Immerse Yourself in Digital Master Photography Education

The benefits of continuing education

Enrolling in a total immersion photo education course can really accelerate your learning curve. Cultivating your skills under the instruction of leaders in the field, working in a group setting and shooting in pristine locations set the stage for an intense and educational week that will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and refine your shooting skill set.

If you are just beginning your underwater photography training, consider enrolling in a specialty course from an established certification agency. A good understanding of basic lighting, white balance, exposure, composition and image processing is needed before embarking on an advanced scenario like an intensive six-day seminar. All of these skills can be learned in a specialty class and honed with lots of practice on land and in the water. Introductory specialty courses usually last about one or two days and are offered through many dive resorts and operators. With the rapid development and deployment of compact camera systems, certification agencies recognize the importance of underwater photography to the diving community and have answered the call for basic training. If you don't know where to find the class, check the shop where you bought your gear, talk with a local dive club or visit your certifying agency's website to find a facility and instructor.

My knowledge and experience in underwater photography education has been largely based in Key Largo, Fla., most recently in June 2011 when I participated in a group underwater photography course under the direction of Stephen Frink, a Canon Explorer of Light, Eddie Tapp, a fellow Canon Explorer and a Photoshop Hall of Fame member and Frazier Nivens, Emmy Award-winning videographer. The six-day course focused on refining skills, shooting in a variety of scenarios, group critique sessions and photo editing techniques.
Six Days of Skill Development
The first day began with an exposure test, establishing a reference point for the equipment we use. Over the next five days we took to the sea, shooting in various conditions, from low visibility to cleaner water for stellar wide angle shots; we shot in rapidly moving scenarios including a feeding session, and we also dialed down to the macro level.

Each afternoon we had approximately one hour to edit and select shots from the morning dives for group presentation and critique. In the daily photo review, each photographer displayed his best shots and often his worst, offering a great opportunity to gain insight and learn from his mistakes. Questions, kudos and areas of improvement drove these afternoon discussions. We discussed images that exemplified areas of difficulty, such as exposure, backscatter, composition or lighting; having professional insight on ways to improve our technique is extremely valuable. The group critique also helped motivate each photographer to improve his own existing skill set and learn new approaches to imaging.

The quick editing turnaround required to prepare for the critique sessions taught us how to edit the first cut of photos rapidly. It forced us to be decisive; there was no time to mull over marginal shots. Flagging images for further processing in Lightroom or Photoshop was about as far as I could get in the limited time. This machine-gun editing style is an extremely useful skill as I have become busier with more project deadlines to meet. A sharp editing eye is important, and it takes practice to hone it. In this digital era, what used to happen in the film developer's dark room and at the publication editor's desk is handled in the digital workflow – you are the photo editor. Learning to select the winners quickly, flag the ones for additional scrutiny and dump the rejected images is critical.

When it comes to editing software, it's important to find a group of programs and utilize each in its core strength. In our course, we learned how to use Photo Mechanic to preview and select images. We concentrated on using Adobe Lightroom (or Camera Raw via Bridge) for most of the image processing that involved lighting, white balance adjustments and cropping – really making images come alive with vibrancy and accurate color. Finally, we applied the finishing refinements to selected images in Photoshop using tools not available in other programs.

Eddie Tapp taught us some of the more advanced photo processing and enhancement skills, such as a backscatter removal technique he has developed using the history brush tool and a snapshot. We found great applications for the "content aware" fill function making that little chunk of coral or fish tail in the background disappear with the click of the mouse.

Once you've wrapped your mind around shooting, editing, processing and enhancing, add a touch of video to the equation. Frazier Nivens spent an afternoon teaching us the basics of video in a DSLR environment, and dived with us to help in a live shooting scenario. In the lecture, he covered video techniques on DSLR cameras, as well as processing and editing in Final Cut Pro. Approximately half the class had video capability on their cameras, but the sessions were also good for the still shooters, as it introduced a different mindset. Imaging is changing - converging into a more compact mixed-media realm. As shooters, we must change with it or be left on shore.

By the end of it all, we were truly worn out. But it's the good kind of tired, where you know you've given it all you had. Some shots went your way, some didn't, but it was not due to lack of effort. I sure did see some shots that made me wish I'd thought of that or composed a similar subject differently. But now I can take that knowledge with me the next time I dive, camera in tow in search of my next subject.
Parting Thoughts

Many classes are conducted by photo pros at resorts and on liveaboards. Plan to spend about $300 for a specialty course and $1,300 or more for an advanced seminar in addition to your travel costs. If you are passionate about underwater photography and want to improve your skills, it is worth the investment in continuing education. Just as with any dive gear, familiarize yourself with your equipment prior to diving. Repetition, practice and putting yourself in new shooting situations are key elements to your development. Enhance your knowledge even while you're topside by studying animal behavior in videos and books. Research what is common and what is rare at your next destination, talk to the locals and listen to the divemasters. Their tips are directly proportional to the experiences they help create. Continuing education coupled with passion and time in the water will help you to continue to develop your skills as a shooter.

Don't forget to explore the photo gallery.
About the Author
Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo, Fla. He can be reached at
A Note From DAN
When starting out in underwater photography, your camera should be treated like any new piece of gear. Spend some time with it in a controlled setting so as not to get task-loaded when you're shooting for real. Your dive skills are as important as your shooting skills, even more so when it comes to your safety. When planning a photo outing, remember to research your dive plan as thoroughly as your intended subject, and when executing that plan, remember to stay in the moment as a diver first. Always remember to monitor your air, bottom time and surroundings, and never forsake your safety for the shot.
For More Photography Tips
Compact Cameras for Underwater Use
Digital Effects Using High Dynamic Range
Dive into CS5
Easy Masking in Photoshop CS5
Get the Spots Out
Pro Tips for Shooting in Cold Water
The Art of Underwater Modeling
Wide-Angle Lighting Techniques