which is aimed at helping today’s generation of digi-compact camera owners. We asked a student and an instructor to evaluate their experiences on one of the pilot courses
When I was asked by BSAC if I would like to participate in the pilot for a new underwater photography course, I was immediately intrigued. I’ve had an interest in photography for many years, and this was potentially a new skill to add to my diving adventures. I didn’t own a camera at the time, but I wanted to use the course to see if it would inspire me to go into underwater photography, and the organisers managed to find one for me to use.
The course content was pitched at just the correct level, explaining clearly and simply how lenses function and the different effects that water has when you look at a subject through a camera. As you venture deeper, light and colour are progressively lost, so your photography must take this into account. Where once the blue light of the sea was captured on film, we now have to understand the electronic equivalent – the CCD (the light-sensitive chip that records the image) and the data card – which captures and then stores the photos we take. In addition to operating the camera, we considered the external influences of the environment.
A section on camera housings and maintenance gave me a good insight into housing selection and, importantly, how to prevent the thing from flooding. After all, the judicious use of O-rings is all that stands between all those clever electronics and the salt water that will instantly turn your camera into a costly paperweight. This section was highlighted as one of the most important steps in camera preparation and featured an excellent hands-on exercise, in which we had to dismantle, clean, assemble and test different housings.
Later, the functions of the camera were explained to us, with each brief description giving just enough information without swamping me with too much technical jargon. That led on to photographic techniques, of which the most important is getting close to your subject in order to minimise the amount of water between the lens and the subject. The more water there is, the more particulates you’ll have to contend with, and the less clarity you’ll have in the final shot.
We learned to take into account the way that light works underwater, compensating for loss of colour, and how the amount of available light can affect the depth of field – the size of the area in which your camera’s focus is concentrated. Basically, having more light allows you to use settings that allow for greater depth of field – and because light is often in short supply underwater, you have to learn to work with what you’ve got.
We were reminded that no matter how involved we get with our cameras, safety and skills are still the priority. I can see that it would be easy to get carried away with the task of taking pictures, forgetting basic dive planning, your buddy and the environment. We discussed some shooting tips and dive techniques that we were to try during the practical session. The final part of the day rounded up with a question-and-answer session and the planning for our practical day, which was to be held at Vivian Quarry in North Wales.
We arrived at Llanberis on a cold but bright November day for what was to be an excellent outing for the practical part of the course. We recapped some of the shooting tips covered in the theory sessions and took a few practice shots with the camera, ensuring we all knew how to operate it correctly. We discussed the dive brief and plan, then it was time to kit up and get ready to take some photographs.
The giant stride entry into the quarry revealed excellent visibility of 10m. Where normally I would have descended without thinking about much, this time I scouted for photo opportunities while weighing up the light as it gently illuminated the grey slate walls. Was this the same slate quarry I had dived dozens of times in the past? The dive positively flew by, the 45-minute bottom time seeming more like five minutes. For me, this was a real reminder about task fixation and how easy it can be to forget about the dive plan, time, depth and air monitoring.
Now it was time to see what sort of images had been captured on the camera. Hot drinks in hand, we gathered eagerly round the laptop to see the results of the session. I don’t think that any professional photographers would have much to worry about, but for a first attempt, some of the pictures were not too bad. The really rewarding part of the exercise was being able to view the results immediately. The day was a real success, with instructors and students alike getting a lot out of it.
The final part of the course saw us back in the lecture room, where we were taught the basics of photographic editing. Again, this exercise was pitched at just the correct level, whetting the appetite without being too technical or bogging us down with computer geekery. A little sharpening and a modicum of colour correction should be all that is required of most photos – les is more when it comes to post-production.
I found the course an excellent mix of theory and practical exercises, giving me enough information to make informed judgements about taking photographs underwater. The hands-on approach really does get everybody involved taking pictures and putting the theory into practice. I have been sufficiently inspired to buy a camera for a trip to Sharm El Sheikh, and having a camera has added new purpose to my diving. Many thanks to the instructors who took the time to write and teach the course: we all loved it.
So, why should I be one of the first BSAC instructors to teach the new Underwater Photography course? Well, I’m an advanced diver and an open-water instructor, I’ve been interested in photography, including digital photography, for many years, and I’m an experienced user of digital compact cameras.
In common with most BSAC courses, this one succeeds in taking what could be complex technical information and presenting it in a way that is (or should be) understandable to the average diver. Simply, the course is intended to help people take better photos through understanding the basics of the camera and a few techniques for getting better results from it. It seemed to me that the course is aimed at divers who want to record their underwater experiences so that they can share them with others.
I worked alongside two other instructors, dividing the theory sessions between us and working together on the practical parts of the course. None of us had previously presented the course, but we all found the instructor notes easy to understand and very useful in explaining the important aspects of what we had to get across.
It was cleverly structured, so the sessions flow easily from one to the other, and the instructors can refer back to important aspects of previous presentations as they progress.
The first four modules deal with basic optics, camera fundamentals, housings and the functions of a digital camera. So this isn’t a case of just snapping away – the idea is to give students a technical basis that they can work from. The last two theory sessions – Shooting Techniques and Photography Underwater – delve deeper still into technical aspects of photography, in addition to giving some useful advice on how to take better photos underwater.
We ran the course over two days, with the theory lessons on a Saturday and practical sessions the following weekend. We felt that this enabled the students to revisit the information presented during the theory lessons. We selected our location for the practical session with some care, rejecting our two nearest inshore locations as they are busy and have poor visibility.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the in-water sessions, and seemed to find new pleasures in what can be a fairly mundane dive site. The students took some interesting photographs once they had the basis of the theory sessions to build on. The opportunity to upload pictures onto a laptop and then use photo-manipulation software was a valuable exercise, as it allowed the students to review their efforts and learn from their mistakes, as well as giving them an insight into how images must be processed on the computer for the best results.
All the instructors enjoyed presenting the course, and the comments from the students were extremely positive. We hope that this course takes off and that many other BSAC members get to learn more about modern underwater photography.
For me, the bottom line was that this course gave me exactly what it promised, providing a sound footing in this challenging but rewarding activity.
NEED TO KNOW
• The cost to attend the course is £20, plus instructor’s expenses to be agreed prior to each course
• Attendees are encouraged to bring their own cameras, but it is also possible to borrow cameras by arrangement
• Practical sessions can be carried out in the sea, inland lakes or swimming pools
• The original course notes were written by DIVE’s own Charles Hood
• For further information or to book a course, go to www.bsac.com
and look under the banner ‘Already a Diver?’ and you’ll find it under ‘Skill Development Courses’.
Alternatively, contact BSAC on 0151 350 6200