Blinded by the Light

Life as a rookie test pilot.
Have you ever thought about joining a photographic workshop? If you’re looking for a way to improve your underwater camera skills, dedicated photo trips can offer a myriad of ways to progress. Minimal distractions unlatch the gate on a freedom to indulge in all things camera related. And it’s really that intense absorption that leads to rich rewards photographically. Most workshops require a commitment to the cause, so you must be prepared to invest a bit of effort. But like all good things, you get out what you put in. Not to mention the obvious joys of connecting with dive enthusiasts who share the same passion.

When the shout went out for volunteers to test a new, artier style of class, it was too much for some of us to resist. Our trip was heading to the much loved, familiar reefs and wrecks of the Northern Red Sea. Here we would be able to repetitively dive specific, photographically rich sites. Staying anchored in one place, often from early morning until dusk, would mean there would be valuable second, third and fourth chances to experiment with new ideas and explore different viewpoints.

Picking up with the story from aboard our home-from-home on Tempest, this is a taster, an insider’s view of life behind and beyond the lens.

Split The Difference
Split The Difference

So here we are, an intimate gathering of diver / photographers representing a diverse range in experience and purpose. Paul Colley is tutoring our group as a trial for his progressive type of workshop. The emphasis is on elements of visual design and image construction, rather than technique. This artistic slant actively promotes imaginative thinking. Our camera rigs are equally eclectic and that’s the point; that this is a course accessible and relevant across the spectrum. From SLR users to compact shooters, mirrorless Micro Four Thirds systems to full sensor camera models and from novice photographers to semi-pros – we’re a kaleidoscopic tribe.

Over two evenings at the start of our trip, Paul delivered his key lessons on compositional theory. These instructional presentations are designed to help us maximise photographic productivity during a dive. They make perfect sense. Collectively, the lessons endorse a more focused approach than for example, my somewhat instinctual one. They provide a framework or basis within which the many facets of composition can be aesthetically arranged and understood. If we are able to attune our mind’s eye to these concepts before heading into the Blue, we are able to make the most of our limited time underwater.

As each day passes, all sorts of switches have been flicking on. Light bulb moments with bright, directional beams illuminating neglected corners of our photography. We’re all gaining valuable insights. In-between dives, there’s been time for one-to-one, informal consultations for any of us who want to discuss sticking points. In addition, we’ve been given an alternative, more disciplined type of visual preparation to consider. For some of us, it’s a new and unfamiliar approach. One that encourages structured intent from the outset which, for a nomad like me, is proving an interesting challenge.

I think of my camera as my third eye. My Hardware Abstraction Layer through which I capture living in the moment; taking what nature throws at me, breaking the rules and embracing chaos. I’m aware this comes at a cost, which is that I don’t always make the best use of my time underwater. Being easily distracted by our brightly coloured ocean jewels and well, almost anything that moves isn’t necessarily conducive to making great or iconic images. But it works for me ... or that’s what I’ve always thought.

Communicating In Clicks
Communicating In Clicks

The dive bell has rung. Subterranean happy hour is back and our boat deck is abuzz with excited chatter. It’s down to each of us to put our enlightened artistic principles into practice and deliver images in time for the evening review. As we descend into the Blue, our small band of test pilots starbursts out across the ocean floor. Abounding with prolific life, shapes, colour and texture, there’s no better muse!

We are independently engrossed in our unique, predetermined missions. My express ‘Photographic Intent’ is to capture something that is personally avant-garde. I could do with more time to think this through but that’s a luxury I don’t have right now. I should have stuck to Plan A, but my whims are riding high. Plan A was to depict a reef in an abstract way, but that’s gone flying out of my mind as Plan B nudges for space. In any case, I’ve always felt that my creativity is at its best when I’m left to my own spontaneous devices. I like nothing more than floating around underwater, waiting for a creative lightning strike.

My hatchling of a scheme is starting to burn, bright and bold. Five minutes into the dive, I find what I’m after. It’s a favourite fish with an interesting tail and Plan B’s arty mode needs to earn its wings. I can see three of my contemporaries dotted about the scattered coral bombies, strobes already flashing white light like in an electric storm. I’m wondering what’s captivated them and have an overwhelming, momentary desire to play truant. I quell the urge and get back to the iridescent fork of red that is filling my viewfinder. Flit, flit, flit, my unsuspecting ocean friend won’t keep still for longer than a micro-second. My imagination is full of fresh, inventive ideas. Before I can blink, I’ve clocked 58 minutes and as many frames. I’m amazed that I’ve remained on track.

Back on Tempest, the test pilots are returning to roost. We’re full of our adventures from the deep, new discoveries, trials, errors and a sense of kinship over our respective missions. Our camaraderie is infectious and the boat crew are asking whether we’ve had good dives and how the camera work has gone. It’s too soon to know but all will be revealed after downloads and after sundowners.

Finally, it’s slideshow time! One or two images from each of us, mostly unprocessed, are in the firing line. We’re all in it together, nervously fidgeting while we await our fate. Naturally, these concerns are in vain. Objectively reviewing images is a strange kind of group therapy. One by one, with Paul at the helm, we discuss the artistic merits, compositional strengths or weaknesses, interesting or original viewpoints and overall impact of each others’ submitted work. There are plenty of inspirational, thunderbolt moments. Every image is given due consideration while we interactively apply our improved aesthetic understanding. Our debate is positive and lively. It’s such a great way to gain ground and a fresh perspective. A little post-production later and we’re all beginning to appreciate our mentor’s attention to detail.

V Sign
V Sign

As the week goes by, theory increasingly becomes reality. There’s a notable shift in confidence as we all relax into the workshop’s rhythm. While we implement what we’ve learned we see tangible changes happening in our respective photographic approaches. The advantages of having a distinct idea and thinking through how to capture that in an original way, resonates deeply. Not to say that I can do much about my ever-changing moods and influences, but like my comrade test pilots, I have new skills. Ones that I’m sure will help me evolve as a photographer. All that’s left to say is that I can’t wait to get back in the Blue. My enthusiasm for underwater photography has never been in question, but this workshop experience has taken it one step beyond.

First published in DIVER magazine - Deep Breath feature (September 2016).
© Laura Storm