10 ways to win Underwater Photographic competitions in SA

Bryan Hart, organizer of the annual DUC Shootout, has been involved behind the scenes in SA’s national underwater photographic competition for 7 years. From his experience, he has put together 10 tips that will assist you in winning a photographic competition!

1. ENTER: YOU HAVE TO BE IN IT TO WIN IT!

Photography is subjective. Your friends and family will always have positive critique for your images.
It is only when you compete against your peers that you will get an idea at what level your photography skills and creativity are!
Committing to a competition upfront will push you to get in the water regularly with your camera and in this way improve your shooting in the long run.

2. COMPOSITION

Great underwater images are thought out and created.
With social media linking you to underwater images taken all over the world by shooters with different camera set ups, there is no shortage of inspiration or ideas to help you create an image.
In South Africa, we are spoilt for choice with wrecks, coral reefs, inland waters, lagoons and estuaries, kelp gardens rocky reefs and rock pools. Seals, sharks, whales and a plethora of invertebrates, mammals and fish, both large and small, mean there is no shortage of subjects!
Good composition is key to a pleasing image.
Image flow, use of negative space, rule of thirds, not cutting off fins, and avoiding “fish identification shots” are all key aspects to consider when it comes to composing an image worthy of a placing in a competition.
In addition, make sure that there is a good contrast between the foreground and the background. Take the time to cast your eye around the subject matter and make sure there are no “distractions” to the primary subject matter.

3. GET CLOSE – GET CLOSER STILL

Full the frame and get as little water column between the subject matter and the sensor of your camera. Strobes, internal flashes, torches and video lights ability to restore colour to your subject are affected by distance to subject. The further away they are, the less effective the lighting. More water means there are more particles in the water for the light to bounce off and create back scatter – a scourge of underwater photography!
Proper lighting makes or breaks images.

4. PROGRESS TO MANUAL MODE:

As soon as you submerge your camera into water, light is lost. In order to compensate for the low light, your camera compensates for this by reducing shutter speed, opening the aperture and increasing the ISO. The result: blurry (slow shutter speed), grainy (hi ISO) and flat images with no depth of field (large aperture).
Learn to use Manual mode to take control of the camera and facilitate the creation of the image you have in mind!

5. SHARP EYES :

Sharp focus on the eyes of the primary subject is paramount.
Pay special attention to this when composing the image and become familiar with the “sweet spot” in terms of distance to subject matter of your camera. Always half press the shutter release to obtain focus confirmation. Constant light sources in the form of focus lights on strobes or torches will assist ones camera to lock on the focus.
At the same time, if you are shooting in AUTO and your cameras computer lowers the shutter speed below 1/80 to compensate for low light, you will not achieve crisp focus regardless of your efforts.

6. CHECK OUT THE JUDGES AND THEIR WORK:

Each judge of a photographic competition will have a different thought process as to what make a winning image. ( For this reason there are always more than one judge.)
Investigating the judge’s work will give you a heads up as to whether they tend to be more focused on the technical aspects of an image or whether they are just looking for a striking image.
Look for commentary by judges on previous competitions or on the biography of the judge on the competition website, as this can provide valuable insight as to what to pay special attention to when choosing an image to enter.
Knowing this about the judges will help refine your selection of images to enter.

7. LOOK AT WINNING IMAGES FROM PREVIOUS YEARS:

Going through previous winning images can give you an idea of what NOT to submit as well as provide inspiration for future shoots.
If an image from a clown fish won in the previous year, it is unlikely that a similarly composed image will win again.
Looking at winners of each category over previous years can give you a good indication of the standard of the underwater shootout.
Find a unique subject or find a new or better way to shoot common subjects!

8. READ THE RULES:

Every competition has different rules and submission guidelines. The rules are carefully formatted in order to make the competition fair to all and to uphold the integrity of the overall photographic competition.
The rules act as a guide to entrants on how to approach editing (Photoshop), subject matter ( eg baiting) and submission of images. At some point, be it at the submission stage or if an image is placed, the original un- processed image will be asked for. With in -camera editing now available on most cameras ensure that you do not disqualify your entry by not following the rules pertaining to the original raw / jpeg file.

9. EDIT …CORRECTLY:

Editing is an important part of the underwater photography workflow and an integral part of turning a good image into a great image!It is very important to transfer ones images to a computer and study them on a big screen. Basic editing software allows a photographer to see the results of the settings applied and look for imperfections in exposure, sharpness and composition. This is the first step in deciding whether an image is an acceptable image or one for the bin.
If an image passes the first step, transfer the image to your preferred editing software and make adjustments in colour balance, saturation, sharpening and cropping (no more than 20%/ don’t crop an image taken in landscape to make portrait).
Edited images should look natural – an over edited image is obvious to the judges.
Editing should be used to make a good image better – not make a bad image good.

10. HAVE FUN DOING IT!

Images of underwater photographers are the only glimpses that non divers will ever have of the life under the sea. Underwater images can inspire people to take up diving and conserve our ocean and in this way play an important role to scuba diving as a sport and creating overall ocean awareness.
Commit upfront to the competition and don’t leave entering and participating to the last minute. Photography is always going to be subjective and if you find yourself not winning after all your efforts, don’t be disheartened – learn as much as possible from the experience and try again!
Underwater photographic competitions provide an incentive or goal for underwater photographers to get together, plan shoots and travel to different dive sites. The cost of entry is normally a fraction of the value of the prizes that are on offer. Besides winning awesome prizes, an image that is placed or wins will be published in print and/or social media and in this way facilitate exposure of ones work.

Underwater photographic competitions are excellent forums to push your photography to the next level. The joy of focusing on a short term photographic project required for a shootout should provide sufficient incentive to enter – with the chance of winning an added bonus!

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