6 things I learned at underwater photography boot camp

Priceless lessons that might come in handy for anyone who's just starting out with underwater photography

One of my favourite shots from underwater photography boot camp (Photo: Sam David)

Recently, one of our co-founders, Sam, jumped at the chance of attending an informal underwater photography “boot camp” in Indonesia with contributor Jon Lin (check out his articles here). Her goal? To produce better images and get expert advice on what she might have been doing wrong this whole time.

I’ve been taking photos underwater since 2014, and will be quick to admit the learning process hasn’t been a walk in the park because I believe my brain isn’t engineered for such technical undertakings. After seeing (incredibly icky) shots from past trips, I decided I had to get better and called someone who obviously knew what he was doing.

Jon has been shooting for about five years now and, in my opinion, constantly creates well-composed, eye-catching images. Agreeing to help improve my skills, we did a 9-day crash course in Lembeh (where we stayed at brand new resort, Dive Into Lembeh) and Bunaken (with good ol’ Tasik Ria Resort Hotel & Spa) so I could practice both macro and wide-angle photography.

I won’t lie: it was pretty intense. Eight days of diving, four dives a day, heavy equipment, achy muscles (even in places I never knew I could ache), lack of sleep… you get where I’m going with this. Still, as a total amateur, the lessons I learned from this trip were priceless. If you’re just starting out as well, I hope some of these will come in handy.

#1 There are many limitations of a compact camera. I mean, this wasn’t exactly new to me, but this trip made me see the scale of the problem. Limited aperture range, increased shutter delay, difficulty in focusing, inability to get close to a subject – many times I knew what to do to get a decent shot, but it just wouldn’t translate well into a photo.

After a lot of cropping, this is what I got. I would’ve preferred a shallower depth of field as well (i.e. sharper eyes and a body that’s a lot more blurred) (Photo: Sam David)

Eventually, I found that it was best for me to stick to the standard setting of f8 and play around with the shutter speed (and even with the latter, there wasn’t much to experiment with). On one dive, I had the chance to shoot with Jon’s DSLR and I instantly understood why many prefer these beasts to the point-and-shoot camera. Things were just easier, and you, as a user, have greater control over virtually every setting.

Which is why I’ve decided I will make the switch as soon as possible (and be very, very broke after that).

#2 Speaking of being broke, if I didn’t want to waste money buying new equipment, I had to learn to take proper care of what I already own. This means charging batteries every once in a while even though nothing’s actually being used, and rinsing every inch of my camera equipment in fresh water. I got lazy and didn’t bother to completely dismantle my camera tray for the past couple of months, and on this trip, I had an issue with some seized and rusted bolts thanks to salt water corrosion. We managed to free them after an entire hour, but I could’ve lost a couple of hundred bucks if I had to replace the tray instead.

Photo with lots of distractions (left) versus photo with little distractions (right) (Photos: Sam David)

#3 Backgrounds can really make or break a photo. I found out the hard way that if you don’t learn to get as low as possible and shoot bottom-up, achieving that clean, black background you so often see in beautiful underwater photos is next to impossible. Backgrounds that aren’t ideal (e.g. black sand, rocks, etc.) are extremely distracting and can ruin a shot completely. I had to discard plenty of photos with perfectly-focused subjects and horrible backgrounds that weren’t worth saving using any photo editing software. However, I have to point out that getting low isn’t as easy as it looks, and it has everything to do with being relaxed and breathing properly before snapping away.

“I had to discard plenty of photos with perfectly-focused subjects and horrible backgrounds that weren’t worth saving using any photo editing software.”

Also read: 10 underwater macro photography tips

#4 Don’t rush. This is something I still struggle to come to grips with till today. I see a subject, get all excited, and can’t wait to get the shot. So, I move fast. I lower myself quickly, I adjust my strobes quickly, I take my test shots quickly. Biggest. Mistake. Ever. Know what happens when you rush?

That’s right – you get backscatter (Photo: Sam David)

When there’s so much movement, sand and silt begin to float around and they take a while to settle back down. That’s an additional minute or two you need in order to take a proper shot of the subject (if your subject hasn’t been scared off by all the movement, that is). Then, come post-production, you’re going to have a hard time removing all those specks and dots in the photo. It’s all very unnecessary and this issue can be solved easily. All you have to do is be patient. Slow and steady wins the race.

#5 Wide-angle photography has a steep learning curve. It may seem straightforward, but getting that strobe placement right is a complete nightmare, especially if you have to deal with currents. You move along a wall, and if you do see a subject, you probably only have a minute (sometimes less!) to get that shot. Unlike macro photography, you can’t take your own sweet time to adjust things and change your settings as and when you like. You kinda just have to wing it, keep practicing, and learn from your mistakes as time goes by. So, as you can guess, since this was my first time bringing my wide-angle lens out for a dip, I didn’t get much good shots in Bunaken. *Insert sad face here*

#6 There is a big difference between Lightroom and Photoshop. I think I’m a little late to the party, but I only recently found out that Lightroom is basically great for photographers who want to organise and edit their files sans the fuss and muss. I’d been using it all this time and didn’t realise how limited its functions were compared to Photoshop. It wasn’t easy picking up a new skill, but with Photoshop, I’m a lot happier with my processed images now.

About the resorts

If I hadn’t stayed at places that were made for underwater photographers, this little “boot camp” wouldn’t have been possible. Here are my mini reviews of two excellent dive resorts in Manado.

Dive Into Lembeh

Bird’s-eye view of the resort (Photo: Dive Into Lembeh)

One of the newest properties in the Lembeh Strait, this boutique dive resort (also known as Hairball Resort, which is what its popular house reef is called) is run by industry veterans, Steve and Miranda Coverdale. If you’ve been in the diving scene long enough, you’d remember them from their Kungkungan Bay Resort (KBR) days, where they ran the show for a long, long time. These guys certainly know what they’re doing, so trust me when I say you’re in good hands here.

One of the spacious rooms at Dive Into Lembeh (Photo: Dive Into Lembeh)

The resort features massive bungalows that are super spacious and comfortable. Heck, if you’re an underwater photographer, you wouldn’t even need to use the camera room if you didn’t want to because there’s more than enough room to set up your rig here (this way you can go straight to sleep after all that hard work). Satellite TV, a water dispenser, air-con, a minibar – it’s all available in the room. But honestly, I think the best thing about this place is the Japanese onsen that’s on the veranda of each and every bungalow. That’s right. You know where to go between dives now. And, if it’s not this awesome hot tub, you might want to spend all your time by the gorgeous pool (which, by the way, is always nice and warm) located in the middle of the resort.

The awesome Japanese onsen that’s on the veranda of each bungalow (Photo: Dive Into Lembeh)

Another thing that’s worth highlighting is the food. Because it’s a boutique resort, the menu’s constantly changing and they’re pretty flexible in the kitchen, so you can look forward to pleasant surprises at the dining table. The young chef’s extremely talented and the Indonesian grub he whips up is to die for!

Diving in Lembeh is extra awesome when you’ve got an experienced diver like Steve with you – he joined us for a couple of dives and boy, was he good at spotting things. The crew’s warm and friendly and dive groups are kept small (three to one dive guide ratio) so you don’t have to worry about being ignored or anything like that. And yes, don’t forget that two well-known dive sites, Hairball and Aw Shucks, are basically the resort’s house reefs so you wouldn’t need to wander too far to look for critters like the hairy frogfish and the mimic octopus.

For rates and more info, visit the official website of Dive Into Lembeh

Tasik Ria Resort Hotel & Spa

One of the cosy rooms at Tasik Ria (Photo: Tasik Ria Resort Hotel & Spa)

This would be my second visit to this long-standing establishment in Manado. Tasik Ria’s the complete opposite of Dive Into Lembeh – the resort grounds are huge and there are quite a few stellar chill-out spots to check out when you’re not diving (they have one of the best bars ever and they have not one, but two swimming pools).

You have either the Pool View Rooms or the Sea View Cottages to choose from and they’re all very cosy. The thing is, though, because of the diving schedule, you’ll probably hardly be in the room anyway. Here, you’re out at sea most of the day (especially if you’re visiting Bunaken, which sometimes takes 60 minutes to reach).

Bunaken’s one of my favourite places to spot turtles. It’s entirely possible to see up to 10 of these guys on a single dive. If you’re not diving Bunaken, the dive sites near the resort are really lovely as well, especially places like Critter Circus and City Extra, which are home to some cool macro life.

Tasik Ria’s dive boats (Photo: Tasik Ria Resort Hotel & Spa)

The thing I like about diving with Tasik Ria is that you won’t find it stifling at all being on the boat for such long periods of time. Even though boats like the Voyager can accommodate over 20 divers, there’s still a lot of room with areas like the sundeck, the dry salon, and the seated dive deck. The staff are incredibly attentive (they memorise post-dive drink orders and are very particular when handling guests’ cameras) and they even address you by name – definitely not something you can experience just anywhere in Asia. You’ll find one of the best dive guides in the business here; his name is Noldy Hasibuan (who also happens to be one of the dive centre managers) and he totally understands the needs of underwater photographers. Such a patient man too!

Thanks to the staff, Tasik Ria always feels like home, no matter how long I’ve been away. I’m guessing this is why so many guests return to the resort time and time again and never want to leave.

For rates and more info, visit the official website of Tasik Ria Resort Hotel & Spa.

Co-founder and editor of GoodVis, Sam has been obsessed with scuba diving since 2011. When she's not doing research on lesser-known dive destinations, ogling at new scuba gear, or taking pictures of fish underwater, she's either writing or stuffing her face with awesome food (or doing both simultaneously).