Ocean Views 2013

A time capsule of excellence

As I reviewed the body of work submitted for this year's Ocean Views Photo Contest, I was blown away. The images were stunning and diverse. There were pictures of single-celled organisms, surprising behaviors, the largest fish and mammals on the planet, rare animals and aerial pictures bordering on the abstract. Photographers explored the waters of every part of Earth — from the tropical Pacific's pristine reefs to the icy waters of the Arctic and Antarctic.

The collection of photographs submitted embodies the perfect ocean portfolio; it is unsurpassed by the work of any single photographer and made possible only by the efforts of thousands of inspired ocean folk putting in millions of hours of work. Improvements in computer and camera technology have been incredible enablers, allowing photographers to capture subjects and behaviors that would have been nearly impossible only a decade ago. We are squarely in the middle of a wildlife-photography renaissance driven by the combination of extraordinary technology in affordable cameras and the ingenuity of today's professional and hobbyist photographers.

Great photographers are great regardless of the camera they use. They have skills that enable them to succeed as image-makers: deep specialization, tremendous domain knowledge born from years of experience, near-infinite patience and the drive to obsessively pursue that perfect picture.

While experience is king, technology also plays an important role in today's photography. New technology enables new techniques that allow photographers to create new kinds of images. When I started my career as an underwater photographer, digital cameras were not something professionals took seriously. Now they are the standard. During a single scuba dive, a photographer can fire off the same number of pictures that a productive photographer in the film days might have taken in a month. Instant review permits a feedback loop that dramatically enhances the learning process.

Cameras now feature advances such as image stabilization at the sensor level and incredible low-light performance. Underwater-housing manufacturers are fine-tuning ergonomics, and continuous lighting has moved almost exclusively to LED. Now lighting is on the same exponential performance-increase curve that home computers are on. Frame rates in still photography are pushing into video territory, and photographers are experimenting with filters, time-lapse and unusual perspectives (e.g., relay lenses for wide-angle macro). Computational photography is peeking at us from around the corner, giving us powerful lens- and aberration-correction abilities, real-time high dynamic range (HDR), smart multi-image capture and even really crazy things like light-field imaging, which allows perspective changes and refocusing of pictures after they're taken.

Photographers are getting really good at documenting the ocean and its inhabitants at a particularly crucial time. It's hard to overstate the threats of ocean acidification, climate change and overfishing. When I talk to experienced photographers decades older than me, they describe with great nostalgia the oceans of their youth. Unfortunately, no one will ever get to experience those oceans again, and even the best photography from that era is unable to successfully communicate it.

One of the driving forces of my own photography is the desire to document what I see in the ocean now so my descendants might have an idea of what it was like. Contests like Ocean Views aggregate the beauty of the ocean at a particular moment, creating a time capsule of excellence that will enable future generations to see what drove us to spend as much time as possible in and around the water.

© Alert Diver —Spring 2013