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November 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Those Underwater Photo Courses

some that really deliver

from the November, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

There's no better way to increase your underwater photo skills than to enroll in a good photo course. Many dive tour operators attract people onto dive trips led by well-known underwater photographers, but they may not always be clear on what the traveler can expect. On many trips, some experts do indeed teach those that join the trip, while on other trips they merely offer advice. And some well-known underwater photographers merely use the trip to subsidize their own photography, paying little heed to their fellow divers, and paying nothing to be on the trip. However, no matter what trip you take with an expert, you will be paying a premium.

Peter Scoones, the Blue Planet filmmaker, now deceased, often didn't even want anyone else from his liveaboard in the water when he was working, but it didn't seem to stop people from wanting the kudos of being on the same boat as him.

In his twilight years of diving, Stan Waterman did nothing more than offer amusing anecdotes during the evening, but it was always good value watching young divers, who were unfamiliar with his history, attempting to give the elderly diver advice between dives. He always met it with good humor and a cheery "Good for you."

Some experts really do run excellent courses by visiting the same dive site repeatedly, which allows their students to return and apply what they learned from previous shots of the same subject. Some leave client divers to their own devices in the water, but between dives pay major attention to post-production with computer software like Lightroom and Photoshop, to show people how to get the most out of their images.

Some are less hands-on and limit themselves to evening critiques of divers' photos.

So, before you book, it's important to determine whether the expert you're considering will deliver what you want, to avoid disappointment later.

We asked our readers for comments about their experiences, and long-time Undercurrent subscriber and correspondent Dave Reubush (Toana, VA) praised Erin Quigley's Lightroom course in Bonaire. "While I wasn't impressed by the diving or Buddy Dive, the course was great. Erin is an excellent teacher, and I learned a lot. She gears the course toward underwater photography, which is not what you get from a typical Lightroom course."

It's all about the instructor.

Mike Bartick and Brook Peterson were the instructors on a Crystal Blue Resort course in Anilao that Fred Turoff (Philadelphia, PA) enjoyed. He wrote that he learned new techniques and how he needed to improve his equipment. Tom Baker (Pacific Beach, CA) gave another vote for Mike Bartick.

Lisa Evans (Fort Collins, CO) has taken two Bluewater Photo courses in Anilao in the Philippines and said instructor Brent Durand was "amazing . . . both in his skills in teaching/critiquing, conveying information, and being open to any question, actually helping underwater, really everything about the workshop. He has a course in January 2020 at Atlantis Puerto Galera. If you want to improve your photography, sign up for this right away!"

Lisa rightly suggested, "All such workshops should start with a buoyancy skill assessment and get people neutral and still in the water, before going on to photography skills."

It's not always like that. It very much depends on who is running the course, as Pat Sinclair (Metairie, LA) discovered. She embarked on a Blue Water Macro trip to Anilao in December 2016 and found no real critique was given, nor were there any instructions; in fact, no help at all. She thought it was a total waste of money.

On the other hand, she was very impressed with an Anilao Photo Academy trip in 2018: "A photo pro was assigned to me specifically (he worked with no one else while I was there), and his instructions and help with lighting brought my photography up to a new level." In fact, her reader report led to Undercurrent selecting APA for a trip and writing about it in our September issue.

Good and bad experiences

Kathy Hoyle (East Windsor, NJ) had both good and bad experiences on separate photo trips. While she really benefited from a well-regarded Jim Church Photo Class on an Aggressor Fleet boat with an instructor called Mike (there are two of them), she was disappointed on a trip to Tiger Beach in the Bahamas:

"Gregory Sweeney Photo Tours was hyped as a great way to swim with sharks and learn how to photograph them. On the boat, I realized that there was not going to be any classroom time, handouts, setting information, etc., and I was one of only two guests who spoke English. I was inexperienced with my first DSLR and having trouble getting good sharp images, so I asked Greg for assistance. The only advice he gave me was to tell me to take the protective filter off my lens. Of course I had no protective filter on my lens. He never asked to see my results or anything. I was not happy with the extra amount I had paid for the trip, allegedly to cover the [elusive] training. Never again."

It's not an uncommon experience. A subscriber from Philadelphia, PA (who wishes to remain anonymous and not name the culprits) went further, describing trips that she took that provide zero instructions, no tips on how to photograph subjects, no animal subject or regional expertise, and no end-of-trip slideshow. The so-called mentors frequently took the best opportunities for the best subjects for themselves because "they were working on an article," and provided little opportunity for questions or feedback because they were too busy working on it. She said it was a disappointing trip, with similar feelings subsequently voiced by others. We agree it sounds awful.

This experience was sadly not unique for her. She went on another because the leader was a recent award-winner, but there was very little interaction, with the leader keeping the best opportunities.

She wrote, "Both these cases show that the trip wasn't about the photographers (paying guests) on the trip. They were all about the trip leader getting a free trip, making money from the photos, and making money off the charter."

Tom Baker (Pacific Beach, CA) had better luck. "I have been on trips with Alex Mustard, to Misool Eco Resort and to the Maldives. His courses are exemplary. I also have to give a shout out to Martin Edge, who was with us at Misool and made 90-minute dives with each participant, giving real-time suggestions and corrections underwater. I can see my improvement after some mediocre shots -- suddenly almost all were great!"

"Also, Mark Strickland of Blue Water Photo gave a workshop during our trip to the Andaman Islands of India. He was excellent also. We had post-lunch talks and evening image reviews."

Wayne Joseph (San Mateo, CA) also signed up for a class with Alex Mustard: "I had read his book, Underwater Photography Masterclass, and found it very helpful. First, this class isn't for beginning UW photo. You should have some experience with the concepts of UW photography, know how to use your camera, and have some knowledge of Lightroom or Photoshop. You're going to work a lot. We did about 14 dives in five days; spent time at the Stingray City sand bar so we could practice split photography and ambient photos with the rays. He lectured in the evening, critiqued some of our photos, then we were up early to leave at 7:30 (or 6 a.m. for sunrise split photos). Alex goes out before the course starts so he can check out the dive sites he feels are the most photogenic."

And, we were reminded by Dave Demming Sr. (Chagrin Falls, OH) that long-time subscriber and respected photographer David Haas (Stow, OH) sponsors trips and you readily get his expertise and help when requested.

What do we learn from these experiences? Check out who is actually running the course and look for feedback from previous customers. Decide whether you want someone to teach you the basics or whether you require being taught more advanced skills both in the water and with a computer afterward. And, while there, work hard. If the instructor is providing insufficient help, take him aside and explain that you paid good money to learn from his expertise and would appreciate more of his time and help. Use praise and flattery, not complaints. You'll be better served.

Recommended reading: The Underwater Photographer by Martin Edge.

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